The life-changing novels every woman should read

A survey asking 400 women which books have made a difference to their lives reveals some surprising choices. Louise Jury reports

While works by Jane Austen, the Brontës and George Eliot are only to be expected on a list of essential female novels, the inclusion of
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy comes as something of a surprise.

While works by Jane Austen, the Brontës and George Eliot are only to be expected on a list of essential female novels, the inclusion of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy comes as something of a surprise.

But a survey of 400 women from academia, the arts and publishing shows that women are as likely to cite Douglas Adams's comedy as the book that made a difference to their life as a novel by the feminist icon, Virginia Woolf.

The women were asked which novels had most changed the way they viewed themselves by the team behind the Orange Prize for Fiction, which celebrates women writers.

The novels could be written by men or women and could be from anywhere in the world. And the resulting long list, published here today, reveals that an eclectic band of writers have marked the female psyche.

Lisa Jardine, the academic and author who chaired the Orange Prize judges in 1997, carried out the research with Annie Watkins, a fellow academic at Queen Mary College, University of London.

"We were fascinated as researchers by the idea of a life-changing book, the fact that absolutely every woman we spoke to had one and the wide variety of things that that book meant to each individual woman," Professor Jardine said.

The most common response was "What a wonderful question," she said. "What has been brought home is that ranked lists are only as good as the questions you ask and that every list is only a beginning, a basis for further challenging and questioning."

This list of 40 now serves as a launch pad for a national vote to find the top 10 essential novels for women with listeners to Radio 4's Woman's Hour invited to nominate their own suggestions. A final list will be announced on 8 December.

The most-chosen author among the women polled so far was Jeanette Winterson, 45, who came to national attention with Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. That makes the list along with two of her other works, The Passion and The PowerBook. Doris Lessing, 84, has two nominations as do George Eliot, Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë.

Childhood classics such as Little Women by Louisa May Alcott are joined by adult tales such as Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. European greats such as Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary are among the more challenging reads on the list, which includes James Joyce's Ulysses.

In total, 15 male authors made the grade. However, the top five, decided strictly by the number of votes received, were all books by and very much about women, topped by Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.

Her sister Emily's Wuthering Heights made second place, with Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and George Eliot's Middlemarch in third and fourth. Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice tied at fifth with Beloved by the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, Toni Morrison.

Ms Watkins, who is writing a PhD on Samuel Richardson's Clarissa but admitted she had not chosen that, said some choices were less odd than they first appeared.

Camus's The Stranger, the choice of the BBC presenter Sheena McDonald, "is a lonely book and sometimes when you're lonely, it can be a companion to you because you can identify with it," Ms Watkins said. By contrast, The Hitchhiker's Guide was chosen simply for its humour.

Winterson was an absolutely unsurprising choice, Ms Watkins said. "I think that she has revolutionised the novel, particularly with The Powerbook. What she does with time and language is fascinating. I find her thought-provoking and I find comfort in the fact that my voice is like hers and I think many women see this."

But she admitted to being somewhat bemused by suggestions such as Polo by Jilly Cooper - which did not make it onto the list - and even by The Lord of the Rings, which she suspected may have won inclusion thanks to the influence of the films.

Yet it appeared that people had been honest. "I didn't know what to expect, but I thought I would get quite a lot of resistance, that women would feel slightly exposed. But people were saying, 'I'm wearing my heart on my sleeve and sharing things I haven't shared in years.'"

Only one woman asked refused.

The aim had been to get women to talk about their visceral response to the books that made them, Ms Watkins said. "Whether it was Heart of Darkness or Villette or I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, they were all books which helped get people through things or helped them to get on with their lives or inspired them."

Many women had a whole canon of texts that they loved and could immediately reel off. They had to be encouraged to edit the list down. Others could provide one just off the top of their head, as it truly demonstrating its influence upon them.

Ms Watkins was convinced it was not simply a list of favourites. "I was quite clear that this wasn't just about something you savoured. This is about absolute watersheds."

The Novels Chosen

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

'For a book that is so full of the futility of life it's somehow so uplifting. It makes you laugh about the situations that we all find ourselves in and the absurdness of life as much as anything else.'

Jacqueline Johnson, PhD student, Queen Mary, University of London

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

'It fanned the flames of my interest in books as a young teenager, which led to my studying English Literature, which eventually led to my becoming a publisher.'

Carole Welch, the Associate Publishing Director of Sceptre

Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

'This is all about adventure. The sense of the unknown, the lone traveller.'

