Which are the best autobiographies by women?

That question has been floating around Twitter, here are my picks:

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar.

Janet Frame, Autobiography.

Claire Tomalin, A Life of My Own.

Marjane Satrapi, The Complete Persepolis.

Golda Meir, My Life.

Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking.

Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Dirt Road.

Temple Grandin, Thinking in Pictures.

Am I allowed to say Virginia Woolf, corpus?

Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope: A Memoir.

Helen Keller, The Story of My Life.

Anne Frank of course.

What else?  Maybe Carrie Fisher?  Maya Angelou?  Erica Jong?  St. Therese of Liseaux?  (I Am Rigoberto Menchu turned out to be a fraud.)  There are a variety of important feminist books that read like quasi-autobiographies, but maybe they don’t quite fit the category.  What is a memoir and what is an autobiography in this context?  Do leave your suggestions in the comments.

It is also worth thinking about how these differ from well-known male autobiographies…


West With the Night -- Beryl Markham

WWTN is an all-time fave. Two companion volumes might be Let's Not Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller and The Road from Coorain by Jill Ker Conway.

+1 for Alexandra Fuller.

+ 2 for Alexandra Fuller. She is rather funny.

Beryl Markham was the first one I thought of. Fantastic read.

Interesting, apparently praised by Hemmingway. She was quite the character, apparently a sexually active predator that these days would be locked up for something or another. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Happy_Valley_set

Best final sentence ever

I loved it when I read it, but then I went ahead and read Straight on Till Morning and was disabused of my admiration of Markham as a person. Still, it doesn't destroy the quality of West With the Night (many wonderful books have been written by worse human beings). One of the things I do love about WWTN as a memoir is that it's about crossing the Atlantic and flying and her adventures in Africa, rather than navel gazing about 'what it means to be a woman'. But it's rather sad that I can't, off the top of my head, think of any other woman's memoir in the same mold. Thinking I must have forgotten some obvious candidates, I perused a few lists like this one. How depressing! So much grief, depression, mental illness, bulimia, etc -- I was reminded of this classic from the Onion: Author Wishes She Hadn't Blown Personal Tragedy On First Book

You know, I was thinking that I don't read biographies (auto or other), but I have read this! I liked it too, but maybe I put it in the adventure category with 'around the world in the yacht sunbeam' by Mrs. Brassey. (Or like Red Mains'l, Peter Pye, 1961.)

(This isn't under 'the category' but Red Mains'l has a lot going for it. Postwar US/UK observations, the arrival of National Health, the early days of family yachting, the state of the Caribbean in those days. And of course lots of sailing in an old re-purposed gaff-rigged fishing boat.)

This was exactly my first thought!! Absolutely terrific:

``Somebody with a flair for small cynicism once said, `We live and we do not learn.' But I have learned some things.
I have learned that if you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved and where all your yesterdays are buried deep---leave it any way except a slow way, leave it the fastest way you can. Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance. The cloud clears as you enter it. I have learned this, but like everyone, I learned it late.'' (p.\ 131)

Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

I'm impressed that someone came up with the right answer. Good on you.

+1. Also Susanna Moodie' s Roughing It in the Bush and Catharine Parr Traill' s Backwoods of Canada.

Mary Karr's Cherry is excellent.

But her 1995 Liar's Club may be formally superior. It started a resurgence of commercial interest in the memoir.

Cherry focuses on the early sexual experiences of the author during her adolescence.

"Cherry is the kind of book a brave parent could do a lot worse than to give to a teenager….Teenage girls might come away from it knowing that they’re not freaks, that mistakes aren’t fatal, and that good writing kisses just about everything better. And for teenage boys, reading Cherry would be like stealing the other team’s playbook….Mary Karr gives memoir back its good name.” —San Francisco Chronicle

Too much gender talk on this blog lately...

It is just sooooooo boring and borderline nauseating.

Sex is still pleasurable for some.

I would agree to that in general, white guy. But for autobiographies it does actually makes sense to separate sexes (hum, sorry, genders), especially if you want to understand the differences (bodily, social, or whatever) between men and women.

If you assume that blog posts are an experiment and our comments are the measured response, it will all make a lot more sense.

Or assume that they are about SEO to a major extent - and this post was brilliant, many sincere replies that will undoubtedly be viewed favorably by google et al.

Diana Athill, Stet: a memoir, and Instead of a Letter
Katherine Graham, Personal History

Stet is not only a brilliant memoir of an incredible writer, but of an editor who shares personal memoir-type insider stories about those writers she worked with, the best being Jean Rhys and V.S. Naipaul. So she wins by being the Russian doll of memoirs!

