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A feminist reading list from Oxford World’s Classics

By Kirsty Doole


March is International Women’s History Month, so what better time to suggest some feminist-friendly classics from our Oxford World’s Classics series? Below you’ll find a mixture of fiction, politics, and religion, and while some will probably be familiar, I’ve thrown in a couple of less conventional choices for a feminist list. Agree with these choices? Disagree? What have I missed out? Let us know in the comments.

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft

This seminal 18th century work reveals Wollstonecraft’s developing understanding of women’s involvement in the political and social life of the nation and her growing awareness of the relationship between politics and economics and between political institutions and the individual. It is her response to those who did not believe women should get an education. She argues that women ought to have an education commensurate with their position in society, claiming that women are essential to the nation because they educate its children and because they could be “companions” to their husbands, rather than mere wives.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

One of the most famous novels in English Literature, Jane Eyre is sometimes called a proto-feminist novel. Yes, Reader, Jane does marry Mr Rochester, but only on her own terms. As Jane herself says, “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will.”

A Room of One’s Own, and Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf

In A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas, Virginia Woolf considers with energy and wit the implications of the historical exclusion of women from education and from economic independence. In A Room of One’s Own (1929), she examines the work of past women writers, and looks ahead to a time when women’s creativity will not be hampered by poverty, or by oppression. In Three Guineas (1938), however, Woolf argues that women’s historical exclusion offers them the chance to form a political and cultural identity which could challenge the drive towards fascism and war.

Kate Chopin
Kate Chopin
The Awakening and Other Stories by Kate Chopin

“She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before.”

Kate Chopin was one of the most individual and adventurous of nineteenth-century American writers, whose fiction explored new and often startling territory. When her most famous story, The Awakening, was first published in 1899, it stunned readers with its frank portrayal of the inner word of Edna Pontellier, and its daring criticisms of the limits of marriage and motherhood. The subtle beauty of her writing was contrasted with her unwomanly and sordid subject-matter: Edna’s rejection of her domestic role, and her passionate quest for spiritual, sexual, and artistic freedom.

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

“’But it’s bad – it’s bad,’ Mr Tulliver added – `a woman’s no business wi’ being so clever; it’ll turn to trouble, I doubt.’”

Rebellious and affectionate, Maggie Tulliver is always in trouble. Recalling her own experiences as a girl, George Eliot describes Maggie’s turbulent childhood with a sympathetic engagement that makes the early chapters of The Mill on the Floss among the most immediately attractive she ever wrote. As Maggie Tulliver approaches adulthood, her spirited temperament brings her into conflict with her family, her community, and her much-loved brother Tom. Still more painfully, she finds her own nature divided between the claims of moral responsibility and her passionate hunger for self-fulfilment.

Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell’s second novel challenged contemporary social attitudes by taking as its heroine a fallen woman. Ruth Hilton is an orphan and an overworked seamstress, an innocent preyed upon by a weak, wealthy seducer. When he heartlessly abandons her she finds shelter and kindness in the home of a dissenting minister and his sister, who do not reject her when she gives birth to an illegitimate child. But Ruth’s self-sacrificing love and devotion are tested to the limit by a twist of fate that brings her past back to haunt her.

Gaskell’s depiction of Ruth lays bare Victorian hypocrisy and sexual double-standards, and her novel is a remarkable story of love, of the sanctuary and tyranny of the family, and of the consequences of lies and deception.

The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner

Lyndall, Schreiner’s articulate young feminist, marks the entry of the controversial New Woman into nineteenth-century fiction. Raised as an orphan amid a makeshift family, she witnesses an intolerable world of colonial exploitation.

Desiring a formal education, she leaves the isolated farm for boarding school in her early teens, only to return four years later from an unhappy relationship. Unable to meet the demands of her mysterious lover, Lyndall retires to a house in Bloemfontein, where, delirious with exhaustion, she is unknowingly tended by an English farmer disguised as her female nurse. This is the devoted Gregory Rose, Schreiner’s daring embodiment of the sensitive New Man

A cause célèbre when it appeared in London, The Story of an African Farm transformed the shape and course of the late-Victorian novel. From the haunting plains of South Africa’s high Karoo, Schreiner boldly addresses her society’s greatest fears: the loss of faith, the dissolution of marriage, and women’s social and political independence.

The Life of Christina of Markyate

While not a conventional choice for a list of feminist works, this is a remarkable story of a woman who knew her own mind and stuck to her principles come what may. The twelfth-century recluse Christina became prioress of Markyate, near St Albans in Hertfordshire. Determined to devote her life to God and to remain a virgin, Christina repulses the sexual advances of the bishop of Durham. In revenge he arranges her betrothal to a young nobleman but Christina steadfastly refuses to consummate the marriage and defies her parents’ cruel coercion. Sustained by visions, she finds refuge with the hermit Roger, and lives concealed at Markyate for four years, enduring terrible physical and emotional torment. Although Christina is supported by the abbot of St Albans, she never achieves the recognition that he intended for her.

The Yellow Wall-Paper and Other Stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was America’s leading feminist intellectual of the early twentieth century. Her 6000-word story “The Yellow Wall-Paper” — in which an apparently depressed woman is shut up in her room and not allowed to read or work, leading to a descent into madness — is regarded as one of the most important early works of American feminist literature, illustrating nineteenth-century attitudes towards women’s physical and mental health.

Kirsty Doole is Publicity Manager for Oxford World’s Classics, amongst other things.

For over 100 years Oxford World’s Classics has made available the broadest spectrum of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford’s commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, voluminous notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more. You can follow Oxford World’s Classics on Twitter and Facebook.

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Image credit: Portrait of Kate Chopin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Recent Comments

  1. Diana

    Excellent list! A Bronte is already represented, but I can’t help but feel Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall belongs here as well. Its exploration of female independence and professionalism make it an excellent example of protofeminist writing.

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