Zoe Svendsen, PhD student, University of Cambridge

The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen

'Perhaps a bit of an odd choice, I know, but one that made me think about the interconnections of family and memory, and the devastation of the loss of the signs of the things that make you "yourself" - whatever that is. It gave me hope for the novel in general.'

Rebecca Barr, PhD student Cambridge University

The Rainbow, DH Lawrence

'I can now read Lawrence without feeling that I have to share the positions - in many ways it coerces a reader into a certain system of values and judgements. But I think it is a hugely important novel because it's historical in a way that is interesting.'

Professor Morag Shiach, Queen Mary, University of London

One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Márquez

'It was magical and yet real and was interested in history and was socially and politically engaged whilein an imaginative world - so different to my experience of reading before.'

Amy Culley, PhD student Queen Mary, University of London

The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger

'It is about suffering through your adolescence and that's the only way you get to become a woman. It was the first time a book made me feel I wasn't alone in my own little world and there was someone who jumped out of the page and felt like my friend.'

Hannah Beckerman, Factual Commissioning BBC Television

The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton

'This was my introduction to Edith Wharton. I couldn't believe how brilliant she was. She came from that world and she knew it. The book is packed with observations and she gets right inside peoples heads.'

Emma Dally, author and editorial director of book publishing at The National Magazine Company

Little Women, Louisa May Alcott

'I don't think I'd be in academia, or a writer if I hadn't read Little Women. When I read about Jo March I found someone I could identify with. I felt it was a kind of freedom I wanted in my own existence. She made me feel writing was the thing for me.'

Dr Patricia Pulham, University of Portsmouth

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë

'I go back to it so often and it was one of the first books where I read it and said, "this is me" in some deep way.'

Suzanne Vega, singer/ songwriter

Middlemarch, George Eliot

'Dorothea is an incredible character - I was bowled over. She is the intelligent woman living with this sort of phoney academic, and the novel raises all the issues of a woman's place in that period of the 19th century.'

Victoria Barnsley, chief executive HarperCollins

Catch 22, Joseph Heller

'This book is very much about how your mind tries to rise above your body letting you down. And for all those reasons it has been a hugely important book to me and because it's by a man. Because it really matters to me that men and women are not separated in the imaginary.'

Lisa Jardine, Director of Cell

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

'One of the most beautifully written books - rendered more powerful because the racism is described through the eyes of a child. Contains two highly memorable characters Atticus Finch and Boo Radley. Such a perfect creation that Harper Lee has never published another book.'

Minette Walters, novelist

Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier

'I remember the impact it made on me when I read it because the most powerful character in the book is dead. It's extraordinary to construct a novel around a dead person, with no voice of her own, but who is so dominant the reader comes to know her better than the narrator.'

Minette Walters, novelist

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley

'I think what Mary Shelley achieves in this novel is extraordinary. She manages to negotiate so many different aspects here. For me, she is a complete role model, a truly genius writer who is more concerned with asking the question than giving the answers.

Pauline Simmonds, English teacher

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson

'It introduced me the idea that I can love "whoever" and not be stuck to the obvious pressures of heterosexuality. She helped me to break down barriers that I would never have been able to do on my own.'

Anonymous teacher

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou

'Apart from quite the most beautiful title, it was for me about being a writer. There's just something so interesting, so challenging, so worth reading about this book.'

Andrea Levy, writer and 2004 Orange Prize winner

Villette, Charlotte Brontë

'I read it when I was in my teens. On quite a simplistic level I like the way it combines what I thought was quite a realistic description of going abroad with the supernatural element. I think that that gives it a sort of depth that I'd not come across before.'

Suzanne Hobson, PhD student Queen Mary, University of London

The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot

'It was my first really grown-up book, but it is the book that wrings my heart and I feel I bump into elements of it all my life.'

Fiona Shaw, actor

The Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnett

'This book taught me that words alone could make me both cry and laugh.'

Catharine Purois, English teacher

The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing

'It opened up complexity and challenged readers to ask questions about their lives, and those of others. It urged freedom, and showed the difficulty of freedom.'

Professor Dame Gillian Beer, author and retired Professor of English Literature, University of Cambridge

Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell

'It's the ultimate blockbuster, the ultimate historical blockbuster and a novel to get completely lost in.'

