Must-Read Novellas by Classic Women Authors

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

If you’d like a taste of a classic author’s work but don’t have the time or patience to read a tome, consider the novella form. Here we’ll look at novellas by classic women authors that make great introductions to to their work. 

What defines a novella? It’s generally based on word count of between 17,000 and 40,000, though it isn’t always so cut and dry. The Awakening by Kate Chopin is often described as a novella, though as far as word count, it’s slightly outside that parameter.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is about 6,000 words, yet has often been published as a stand-alone book (as well as in collections of this author’s stories). In terms of some standard definitions, that doesn’t even qualify as a novelette.

As far as page count, in a paper edition, depends on the size the font is set in, and the trim size of the paper. I personally view a novella as a work that’s under 200 pages in printed form — enough to sink your teeth into, yet never overwhelming.

In the hands of a skillful writer, a lot can be packed into a novella. Let’s go with a simple dictionary definition of the novella — “a work of fiction intermediate in length and complexity between a short story and a novel.” If you have any other suggestions for novellas by women authors of the past, comment below and we’ll add them to this post.

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The Lifted Veil by George Eliot (1859)

The Lifted Veil by George Eliot

The Lifted Veil by George Eliot is a shorter work by the British author best known for weighty books like Middlemarch. that departs sharply from the usual realism that’s a hallmark of her fiction. Latimer, the book’s unreliable narrator, is a sensitive intellectual who believes that he can see into the future and read the thoughts of others. 

It was the first and only of George Eliot’s works to delve into the genre of science fiction; this novella might also be considered horror and makes much use of suspense.

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Transcendental Wild Oats by Louisa May Alcott (1873)

Transcendental Wild Oats by Louisa May Alcott

Transcendental Wild Oats by Louisa May Alcott is a satire, somewhere in length between a novelette and novella, about her family’s misadventures as part of the Fruitlands community in the 1840s.

Alcott thinly disguised the members of the Transcendentalist community, most notably, her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, who was a co-founder of the community. You can read this work in its entirety on this site.

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The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman remains a classic in feminist literature. Some might consider it a longer short story rather than a novella, but either way, it feels like it belongs on this list.

In her 1913 essay, “Why I Wrote the Yellow Wallpaper,” Gilman revealed that the story was a reflection of the postpartum depression she suffered from, and her hopes that it would enlighten other women who experienced it.

But just as important, it’s a story of a woman whose creativity and freedom are thwarted by the strict gender roles proscribed by her time, culture, and class. You can read the full text here.

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The Awakening by Kate Chopin (1899)

The awakening by kate chopin - cover

The Awakening is a short novel by Kate Chopin, published in 1899. It’s the story of Edna Pontellier, who struggles with her role as wife and mother in the stratified social milieu of New Orleans in the late 1800s. 

Now considered a feminist classic, it was met with mixed reviews at best upon its original publication. It was banned by many libraries and bookstores, only to be rediscovered, and is now considered a masterpiece of feminist fiction. Here is the full text.

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Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (1911)

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton is admittedly depressing, but so beautifully told that many readers return to it again and again. An original 1911 review sketches the outline of the tale:

“Twenty years before the tale opens we learn that Ethan Frome has been crippled in a terrible accident … Ethan had his old parents to take care of and after their death he married the young woman who had helped him to nurse them … In a few years she needed assistance, so a young poor relation, Mattie Silver, came to live with them. Slowly she and Ethan fell in love. What happens next isn’t ‘happily ever after.'”

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Lost Laysen by Margaret Mitchell (1916)

Lost Laysen by Margaret Mitchell

Surprise! Lost Laysen, a novella by Margaret Mitchell, the author of the Gone With the Wind, was found decades after her death. According to the publisher:

“The impossible has happened: the world has another story from Margaret Mitchell. Written in 1916, when the author was in her mid-teens, it’s a delight — a fitting predecessor to America’s most beloved epic novel. A spirited tale of love and honor on a doomed south Pacific island called Laysen, Lost Laysen would be justly praised as a charming effort by a remarkable young talent if it were its author’s only work.”

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The Ballad of the Sad Café by Carson McCullers (1951)

Ballad of the Sad Cafe by Carson McCullers - cover 1951

The Ballad of the Sad Café by Carson McCullers centers around the eccentric Miss Amelia, owner of the formerly thriving café. When a hunchback wanders into town, followed by Amelia’s her shiftless former husband, emotions swell and collide. A review of the story from the year in which it was published offered this praise:

“McCullers with the fine hand of a craftsman and the insight of a poet explores the emotions of jealousy and loneliness in the troubled depths of abnormal personality.” The Ballad of the Sad Café is a brief but compelling introduction to the work of this classic Southern writer.

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Maud Martha (1951)

Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks

Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks is the only novel by this esteemed and much honored American poet. Published in 1951, its language is both spare and profound; it reads beautifully and poetically without seeming affected. It’s a very satisfying novella of a middle-class, mid-twentieth century black woman leading an ordinary, extraordinary life.

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The Ponder Heart by Eudora Welty (1954)

The Ponder Heart by Eudora Welty (1954 novella)

The Ponder Heart by Eudora Welty is a 1954 novella originally published in The New Yorker magazine the year before it appeared in book form. Narrated by Edna Earle Ponder, it’s the story of her uncle, Daniel Ponder, a sweet man who is considered a bit “slow.”

He has inherited a hefty fortune from his father and wants to give it away. Not surprisingly, his plan is opposed by the extended family. This charming story was turned into a Broadway play as well as a made-for-television film.

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Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys  (1966)

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys 1966

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys is the last work by this Dominican-British author. Considered a prequel and response to Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, the novella presents the perspective of Antoinette Cosway, the sensual Creole heiress who wound up as the “madwoman in the attic.”

This short novel became her most successful novel, praised for its spare yet evocative language and its exploration of the power imbalance between men in women, between patriarchal colonizers and the original inhabitants of the Caribbean in the 1830s.

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