Yes, it’s Part 2 of a post I wrote a long time ago! Here is Part 1 if you’d like to check it out and/or see the criteria I used to choose these novels.
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925)
The story sets up a parallel narrative of one day split between two people: Clarissa Dalloway, who is throwing a party that night, and Septimus Warren Smith, who is going to commit suicide. Told by interspersing flashbacks with present action the narration tells the story of these two seemingly unrelated people and how they came to these points in their lives before linking them together at the end.
Why: Woolf has a lot of strong novels, but I had to pick Mrs. Dalloway for this list partially because Clarissa Dalloway almost permeates Woolf’s body of work, making this novel an essential read. It’s beautifully written and illustrates, almost unconsciously, the way the path of life branches out. Clarissa is in a comfortable but unhappy marriage and flashes back to her struggle with her sexuality all while she is ostensibly planning a party. Septimus arguably does the same as he slips deeper into a post-combat state of “shell shock,” ultimately failing to re-emerge. When Clarissa learns of Septimus’ death she reacts to it as the reader might, innocently applying it to her own life. Woolf uses the narrative to examine adulthood, gender roles, the complexity of sexuality, and the function of empathy.
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (1811)
The Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne, find themselves and their mother suddenly disowned and move to the country. There Marianne meets a handsome young man and falls (too) passionately in love, bordering on (gasp) immodesty. Meanwhile Elinor has a crush of her own, but squashes it so that she won’t feel disappointed when he doesn’t like her back (she’s the sense one). Eventually, after Marianne almost dies because of Mr. Wrong, the sisters learn a little something from each other, and both end up happy.
Why: Of course there had to be a Jane Austen novel on the list. I’ve read almost all of her novels and I feel like this one is her best, yes, better than Pride and Prejudice. The novel might seem olde school at first, but the struggles of teenaged girls have not changed that much in 200 years – now Marianne would be waiting for a text instead of a letter, and Elinor would hear about Edward dating Lucy instead of being engaged, but that’s pretty much it. There is something about the Dashwood sister’s struggle that every young woman can identify with and it encourages people to value substance over flashiness (cough, Marianne, cough).
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (1966)
This novel is a prequel of sorts to Jane Eyre that tells the story of Antoinette (later Bertha) from her childhood, through the beginning of her marriage to Rochester, and finally to her fateful moment in the Bronte novel.
Why: Antoinette’s story is one of a poisonous love that is closer to abuse, one that infects and, ultimately, destroys her. It’s an example that’s not seem often in literature, not surprising since this is a revisionist novel, and one that needs to be read. That love can be toxic and that the madwoman in the attic (reference intentional) can have a story all her own is something that it essential for young women to learn.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)
This novel tells the story of Janie from sixteen to adulthood through three marriages. When she’s sixteen she’s married off by her grandmother – who wants to protect her from an ugly post-slavery world – to an older man who Janie does not love. After a year Janie runs off down the road with a handsome stranger, Joe Starks, who becomes the mayor of Eatonville, FL, but doesn’t know how to love anyone but himself. Approaching forty Janie falls for the much younger charmer, professional gambler, and field worker Tea Cake, who treats her as an equal. Calamity strikes and Janie comes back home to tell her life story to her best friend Pheoby as we listen in.
Why: Janie’s is a story about finding yourself and trusting that self above everything else. It’s not a love story in the traditional sense because ultimately Janie ends up alone with herself. Instead Janie does what her family wants, does what she thinks everyone wants, and realizing that none of these things make her happy, she finally does what she wants. Realizing who you are and being true to that self, despite what others might think, is an excellent lesson for young women.
The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West 1918
This novella (my long form review can be found here) follows Captain Chris Baldry as he returns home from war, shell shocked. The only problem is that he has no memory of his beautiful wife Kitty; he thinks he’s still engaged to his first sweetheart, the plain Margaret. Told from the perspective of his cousin Jenny we watch Kitty’s perfect life crumble as Margaret struggles to choose between a second chance with her true love, or telling Chris the truth and losing him forever.
Why: The novel, like Sense and Sensibility, shows the reader that beauty (represented by Kitty) is not even close to the most important thing about a person. Rather the unattractive Margaret captures the attention of the handsome Chris because she is, through and through, a wonderful person. This novella also shows what truth can cost, truly cost, everyone involved in a grand illusion.