Classic Women Authors at Their Writing Desks

Simone de beauvoir at her desk

It’s one thing to learn about the lives and books of our admired classic women writers, and quite another to to actually see them at work. If you’re looking for some inspiration to sit yourself down and set words to paper (or screen), these images of women authors at their writing desks might just do the trick.

A famous quote goes something like: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” Attributed to Mary Heaton Vorse, variations of it have been credited to (mostly male) authors from Ernest Hemingway to Kingsley Amis.

It helps to have “a room of one’s own,” as Virginia Woolf so famously put it, but a designated writing area with a desk and chair, attended to regularly, is a good way to develop discipline to write regularly. Meanwhile, enjoy these wonderful images of writers at work.

. . . . . . . . . .

Daphne du Maurier

Daphne du Maurier

Daphne du Maurier did much of her earlier work on an American Oliver Model 11, now displayed in the museum at Jamaica Inn, and she’s depicted with it in a 1996 British postage stamp (see above right). Read more about the writing habits of Du Maurier, best known for the haunting novel, Rebecca.

. . . . . . . . . .

Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks at her desk

Gwendolyn Brooks used her poetic voice to spread tolerance, and an understanding of the Black experience in America. A prolific writer, she produced hundreds of poems, had twenty books published during her lifetime, and was recognized and honored during her lifetime, being the first African-American to receive a Pulitzer Prize.

. . . . . . . . . .

Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott at her desk

Louisa May Alcott began her writing career by gothic thrillers (then called “blood and thunder tales”) under various pseudonyms. These, as it turned out, were what she preferred to write, plus, as it turns out, the income from them helped support her family.

What became her best-known work, Little Womenwas hammered out in six weeks at the desk in her bedroom in Orchard House. The immediate success surprised both the author and her publisher.

. . . . . . . . . .

Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir at her desk

Simone de Beauvoir’s writings included novels, philosophy, and social theory. Her most popular work, The Second Sex, was published in 1949 and has made its mark as a feminist manifesto during the second wave.

. . . . . . . . . .

Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton at her desk

When Edith Wharton’s first collection of short stories was published 1899, she was finally able to accept herself as a professional writer and not a dilettante. In her own eyes, she went from being “a drifting amateur in to a professional,” and, most importantly, “gained what I lacked most—self confidence.”

She went on to write numerous other well-received works, and won the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1921 for The Age of Innocence.

. . . . . . . . . .

Sarah Orne Jewett

Sarah Orne Jewett at her desk

Sarah Orne Jewett was a respected author of 19th century New England whose work captured a sense of place and a vanishing way of life. Her best-known work is The Country of the Pointed Firs.

. . . . . . . . . .

Carson McCullers

Carson McCullers at her desk

Carson McCullers is known primarily for her novels, especially her first,The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. She also wrote plays, short stories, poetry, and other works.

Most of her work is set in the American South and involves people struggling with loneliness and feelings of isolation. She was only 50 when she died, but left behind a significant and lasting body of work.

. . . . . . . . . .

Dorothy Parker

Dorothy Parker at her typewriter

Dorothy Parker’s wide-ranging work included short stories and criticism (literary and theater), though she was best known for her tart and trenchant verse and quips. She said, “I hate writing, I love having written.”

Perhaps there were things she would have rather done than be chained to her desk, but we’re all the better for her having spent time at it.

. . . . . . . . . .

Margaret Mitchell

Margaret Mitchell at her desk

Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Photo/Kenneth Rogers

Margaret Mitchell must have had to spend many, many hours (adding up to years) to write her one and only novel, the 1,000+ page classic, Gone With the Wind. Though the book’s revisionist view of the South around the years before, during, and after the Civil War has long been controversial, there’s no doubt that it’s an American classic.

. . . . . . . . . .

Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie at her typewriter

Agatha Christie liked to work on a Remington Victor T portable typewriter on a sturdy table, as she didn’t have a study until late in her career. One of the secrets of her incredible productivity was that she usually worked on at least two books at the same time. Learn more about Dame Agatha’s writing habits.

. . . . . . . . . .

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Charlotte Perkins Gilman at her desk

Photo courtesy of Schlessinger Library

Charlotte Perkins Gilman has long been admired for her visionary feminist writings, lectures, and passion for social justice and women’s rights.

Her most active years were from the late 19th century, when she published Women and Economics, on into the early 20th century (The Yellow Wallpaper  is arguably her best-known work), and up until her death in 1935.

. . . . . . . . . .

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf smoking at her desk

Virginia Woolf led a full and rich life of letters despite her struggles with mental illness. In her early career she wrote numerous book reviews, articles, and essays, and later went on to write some of the most revered novels in English literature, including Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse.

Here she is at her desk in 1939, two years before taking her own life, looking pensive and careworn.

. . . . . . . . . .

Eudora Welty

Eudora Welty at her desk

Photo: Eudora Welty, LLC

Eudora Welty is what you might call a “writer’s writer.” Her work spanned several genres — novels, short stories, and nonfiction. Her writing focused on realistic human relationships; as a Southern writer, a sense of place was also an important theme running though her work.

If seeing her at her desk is isn’t enough, you can read some of her inspiring thoughts on writing.

. . . . . . . . . .

Fannie Hurst

fannie hurst at her desk

Fannie Hurst was the epitome of literary success and female independence in the 1920s and 1930s, which was her heyday. Unfortunately, her work other than perhaps Imitation of Life, has been largely forgotten.

. . . . . . . . . .

Lillian Hellman

Lillian Hellman at her desk in a London Hotel, 1945

Lillian Hellman lived an extraordinary life as a playwright, producing some of theatre’s most iconic plays of the twentieth century, including The Children’s Hour, Little Foxes, and Toys in the Attic.

. . . . . . . . . .

Lois Lenski

lois lenski at her desk

Lois Lenski authored dozens of children’s books that she both wrote and illustrated, as well as dozens more children’s books by other authors that she illustrated. Even though she traveled extensively to research her books, she must have had to spend a fair amount of time at her writing/drawing desk!

. . . . . . . . . .

Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing at her writing desk

A diligent and determined young Doris Lessing at her desk — it’s curious to ponder which of her early works she’s working on here. Little did she imagine, likely, that she would one day be the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

. . . . . . . . .

Selma Lagerlöf

Nobel Prize winner Selma Lagerlof

And speaking of the Nobel Prize, here’s Selma Lagerlöf, the first woman ever to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (1909) and the first Swede ever. It’s curious why she’s not better remembered, but part of the problem could be that not much of her prolific output was translated into English.

. . . . . . . . .

Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich as a young woman

The young Adrienne Rich looks quite pleased to be at her desk. She attended Radcliffe College (the former women’s college of Harvard University), from which she graduated in 1951. Right before she graduated, Rich received the Yale Series of Younger Poets award for her first collection of poetry, A Change of World

maxine kumin in the 1950s photo by Carl Chiarenza

Though this lovely photo of Maxine Kumin early in her career looks posed (as likely are all the others in this collection), she really must have spent plenty of time at her desk. She not only produced volumes and volumes of poetry, but also 25 children’s books and at least two memoirs.

2 Responses to “Classic Women Authors at Their Writing Desks”

  1. I don’t know why, but I love seeing writers at their desks/lairs working. It connects me to their private nooks where they wrote great stories.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *