Jane Austen wins more fans than Zadie Smith in survey of greatest books by women writers

By Athalie Matthews
Monday 23 December 2013 02:49

The vivid and determined heroines of Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters and George Eliot have maintained their creators' standing as Britain's favourite female writers.

Despite the huge commercial success of modern authors such as J K Rowling, Zadie Smith and Helen Fielding, Austen's bittersweet social comedy Pride and Prejudice – written in 1813 – topped a survey of the greatest women writers yesterday.

Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, published in 1847, came second while her sister Emily's torrid romantic epic Wuthering Heights, published in the same year, took third place. George Eliot's 1871 novel Middlemarch was fourth in the survey of 6,000 men and women by the mobile phone company Orange, sponsor of the annual prize for women writers. Seven out of 10 of those who took part in the poll were women.

Underlining the enduring appeal of the literary grande dames, Zadie Smith's White Teeth (2001) came only 12th, while Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary was 23rd. J K Rowling took 13th place with Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. One contemporary author, Carol Shields, who won the Orange prize for Fiction in 1999 with Larry's Party, made it into the top 10 with her recent novel Unless, which has been shortlisted for this year's Orange prize. Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, which came fifth, was one of only three 20th-century books to be voted into the top 10. Four books by Jane Austen and three by George Eliot made it into the top 50.

Margaret Reynolds, a Reader in English literature at the University of London, said the list showed that modern readers related to determined, bold heroines looking for recognition in society. "All of Austen's first paragraphs mention money and her books are about women's struggle for status and social power, which is an issue which has great resonance in contemporary life," she said.

However, Nicholas Clee, editor of The Bookseller, said the list was incomplete. "There are a raft of highly popular women writers who are conspicuous in their absence from this list. For example, I would expect to see Beryl Bainbridge, Anne Tyler, Muriel Spark, Penelope Fitzgerald and Joanna Trollope featuring at least somewhere and the fact that they do not suggests to me that the list is not representative."


1 Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

2 Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte

3 Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte

4 Middlemarch, George Eliot

5 Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier

6 Persuasion, Jane Austen

7 Frankenstein, Mary Shelley

8 Emma, Jane Austen

9 Unless, Carol Shields

10 To Kill A Mocking Bird, Harper Lee

11 The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood

12 White Teeth, Zadie Smith

13 Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, JK Rowling

14 Gone With The Wind, Margaret Mitchell

15 To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

16 Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, JK Rowling

17 The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver

18 Silas Marner, George Eliot

= Possession, AS Byatt

20 The God Of Small Things, Arundhati Roy

21 Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf = The Mill On The Floss, George Eliot

23 Bridget Jones' Diary, Helen Fielding = Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen

25 The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood

26 Chocolat, Joanne Harris

27 The Shipping News, E. Annie Proux

28 Little Women, Louisa M Alcott

29 The Sea, The Sea, Iris Murdoch = I Capture The Castle, Dodie Smith

31 Family Bites, Lisa Williams

32 Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, JK Rowling = The Shell Seekers, Rosamund Pilcher

34 Orlando, Virginia Woolf

= The Thornbirds, Colleen McCullough

36 Fingersmith, Sarah Waters

37 The Girl With The Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier

= Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson

= Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys

40 Clan Of The Cave Bear. Jean Auel

41 The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath

42 The Secret History, Donna Tartt

43 Five Quarters Of The Orange, Joanne Harris

44 Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, JK Rowling = Beloved, Toni Morrison

46 Bel Canto, Ann Patchett

47 Hotel Du Lac, Anita Brookner

48 The Bell, Iris Murdoch

49 Regeneration, Pat Barker

50 The Bone People, Keri Hulme = The Color Purple, Alice Walker

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