For purposes of this post, I am not referring to “classical” literature in the sense of the “great” Greek and Roman classics. Instead, I am referring to the body of literature that is consider the “literary canon.” The literary canon is used to describe the bodies of literature generally considered to be the best in a particular time or place and are often taught as representative of the best literature from that specific time and place. (I don’t necessarily agree with the theoretical positions behind such a canon, but that is another post).
As I pursued lists of great literature, I found that for the most part, I gravitated toward the nineteenth century and women authors. The older I get, the more time I spend reading works by women. It isn’t a political move; it just is. I like them. So, here is my list of my favorite top ten classics by women.
Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
Product Description: In picturesque nineteenth-century New England, tomboyish Jo, beautiful Meg, fragile Beth, and romantic Amy come of age while their father is off to war. (While this book is appropriate for youngsters, it is also well worth reading as an adult. I would say the same of Laura Ingalls Wilder books, which will make my YA list, I’m sure.)
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Product Description: Along with the plays of William Shakespeare and the works of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen’s novels are among the most beloved books of Western literature. Pride and Prejudice (1813) was in Austen’s lifetime her most popular novel, and it was the author’s personal favorite. Adapted many times to the screen and stage, and the inspiration for numerous imitations, it remains today her most widely read book.
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
Product Description: Taken from the poverty of her parents’ home in Portsmouth, Fanny Price is brought up with her rich cousins at Mansfield Park, acutely aware of her humble rank and with her cousin Edmund as her sole ally. During her uncle’s absence in Antigua, the Crawford’s arrive in the neighbourhood bringing with them the glamour of London life and a reckless taste for flirtation. Mansfield Park is considered Jane Austen’s first mature work and, with its quiet heroine and subtle examination of social position and moral integrity, one of her most profound.
Emma by Jane Austen
Product Description: Beautiful, clever, rich – and single – Emma Woodhouse is perfectly content with her life and sees no need for either love or marriage. Nothing, however, delights her more than interfering in the romantic lives of others. But when she ignores the warnings of her good friend Mr. Knightley and attempts to arrange a suitable match for her protegé Harriet Smith, her carefully laid plans soon unravel and have consequences that she never expected. With its imperfect but charming heroine and its witty and subtle exploration of relationships, “Emma” is often seen as Jane Austen’s most flawless work.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Product Description: Immediately recognized as a masterpiece when it was first published in 1847, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is an extraordinary coming-of-age story featuring one of the most independent and strong-willed female protagonists in all of literature. Poor and plain, Jane Eyre begins life as a lonely orphan in the household of her hateful aunt. Despite the oppression she endures at home, and the later torture of boarding school, Jane manages to emerge with her spirit and integrity unbroken. She becomes a governess at Thornfield Hall, where she finds herself falling in love with her employer—the dark, impassioned Mr. Rochester. But an explosive secret tears apart their relationship, forcing Jane to face poverty and isolation once again. (If I had to pick a favorite on this list, this would be the one.)
The Awakening – Kate Chopin
Product Description: Although the book was originally published in 1899, its leading character, Edna Pontellier, could be mistaken for a modern-day liberated woman. In the summer of her twenty-eighth year, as she watched numerous mothers on a beach, she vowed to honor the deep yearnings within her that she sensed were unfulfilled by marriage and motherhood. (This is a very inadequate description of a pretty fantastic book. I am not a fan of the ending, but I have taught this book many times, and it never fails to create wonderful discussions.)
Silas Marner – George Eliot
Product Description: Gentle linen weaver Silas Marner is wrongly accused of a heinous theft, and he exiles himself from the world-until he finds redemption and spiritual rebirth through his unselfish love for an abandoned child who mysteriously appears one day at his isolated cottage. Somber, yet hopeful, Eliot’s realistic depiction of an irretrievable past, tempered with the magical elements of myth and fairy tale, remains timeless in its understanding of human nature and is beloved by every generation.
Middlemarch – George Eliot
Product Description: This panoramic work–considered the finest novel in English by many critics–offers a complex look at English provincial life at a crucial historical moment, and, at the same time, dramatizes and explores some of the most potent myths of Victorian literature.
The Yellow Wallpaper & Other Stories– Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Product Description: The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories is a collection of short stories written by popular American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The featured short story in this collection the very personal story, The Yellow Wallpaper, which is based on Gilman’s own bout with depression. Along with the featured short story, are an array of stories which have been popular for decades among fans of this talented writer.
Frankenstein – Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Product Description: . . . surely nothing but the unbounded and unremitting attentions of my friend could have restored me to life. The form of the monster on whom I had bestowed existence was forever before my eyes, and I raved incessantly concerning him. Doubtless my words surprised Henry; he at first believed them to be the wanderings of my disturbed imagination, but the pertinacity with which I continually recurred to the same subject persuaded him that my disorder indeed owed its origin to some uncommon and terrible event. These words form the basis for the psychological journey of the narrator of this timeless classic.
So not to be considered sexist, 🙂 I will point out that I am also a fan of Charles Dickens and Mark Twain! Happy Reading.