From early anguished works to coming-out classics, the lesbian canon is rich in literary significance. At a time when there have never been so many prominent mainstream stories of lesbian love coming out on big and small screens, women have been left frustrated by the furtive glances in costume dramas and doom and gloom. It is to books that they should turn. Time has brought a growing variety and joyfulness to lesbian fiction, and the list below barely scratches the surface.
1. Orlando, by Virginia Woolf
“The longest and most charming love letter in literature,” Virginia Woolf created her swaggering, hero-turned-heroine in tribute to her lover Vita Sackville-West. The novel opens with our dashing nobleman Orlando in Tudor England, experiencing first love in an England locked in the Great Frost. The story later takes a startling twist when apropos of nothing, Orlando wakes up to discover that he has become a woman. The romp goes on with joyful exuberance and enormous charm spanning three centuries. Woolf’s evident love for Vita lights up the pages. Orlando must negotiate womanhood over the centuries and contemplate the fluidity of gender. The novel ends in the year of its writing in 1928, teetering on the edge of vast social change when women achieved voting equality in the UK. It was also the year of the first obscenity trial for a lesbian novel. Still, Orlando’s buoyant magic allowed it to bypass similar censure and endure as a work of art. That is despite its greatest achievement: its blisteringly modern portrait of queer identity.
2. The Well of Loneliness, by Radclyffe Hall
Credited as the first lesbian novel in the English language, The Well of Loneliness traces the life of a gay landowning woman in the English gentry. Attracted to women from a young age, Stephen Gordon eventually finds the love of her life while serving as an ambulance driver in World War I. In many ways, the Well of Loneliness is deeply conservative, particularly compared to the queer flamboyance of Orlando, published that same year. Hall adopted the thinking of Victorian sexologist Havelock Ellis, positioning Stephen as a sexual “invert,” her masculine soul trapped in a woman’s body, but in all other ways the epitome of the socially conservative country gentleman.
It is often a source of frustration for lesbian readers that love affairs are often portrayed as unfulfilling or tragic, so readers should heed the book’s title as a warning: it is not a happy book. Neither, at the time, was its reception positive. Though hardly heady stuff, the novel quickly became embroiled in an obscenity trial, ironically bringing enormous attention to an otherwise obscure work. For those interested in LGBT history, it is worth taking the time to read this writer bare her soul and dare, for the first time, to openly depict lesbian love.
3. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, by Jeannette Winterson
Jeanette Winterson’s largely-autobiographical coming-of-age novel is about a young girl adopted by Evangelists and raised in an English Pentecostal community. Zealous in her faith, she seems destined to become a missionary until, at the age of 16, she falls in love with one of her converts. Dry, ostentatious, bold, and witty, Winterson’s first novel, published when she was just 26, is distinctly experimental in style. The writing tackles domestic life and religious devotion with a quirky tenderness, and the darker passages of the book are all distanced by eccentric humor. Winterson herself objected to its label as a lesbian classic, once saying, “I’ve never understood why straight fiction is supposed to be for everyone, but anything with a gay character or that includes gay experience is only for queers.” In that regard, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit certainly succeeds. Not only has the novel endured as a modern classic, but it is even taught on syllabi in English schools.
4. Tipping the Velvet, by Sarah Waters
The queen of the latter-day lesbian novel, Sarah Waters is known for her wildly atmospheric historical novels. Her debut Tipping the Velvet is named for obscure Victorian slang for cunnilingus, setting the tone for much of the story. Nan King, a Whistable oyster girl, falls in love with Kitty Butler, a cross-dressing music hall singer. The innocently enamored Nan becomes Kitty’s dresser, traveling with her to London. The book twists and turns in its plot, taking Nan first to the grimy glitter of Leicester Square theatres to the dirty streets of Covent Garden and further still into Victorian London’s hidden depths. A picaresque adventure reminiscent of Charles Dickens and Daniel Defoe, Waters summons lush, breathless detail of London in the 1850s. Rigorously researched and sensuously rich, her prose is completely immersive. Waters continues to be playful with genre and period in her following novels, and at the heart of each of her stories is a beautiful, compelling portrait of women’s desire for women.
5. Disobedience, by Naomi Alderman
Peeking into a closed-off and often secretive world, Disobedience tells the story of a love triangle in an Orthodox Jewish community in London. After the death of her father, New York-based photographer Ronit must return to her home. Her visit stirs up difficult memories and unsettles the tight-knit community, not least her former friend Esti, now dutifully married to their childhood friend and now the Rabbi’s likely but reluctant successor, Dovid. As the secret of Ronit and Esti’s forbidden romance threatens to unravel, Alderman’s novel tests desire against faith and considers the accommodations we all have to make in our lives. While Ronit’s character is sketched a little thin, the meditations on community and acceptance, tenderly illustrated inner conflicts, and penetrating view into a relatively unknown world make for an unusual and insightful read.
6. The Miseducation of Cameron Post, by Emily M. Danforth
A coming of age story told with emotional clarity, this novel follows the story of a 12-year-old Montana girl living in Miles City in the 1990s with her conservative Aunt and Grandmother. Orphaned young, Cameron Post is in love with her best friend. When the two are discovered in a moment of intimacy, Cameron is sent to a gay conversion therapy camp ominously named “God’s Promise.” Led by the militant Lydia March, the camp is determined to stamp out Cameron’s sinful “same-sex attractions,” abbreviated to the quasi-medical “SSI”. (There is no such thing as homosexuality, we are told. Only sin.) Young and uncertain though Cameron is, she maintains a sense of personal dignity that makes the story’s darker themes readable. With its success bolstered by a 2018 Sundance Award-winning film adaptation, The Miseducation of Cameron Post novel will likely be regarded as a classic for young gay readers for years to come.
7. In At the Deep End, by Kate Davies
The lesbian canon is rich in two things: ill-fated love affairs and coming out stories. What is thinner on the ground is the light-hearted and the later-in-life stories. In the fictional world, it is as if lesbians discover women, then all suddenly die out. This is what makes In At the Deep End refreshing. As the narrator points out herself, it is perhaps unfair to call a 26-year-old a late in life lesbian. However, as a grown woman living and working in London, protagonist Julia’s experience of coming out in her twenties is free from the anguish typical of a gay coming of age story. Instead, it’s all sex toys, fetish gear, and swingers as civil servant Julia takes the reader along her energetic journey of sexual exploration. Like a lesbian Bridget Jones, the narrator chats to the reader like an old friend who is quick with a joke. Filthily explicit though it is, the blunt sexual details are less smut and more punchline. The writing may not hold its own in the decades to come like other classics on this list, but there is a lot to be said for this fresh and raucous read.