The best books about women who broke the rules—or new ground

Donna M. Lucey Author Of Sargent's Women: Four Lives Behind the Canvas
By Donna M. Lucey

Who am I?

A New York Times bestselling author, I love excavating the lives of eccentric, strong-willed women. There’s the thrill of the chase—holding handwritten letters and diaries and uncovering, bit by bit, the story of each woman—and the adventure of encountering the unexpected: Wandering through a rattlesnake-infested Montana cabin (Photographing Montana 1894-1928: The Life and Work of Evelyn Cameron); being woken by a ghost while staying at a decaying Astor mansion in the Hudson Valley (Archie and Amélie: Love and Madness in the Gilded Age); climbing 200 stone steps to reach the Royal Archives in Windsor Castle, while the recently-departed Queen Elizabeth was in the courtyard below (Victoria’s Island, in process). Such fun.

I wrote...

Sargent's Women: Four Lives Behind the Canvas

By Donna M. Lucey, Donna M. Lucey,

Book cover of Sargent's Women: Four Lives Behind the Canvas

What is my book about?

The backstories of four women painted by high-society portraitist John Singer Sargent—all of them privileged, beautiful, seemingly destined for a life of ease. Sargent knew the women, and his portraits hint at the mysterious ways their lives would unfold. All broke the rules in some way—carrying on illicit love affairs; experimenting with the occult; fleeing fortune to become a Bohemian artist, only to fall into penury and illness; and another, ostracized by prim Boston society, who finally gained victory—and revenge—by creating a magnificent art museum. These women lived on an operatic scale and their letters and diaries create a rich depiction of the Gilded Age; but their private tragedies, passions, and triumphs are timeless. 

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The books I picked & why

Country Girl: A Memoir

By Edna O'Brien,

Book cover of Country Girl: A Memoir

Why did I love this book?

Because her prose reads like poetry and her life story is the stuff of legend. Beautiful, talented, and prone to falling into bed with unattainable married men, O’Brien has had a lifetime of passion, love, and excruciating sadness. As a young woman she earned instant fame for her first novel, The Country Girls—and she paid dearly for it. Daring to write about sex in her native Ireland, her book was burned and she was exiled from her homeland. Eventually acclaimed as a grande dame of literature, O’Brien writes of the glittering brand names she has known and loved, but they float atop an undercurrent of unrequited longing for home. 

By Edna O'Brien,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Country Girl as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The BBC Radio 4 dramatisation of Edna O'Brien's The Country Girls trilogy begins in August 2019.

I thought of life's many bounties, to have known the extremities of joy and sorrow, love, crossed love and unrequited love, success and failure, fame and slaughter ...

Born in Ireland in 1930 and driven into exile after publication of her controversial first novel, The Country Girls, Edna O'Brien is now hailed as one of the most majestic writers of her era - and Country Girl is her fabulous memoir.

Born in rural Ireland, O'Brien weaves the tale of her life from convent school…

Orlando: A Biography

By Virginia Woolf,

Book cover of Orlando: A Biography

Why did I love this book?

Because even its subtitle is subversive. Written as a valentine to Woolf’s lesbian lover, the book is anything but a biography. It is a gender-bending, time-traveling work of fiction that stretches from Elizabethan England to modern times—with the central character never aging, but changing sex. The book explores the fluidity of gender while poking fun at the pageantry and conventions of aristocratic English life, as well as taking to task the English tradition of male primogeniture. Fans of the book must also watch director Sally Potter’s brilliant film adaptation, Orlando, that stars a young, transcendent Tilda Swinton. 

By Virginia Woolf,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Orlando as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

HarperCollins is proud to present its new range of best-loved, essential classics.

'The flower bloomed and faded. The sun rose and sank. The lover loved and went. And what the poets said in rhyme, the young translated into practice.'

Written for her lover Vita Sackville-West, 'Orlando' is Woolf's playfully subversive take on a biography, here tracing the fantastical life of Orlando. As the novel spans centuries and continents, gender and identity, we follow Orlando's adventures in love - from being a lord in the Elizabethan court to a lady in 1920s London.

First published in 1928, this tale of unrivalled…

Book cover of From Life: Julia Margaret Cameron and Victorian Photography

Why did I love this book?

I adore eccentric, talented women—and Julia Margaret Cameron was surely that—and I love nineteenth-century photography. When nearly 50 years old, Cameron took up photography and created her signature art of soft-focus, emotive portraiture. She was living on Britain’s Isle of Wight, surrounded by a who’s who of Victorian England: Tennyson, Lewis Carroll, Dickens, Charles Darwin, and Queen Victoria herself who summered in a nearby palace. Cameron photographed the humblest islanders as well as some of the greatest personages of the day, and her work has inspired modern artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith. 

By Victoria C. Olsen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked From Life as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Acknowledged as the outstanding portrait photographer of her generation, Julia Margaret Cameron was a very late starter. She was born to English and French parents in Calcutta in 1815, five days before the Battle of Waterloo. Her father was a high-ranking civil servant in the British East India Company, and it was expected that Julia would follow the example of her sisters by connecting herself to an established Anglo-Indian professional. She did exactly that in 1838 when she married Charles Hay Cameron, a legal scholar, and settled down to the quiet life of a typical Victorian colonial matron. But beneath…

The House of Mirth

By Edith Wharton,

Book cover of The House of Mirth

Why did I love this book?

What’s not to love? Edith Wharton, a member of Gilded Age upper-crust society, used her pen to skewer the mores and strict social conventions of her increasingly shallow and avaricious class. Her heartrending main character, Lily Bart, manages to fall afoul of the rigid rules that prescribed the behavior of a woman of her standing. A small misstep makes her a pariah—and dooms her to a tragic fate. Though set in the late nineteenth century, the novel’s characters are so richly drawn that the book feels as if it could have been written today.

By Edith Wharton,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked The House of Mirth as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A bestseller when it was published nearly a century ago, this literary classic established Edith Wharton as one of the most important American writers in the twentieth century-now with a new introduction from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jennifer Egan.

Wharton's first literary success-a devastatingly accurate portrait of New York's aristocracy at the turn of the century-is considered by many to be her most important novel, and Lily Bart, her most unforgettable character. Impoverished but well-born, the beautiful and beguiling Lily realizes a secure future depends on her acquiring a wealthy husband. But with her romantic indiscretion, gambling debts, and a maelstrom…

Book cover of The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II

Why did I love this book?

Denise Kiernan unearths the story of a group of young women during World War II—some with scientific training, but most with only a vague idea of wanting to help the war effort—who had the courage to leave their small towns and farms and move to the secret, newly-created town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Kept in the dark about what they were doing, which was enriching uranium for the atomic bomb, they were threatened with firing if they even spoke about their work. It was only after the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima that the women learned they had been part of the Manhattan Project. In a journalistic coup, Kiernan tracked down the workers, interviewed them extensively, and interwove their stories about the project that changed their lives forever.

By Denise Kiernan,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Girls of Atomic City as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The New York Times bestseller, now available in paperback—an incredible true story of the top-secret World War II town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and the young women brought there unknowingly to help build the atomic bomb.

“The best kind of nonfiction: marvelously reported, fluidly written, and a remarkable story...As meticulous and brilliant as it is compulsively readable.” —Karen Abbott, author of Sin in the Second City

At the height of World War II, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was home to 75,000 residents, and consumed more electricity than New York City, yet it was shrouded in such secrecy that it did not…

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