Top 10 books about wild women

From a 17th-century sci-fi utopia to an autobiographical vampire novel, all these great books were written by women who busted boundaries social, personal and literary

I first came across 17th-century writer Margaret Cavendish in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own: “What a vision of loneliness and riot the thought of Margaret Cavendish brings to mind! As if some giant cucumber had spread itself all over the roses and carnations in the garden and choked them to death.” It’s a wonderfully peculiar description and I could never quite shake this image of a woman so apparently unruly Woolf felt it necessary to describe her as, essentially, a dick among the blooms.

Woolf meant, I suppose, that Cavendish was too much: too eccentric, too ambitious, too undisciplined. Indeed, she was notorious for her outfits, her poor spelling and awkward behaviour, and, most egregiously, for demanding to be taken seriously as a writer and natural philosopher. She was the first woman ever invited to the Royal Society of London – and the last, for another 200 years.

I began my novel about Cavendish a decade ago, but her refusal to deny her ambitions or silence the worlds inside her – her refusal, really, to be a good girl and shut up – has never felt more urgent than now, as a man who has repeatedly sought to silence and contain powerful women through degrading epithets and scorn prepares to take office as US president.

In her day, Margaret Cavendish was called a whore, a liar, insane. How grateful I am to her and mavericks like her, women who’ve refused to diminish themselves to make others feel more comfortable, who’ve allowed themselves to spread out all over the dang roses even as it meant transgressing social, personal and literary boundaries. Here are 10 of my favorite books by and about such wild women.

1. The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington
Better known as a surrealist painter, Carrington was equally strange and ferocious as a fiction writer. This 1976 novel centres on a band of gutsy old ladies as they revolt against the petty despots and quack psychiatrists running a bizarro retirement community like something out of Alice in Wonderland. When it isn’t weird like a David Lynch movie, it’s sweet like an old-lady buddy novel; then it’s a biting satire of power structures; then it’s a mystical fable of the occult.

2. The Letters of Mina Harker by Dodie Bellamy
In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mina is the perfect, passive Victorian wife. Here she’s horny and undead in 1980s San Francisco, having possessed Bellamy’s body. Epistolary, like Stoker’s original, the novel follows Mina/Dodie’s adventures through a city ravaged by Aids. It’s all wildly alive, full of gossip and sex. As Eileen Myles put it: “If there’s anything better than literature this is it.”

3. Oreo by Fran Ross
Published in 1974 and reissued last year to considerably more attention, Ross’s parody of the Theseus myths stars a young woman named Oreo who survives by her formidable wits. Setting out from her black household in Philadelphia to find her deadbeat Jewish father in New York, she proceeds through one of the funniest journeys ever, amid a whirlwind of wisecracks in a churning mix of Yiddish, black vernacular, and every sort of English. In an afterword, Harryette Mullen attributed the book’s poor initial reception to its being “more eccentric than Afrocentric”– an odd fit at the height of the Black Arts movement.

4. The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish
Cavendish’s utopia with an empress at its centre reads like a feminist response to Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, which, by contrast, centres on a college of learned men. The text sparkles with science-fictional details, from vehicles made of air to flaming stars that make the night as bright as day. And Cavendish herself makes an oddly metafictional appearance, brought forth into this other world as friend and scribe to its empress.

Video: Leonora Carrington: Britain’s lost surrealist

5. Heroines by Kate Zambreno
This book was born after Zambreno moved from Chicago to Akron for her husband’s job: “I am realising you become a wife, once you agree to move for him. You are placed into the feminine role.” A voraciously researched critical work about the “The Mad Wives of Modernism” – Vivienne, Zelda, Jane, et al – Heroines also honestly examines Zambreno’s own marriage, career and identity as a writer, ploughing straight through any assumed divisions between literature and life.

6. Suite for Barbara Loden by Nathalie Léger (translated by Cécile Menon and Natasha Lehrer)
Another spectacularly hybrid text – combining film criticism, biography, fiction, and memoir – in which Léger tells her own story via an investigation of Loden’s 1970 Wanda, a film in which Loden likewise investigates her story through the story of her main character. It’s like an infinity mirror of women in pain and seeking. Full disclosure: the press I run, Dorothy, published the book in the US. It’s published in the UK by Les Fugitives.

7. The Descent of Alette by Alice Notley
Alette is on a journey deep beneath the city, where spirits ride subways forever. Here she meets subterranean figures and faces spiritual transformations, all on a quest to destroy an evil, charming man known as the Tyrant. This feminist refashioning of the epic form is written in a mesmerising verse style that begs to be spoken aloud: “‘I entered’ ‘a cave’ ‘where a woman sat’ ‘who looked made of rock’.”

8. Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner
This 1926 novel chronicles the life of Laura Willowes, aka Aunt Lolly. We begin politely enough: Laura is a good girl who upon her father’s death moves into her brother’s home to help care for his children. Decades pass – letter-writing, cleaning the canary cage – until one day Aunt Lolly snaps. She abandons her life as London spinster and absconds to a hamlet, where she transforms herself into a woods-tramping, devil-loving witch.

9. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde
I’m reading this now and find it utterly compelling. Lorde’s “biomythography” is a story of growing up black and poor in New York City. It’s about being a poet, a daughter, a sister, a lesbian, a friend. “Every woman I have ever loved,” she writes, “has left her print upon me”. We see these women take vivid shape on the page, from Lorde’s imposing immigrant mother to neighbourhood ladies to lovers.

10. A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf
Despite its mixed review of Cavendish, ARoOO will always be a seminal text for me. My copy is hardly legible for all the marginalia I’ve scrawled, including a big fat YES by: “This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing room.” It echoes a line in her essay Modern Fiction: “Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small.” It strikes me that this list of wild women, often larger-than-life, includes a number of books about the so-called smaller things – where, as Woolf makes clear, life exists as much as it does anywhere, for anyone.


Danielle Dutton

The GuardianTramp

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