Dr Alison Wiggins, Research Officer, The Centre for Editing Lives and Letters, Queen Mary, University of London

The Secret History, Donna Tartt

'I felt compelled to understand the intricacies of it. The oddness of the characters, its complicated yet simplistic structure, the utter momentum with which it moves. I return to when I want inspiration and can spare time to write - it's like a masterclass in novel writing.'

Laura Howard, teacher

The Passion, Jeanette Winterson

'It simply moved me in a way that I can't really explain. I think Winterson just manages to do that. Is it her use of language, the way that she plays with time? I really don't know. All I know is that I'm planning on writing my MA dissertation on her work, perhaps I'll discover the answer then.'

Panjid Iqbal, student teacher

The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood

'It made me think about ways of writing and brought up the question of what feminism might mean.'

Katie Hall, teacher

Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë

"It teaches you how not to have a relationship, but how you can't help but have a relationship like that. The physical, visceral emotion that you get in reading itis like standing on a cliff, looking out and getting the wind whipping through."

Marcella Edwards, personal assistant to the MD, HarperCollins

The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald

'It's a book about someone's wishes and desires. It's about where they end up and that's where my interest lies.'

Professor Julia Boffey, Queen Mary University of London

Ulysses, James Joyce

'It's a book I know very well, I wrote my PhD on it. I love it because Joyce's women are so fantastic, but also its a book of two halves and a book of so many layers. It is a book that has absolutely changed my life.'

Dr Maria Wakely, Queen Mary University of London

The Grass is Singing, Doris Lessing

'Female rebellion, adolescence to womanhood and feminine sensibility and perception. You can achieve all this in life, this is what Lessing offers in her works - hope and a sense of reality.'

Anonymous

Beloved, Toni Morrison

'The problems of race, prejudice and how you can unite people who are divided by fear and hatred and injustice. You feel you want to prolong the experience. She just opened my eyes to what it truly meant to be written about.'

Dr Patricia Brewerton, Queen Mary University of London

The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien

'It's the only book I remember reading twice through straight away. It marks for me the joy of realising the power of losing oneself in a fabulous imaginary world and I think I really started to relish novels when I read this rather than devouring them just to get to the end.'

Anonymous

The PowerBook, Jeanette Winterson

'It engages the reader to consider that the novel has only ever been a freeform idea constantly reinvented. It interweaves the old themes and stories deep in our cultural consciousness with an exploration of new forms.'

Rachel Holmes, author and broadcaster

Persuasion, Jane Austen

'There's a big emotional scale in this novel that is beautifully drawn. The sense of frustration and distress is incredible. It's about identity and how you're going to survive and the sense of lost opportunity.'

Dr Louisa Joyner, assistant editor Atlantic Books Publishing House

The Stranger, Albert Camus

'Its pared-down use of language to express the unpalatable is exemplarily unemotional - the ultimate journalist's novel.

Sheena McDonald, presenter, BBC

Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert

'A masterclass in intellect, passion, landscape, imprisonment and individuality all at the same time. What more could a novel offer? Flaubert writes her so well - he captures all the essences of what it meant to be a woman at that time.'

Beth Cavanagh, school teacher

Trumpet, Jackie Kay

'She is a hugely talented writer and handles delicate situations with such tenderness and honesty. All I kept thinking of was that you really can't help who you fall in love with - no one can.'

Annie Watkins, PhD student Queen Mary University of London, and researcher on the Watershed Women's Fiction

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, CS Lewis

'This was the first novel I read that felt like a whole alternative world. I do think that the way that that universe produces these characters whose fates matter to you is compelling, and there's a strong female character.'

Professor Morag Shiach, Queen Mary University of London

Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust

'It's not hard to read, except it's so long - a marathon of a book about memory and time. But I think it's a book for middle age, not youth, and in a way it's made me think less fearfully about time passing.'

Nicci Gerard, author

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

'It's all melodrama, but I suppose that's what I am in many ways. Great passion, great tragedy, great happiness ... I kept coming back to books that dig deeper, books that make you explore what you feel and think about all aspects of life.'

Caroline Michel, MD and publisher of HarperPress

Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf

'It has meant a lot to me at different stages in my life. It's about a woman in her fifties, she's asking herself what she's going to do with the rest of her life, and all the events of history and society are brought to bear on this question, on this day.'

Professor Elaine Showalter, writer and critic

Which book changed your life?

Send your choice, stating why it was important to you, to newseditor@independent.co.uk

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