The female gaze

Ten more important novels of the British century

The New Statesman, in its last issue of the 20th century, produced a list of ten important British novels. Nine of them were by men. While great art transcends gender, most readers remain astonishingly faithful to their own sex. Despite the best efforts of the 20th century to level differences between the male and female of the species, it is still demonstrably the case that women gravitate towards books by women, and men towards books by men. There are excellent cross-writers who succeed in appealing to both male and female readers - Julian Barnes's Before She Met Me (1982), I recall, came stuck to the front of Cosmopolitan. But the literary traffic is still strikingly one-way. How many men, who would be ashamed to confess ignorance of H G Wells or Martin Amis, suffer not the slightest qualm at being entirely unacquainted with the gems of Margaret Atwood or Alison Lurie? Just last month an English don at Oxford confessed to me that he has only recently felt comfortable reading Jane Austen in public. Here, then, gentle (or merely qualm-suffering) reader, is a revised list of ten key novels from the British century. Nine of them are by women.


To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927)

One of the most perfect literary works of the century, as startling now as when first written. It is an exquisite study of a woman's life from the inside out. Closely observed physical details of domestic life shadow minute, psychological shifts in and between characters. Mrs Ramsay, steeped in the needs of her husband and children, is fighting for her life long before she dies of cancer. A novel about time and survival, and the waste of life, and the act of artistic creativity itself.


The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall (1928)

Radclyffe Hall's fifth and best-known novel is a frank depiction of sexual passion between women. It was banned in Britain until 1949. Virginia Woolf complained that the style was "not brilliant or beautiful", but The Well of Loneliness still stands as one of the first and most influential fictional contributions to gay and lesbian literature this century.


A House and Its Head by Ivy Compton-Burnett (1935)

Hailed in her day as the new Jane Austen, Ivy Compton-Burnett has been unjustifiably neglected in the past 30 years, yet her ability to convey both the exterior and interior worlds of her characters bears comparison with Henry James. This is a superb and unsparing dissection of the hidden tensions of family life in an upper-class Victorian household. The taut, sparse style perfectly mirrors the brittle superficiality of the domestic facade and the empty conventions it upholds.


South Riding by Winifred Holtby (1938)

Famous for being Vera Brittain's best friend, and immortalised by her in Testament of Friendship, Winifred Holtby was a Yorkshire lass and an influential journalist. South Riding was published posthumously and shows how deep her understanding of class and society went. It is a powerful study of conflicting interests and power struggles between landowners, rural labourers and local government, reflecting Holtby's socialist conviction and compassion.


The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford (1945)

With charming ruthlessness, Nancy Mitford got revenge on her father for thinking her not worthy of an education. Seldom have paternal foibles been so deservingly and so unstintingly caricatured. One of the funniest and most irreverent depictions of the British aristocracy as it once was.


A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor (1951)

Not the actress but the unsung heroine of British 20th-century fiction. Elizabeth Taylor wrote 12 novels, and each displays her exquisitely light touch, her gift for discreet irony and her skill at revealing the emotional depths behind even the meekest exterior. She is at her very best here, a novel in which love is never declared, but is meticulously evoked. No writer has described the English middle classes with more gently devastating accuracy.


Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1955)

The definitive fictional study of the mystery and inevitability of human violence, Golding's novel about a group of boys stranded on an uninhabited island has justifiably become a literary classic. In a century which has seen 170 million people killed by war or by their own governments, Golding's unwavering scrutiny of totalitarianism and the devastating power of charismatic leadership is as relevant now as it was in the aftermath of the second world war. Often read as an exploration of masculinity, Lord of the Flies is about the terrifying fragility of the civilised self, male or female.


The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (1961)

This marvellously sharp and witty critique of pedagogy is a small masterpiece at the heart of Spark's oeuvre. Miss Brodie, the dynamic but flawed schoolmistress who unwittingly orchestrates her own destruction, is a compelling creation. With great economy and skill, Spark raises questions about the ways in which society initiates children into adulthood and about the responsibilities of the educator.


The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch (1978)

The personal tragedy of Murdoch's decline into dementia at the end of her life accrues poignancy in the context of the intellectual brilliance of her best novels. This is a magical, hypnotic work of fiction and a study of obsessive love beautifully structured and paced and saturated with the rhythmic indomitable presence of the sea itself.


Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter (1984)

Angela Carter's inventiveness, humour and intellectual curiosity are all evident in this, her penultimate novel, rightly described as "a classic of magic realism". Carter is a dynamic writer who demands dynamic readers: she constantly plays with her readers' expectations and manipulates stereotypes in unexpected ways, subverting stock images into striking ones.