12 Great Biographies of Women Authors

Becoming Jane Austen by Jon Spence

There are so many great biographies of classic women authors — what to choose depends on which authors you love and want to know about. A great biography reveals much about the author’s inner lives as well as their often tumultuous public lives.

This list of a dozen biographies is by no means definitive and nowhere near exhaustive — it’s simply a great place to start when you want to learn more about your favorite women writers of the recent past.

 

Becoming Jane Austen

In Becoming Jane Austen (2003),  Jon Spence shows how events and people in the beloved British authors’ life influenced her fiction. This biographer argues that the tangled love stories Jane Austen tells came not just from her sharp observations and fertile imagination, but also from her own experiences. This biography was the basis of the 2007 film Becoming Jane.

Becoming Jane Austen by Jon Spence

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Becoming Jane Austen on Amazon

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Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart

This illuminating 2016 biography by Claire Harman goes beyond what we already know of Charlotte and the Brontë sister’s brief and relatively isolated lives. What’s revealed is a young woman ahead of her time who pursued her art with ambition and not a little rebellion. We get a clearer picture of Charlotte Brontë‘s intense personality from letters never before seen.

Charlotte Bronte - a fiery heartg

Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart on Amazon

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Edith Wharton

In Hermione Lee’s 2007 biography of Edith Wharton, she skillfully demonstrates how this classic American author’s own life was as fascinating as that of the most interesting characters she created. Filled with scandal, heartbreak, and much success, Wharton’s life bridged two centuries and two continents.  Edith Wharton emerges from her image as a flinty heiress, and emerges more fully drawn as a progressive and complex, and fully deserving of her hard-earned literary reputation.

Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee

Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee on Amazon

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Fannie: The Talent for Success of Writer Fannie Hurst

Fannie (1999) is a thoroughly engrossing biography by Brooke Kroeger of the fascinating American author who has been all but forgotten, but shouldn’t be. Best known for Imitation of Life, the prolific Fannie Hurst was also a humanitarian and fought for feminist and civil rights causes.

Fannie - The Talent for Success of Writer Fannie Hurst by Brooke Kroeger

Fannie by Brooke Kroeger on Amazon

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In Search of Nella Larsen

George Hutchinson’s 2006 biography of Nella Larsen, a writer associated with the Harlem Renaissance, delves into her experience as a mixed-race woman in a society obsessed with identity. This factor weighed in on Larsen’s unique perspective on the world, showing up as themes in her two novels, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929).

In Search of Nella Larsen by George Hutchinson

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Marmee & Louisa

Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother is a 2012 publication by celebrated biographer Eve LaPlante. It paints a fascinating double portrait of Louisa May Alcott and her mother, Abigail May Alcott — the real “Marmee” that inspired the matriarch of the March family of Little Women.

Abigail May Alcott is herself an excellent writer with a sharp intellect.  Louisa and her mother, dedicated abolitionists and promoters of women’s rights, are central to this love letter to the time and place in which they lived, and to the enduring bond they enjoyed.

Marmee & Louisa - The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother by Eve LaPlante

Marmee & Louisa on Amazon

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Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee

Mockingbird by Charles J. Shields sets out to trace the life of publicity-shy Harper Lee. The culmination of hundreds of interviews, along with information never before seen, adds up to a rich portrait of the author of the beloved American classic, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee

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Portrait of a Marriage: Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson 

In Portrait of a Marriage (1998), Nigel Nicolson (a son of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson) offers an insightful view of his parents’ unconventional marriage. Vita and her husband both conducted affairs with same-sex parters, yet sustained a loving and committed marriage with one another. In addition, Vita was a literary force to be reckoned with as well as a master gardener.

Portrait of a Marriage - Vita Sackville-West Harold Nicolson

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Portrait of a Marriage on Amazon

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Savage Beauty: The Life of  Edna St. Vincent Millay

If ever there was a poet whose life was as fascinating as her work, it would be Edna St. Vincent Millay. She captured public imagination with her scandalous life, taking numerous lovers of both sexes, rejecting society’s conventions, and an open marriage.

In this bold 2001 biography by Nancy Milford, Millay fully emerges as the passionate, bold woman fearless woman whose groundbreaking poetry and trailblazing life should never be forgotten.

Savage Beauty - the life of Edna St. Vincent Millay

Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay on Amazon

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Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette

Colette (Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette), the French author whose personal life and prolific pen rivaled that of her countrywoman, George Sand, if fully revealed in this 1999 biography by Judith Thurman. It’s an engrossing journey through Colette’s scandalous career as a stage performer, her many love affairs with both men and women, and as the creator of some of the 20th century’s most distinctive literature.

Secrets of the Flesh - A life of Colette by Judith Thurman

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Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette on Amazon

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Road to Tara: The Life of Margaret Mitchell

It has been said many times that Margaret Mitchell was as complicated and fascinating as her iconic heroine, Scarlett O’Hara. And Gone With the Wind was a publishing phenomenon rarely seen before or since, in turn inspiring one of the most successful film adaptations ever.

In Anne Edward’s compelling 1983 biography (which was released in paperback only in 2014), the success of her only book and how it shattered her private life is fully explored.

The Road to Tara - The Life of Margaret Mitchell

Road to Tara: The Life of Margaret Mitchell on Amazon

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Willa Cather: Double Lives

Another fascinating biography by Hermione Lee (whose Edith Wharton is listed above), this one offers a new appraisal of a great literary artist whose contributions are often overlooked. In this 2017 book, Lee presents Willa Cather‘s battle between the masculine and feminine within herself, and offers new insights about her place in American literary canon, both in her own time and today.

Willa Cather - Double Lives - a biography by Hermione Lee

Willa Cather: Double Life on Amazon

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2 Biographies of women authors

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