Are You Aiming for Their Writing Success?

These five women authors are the top five of the Best Female Novelists of All Time (adapted from Ranker)  On your road to success, you may wish to follow the path of someone who has been there. In this series of blog posts, we’ll briefly review the writing lives of these authors. When you are aiming for writing success, understanding what others’ success looked like helps. 

Virginia Woolf

1882-1941

British author, Virginia Woolf, produced at least ten novels, many short stories, plays, essays, and reviews. Virginia started writing in 1900 at eight years old. Her first published piece appeared in 1915. This home schooled author wrote about artistic theory, literary history, women’s writing, and the politics of power. Her novels fall into the women’s literary fiction category. 

Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so slightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. Often the attachment is scarcely perceptible.

Virginia Woolf

While working on her first novel, she asked friends and relatives for advice. Thereafter, she allowed no one to see her manuscripts. 

Image of the book Virginia Woolf, a writer's diary Details of her writing success and habits.

She wrote standing for a while because, like a painter, she wanted to step back from her canvas to get a better view. And she experimented with different pens, hoping to find the perfect one.  

Woolf put the price of writing at an annual £500 (about $41,000 today) and “a lock on the door.” She experienced writing success in her lifetime. She sold her work and made some money. But she was less successful than her friend Vita Sackville-West. Woolf was anxious and sensitive about reviews. Finishing a book usually left her depressed.

She suffered from depression and possibly bipolar disorder. Woolf committed suicide at 59. You can find a bibliography here.

Agatha Christie, DBE

1890-1976

English novelist, Agatha Christie created the world famous detective, Hercule Poirot, inspired by the Belgium refugees around her during World War I. She wrote over 60 Poirot novels plus the Miss Marple detective series and other books. Find her detective and thriller stories listed here.

At eleven, she fell ill with influenza. Her mother recommended she write stories to entertain herself. She published her first poem that year. And that launched her career. 

She usually had dozens of notebooks in which she jotted random notes. Plot ideas, poisons, and snippets of characters gathered in her notebooks. She spent most of her time plotting out the story. Then she wrote. She wrote by hand first and had someone type the manuscript. Later, she used a dictaphone. Her grandson said in the 1950s she’d write one or two chapters a day. She would take two or three months to write. Followed by a month to revise. Once it she sent it to her editor, she’d read a chapter or two to the family after dinner. At the height of her writing success in the 1950s, Christie churned out 2-3 novels per year. She slowed down later in life. 

Image of the book, Agatha Christie's Complete Secret Notebooks transcribed by her grandson they detail her writing success

Good advice is always certain to be ignored, but that’s no reason not to give it.

Agatha Christie

The best-selling female author of all time died of natural causes at 86.

Jane Austen

1775-1817

Austin published her six novels anonymously. We will never know the true reason she published her books by The Lady. Two facts may have influenced that decision. At the time, British society believed it unbecoming for a woman to have a career. And her father was in the clergy. 

At 8, they sent her to boarding school for her “formal education.” When she returned home, she made use of her father’s extensive library. She also began writing “First Impressions” which became Pride and Prejudice. She completed the first draft in 1799. 

Austin’s father attempted to get that first manuscript published. The editor didn’t even bother to open the package.

Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.

Jane Austen

Her books are famous for her realistic characters and relationships. They’re about love. She set the stage for literary realism. Her writing style vastly differed from that of her peers. It was groundbreaking.

She died of an unknown illness (possibly Addison’s Disease) at 42. Her brother and sister published her completed works. And her brother “unveiled” her with his loving tribute, “Memoir of Miss Austen.”

She became an authoress entirely from taste and inclination. Neither the hope of fame nor profit mixed with her early motives.

Henry Austen

He said that she was surprised that her books made any money at all.

Her books were “discovered” in the 1940s because literary scholars and feminist critics brought her achievements to light. Read more about Jane Austen. https://www.janeausten.org/

George Eliot AKA Mary Ann Evans

1819-1880

George Eliot wrote novels, poems, essays, reviews, and translations. She published her first piece of fiction when she was thirty-seven.

It is never too late to be what you might have been.

George Eliot

Following the death of her father in 1851, Eliot used her inheritance to live independently from her family. She moved to London and pursued a career in journalism. In the 19th century, her life as a single working woman was unusual. 

In 1854 she accompanied her lover, George Henry Lewes, on his travels while researching his biography of Goethe. Lewes encouraged her to try writing fiction. 

She published her first three short stories in 1857. Her first full-length novel, Adam Bede (1859), instantly became a best-seller. Later that year, the public learned her identity. That knowledge did not affect her writing success. Her bibliography is here.

She proposed using a pseudonym to her publisher. It served two purposes. It concealed her gender, disguised her irregular social position (living with a married man), and distanced herself from “silly novels by lady novelists.”

George Eliot caught a throat infection in December 1880. The illness triggered her existing kidney disease and caused her death.

Mary Shelley

1797-1816

The fifth Best Female Novelists of All Time, Mary Shelley, was an English novelist, short story writer, dramatist, essayist, biographer, and travel writer. She published her first poem in 1801.

As a child, I scribbled; and my favourite pastime, during the hours given me for recreation, was to ‘write stories.’

Mary Shelley

Homeschooled, her only formal schooling was six months at Miss Pettman’s Ladies’ School in Ramsgate. Because of her father’s employment, she had access to an estate’s extensive library. She made use of it.

She began an affair with her father’s married acquaintance, Percy Bysshe Shelley, when she was seventeen. Her father tried to break it off, but the two met in secret. They

Shelley was eighteen years old when she wrote Frankenstein. It took two years of painstaking wordsmithing before she finished the novel. She published it the following year. The public shocked by the “atrocious” story was further shocked that such a story was written by a woman. 

She revised and republished it twice. The original with notations from her and Percy is at the Smithsonian Institute. The British publisher SP Books  published a facsimile of that manuscript last year. A limited edition, it honored the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein’s publication.

Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos.

Mary Shelley

The archives are full of her attempts to get published. Editors rejected her over and over because of her gender. Some surmise there were rejections because of her relationship with Percy. Some people felt she distracted him from his literary endeavors, others disapproved of their unmarried relationship. Even after Percy’s wife died and she and he married, they faced societal and family disapproval.

Still, Shelley wrote seven novels and many short stories. Her bibliography is here.


1775-1976. Five independent women over a 200 year span of time. They empowered themselves and were authors despite the social expectations around them. Did any of these women inspire you? Are you aiming for their writing success? Or is your idea of success something different?

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