No Time to Spare by Ursula K. Le Guin

I just read “The Girl from the Metropol Hotel”, which is an account of her childhood by Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, and it’s really one of the best things I’ve read. She was Bolshevik royalty, but her family became enemies of the people, and she gives an unstinting account of everything she went through, who acted like animals and who acted like human beings. But she never loses her sense of wonder at the world and finds beauty in the horror. Excellent account of Stalinist Russia through the eyes of a child starving through it.

Ach. All this status-rating.

Anything by Didion is worth your time.

Florence King, “Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady”

Much of Rebecca West’s stuff is at least semi-autobiographical, and it’s consistently excellent.

Bell Jar may be all true but calling it an autobiography is like calling In Search of Lost Time, On The Road, Tropic of Cancer, You Can Never Go Home Again or My Struggle an autobiography.

I agree. Doesn’t the author have to call it an autobiography or memoir for it to be so?

Partly for my own nostalgia reasons, partly for the sense of (adopted) place, I must nominate "Cross Creek," Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.

I actually preferred "Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness," focusing more on Alexandra Fuller's mother, to "Let's Not Go to the Dogs Tonight," though judging from interviews I looked up after reading those two books at an interval of 10 years, she got super-woke and would seemingly not write either with quite the same underplayed, insouciant candor now, for all that it made the devastating moments (to me, anyway) more squarely hit their target.

I think I've read just one lady celebrity autobiography: Mary Tyler Moore. As a big fan of TMTM show, I snatched it up when it caught my eye on the library shelf. I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a better, or at least, earlier example of a book by a star completely careless of her own image. The most-liked woman in America didn't seem at all attuned to our admiration. At the end you flung the book down, and fumed, "I still like you, I don't care what you say, you horrid woman!"

I would love for someone, however improbably, to be drawn to it, and I've no need to signal: a terrific book that passed through my hands years ago - I had to look it up to get it right - was "Little Heathens" by Mildred Kalish, about her rural childhood.

(I expect the best biographical accounts by women are to be found in the "regional" category.)

And Nancy Mitford's "Pursuit of Love" is surely more than half-autobiography, and pretty funny. Get an edition with sister Jessica's introduction.

As to "The Bell Jar," sure, I picked it up as a teenager - it was ubiquitous - but I couldn't finish it, and for better or worse, once I read Florence King on Plath, I knew I never would.

I think I know why the caged bird sings is familiar in the distance it renders, so much distance and still thoughtful, perhaps a bit too lyrical and not quite what it could have been.

The author of "Little Heathens" was born in Iowa about the same time as my mother was born in Wisconsin --- in the first, or maybe the second, generation - according to how you count ---- after the frontier had been settled; and I gave her that book a few months before she died, she liked it a lot.

Even if you have no real connection to the old MidWest, there are lots of good recipes and good suggestions for natural medicinal helps in the book. And many funny stories, that is a great book, thanks for mentioning it.

There are a lot of interesting-sounding books listed in these comments; I've added "Little Heathens" and "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight" to my to-read list.

I found "Jealousy: The Other Life of Catherine M." by Catherine Millet quite interesting. Here she describes the drawbacks of her free lifestyle. I thought it was better than her first book. You will probably laugh about this, but I'm fascinated by her power of observation and her descriptions of places and surroundings. She's very good at that.

Then there are a few autobiographical books by the Dutch artist "Tinkerbell" (Katinka Simonse) describing her autobiography, art projects and experiences. She became (in-) famous when she made her cat into a handbag. Recently she made trips to Fukushima. Intelligent provocative books.

Some of these are autobiographies and some are memoirs - the difference is one of timeline. I've seen autobiographies described as memoirs and memoirs described as autobiographies. To write an account of one's entire life seems a tall order, better to be focused on some episode or event in one's life. As to the matter of gender, are men or women better at providing an honest assessment of one's life?

An American Childhood by Annie Dillard

Hmmh ...nothing by transwomen .. uh oh ...

Jan Morris' "Connundrum"?

Are autobiographic movies allowed? Agnès Varda's "les plages d'Agnès" ("The Beaches of Agnès").

An impressive list. My recommendation is "In Praise of Imperfection: My Life and Work" Rita Levi-Montalcini,

Best autobiographies by Hispanic women under 40?

AOC will make a fortune for the first one. Likely ghost written. Wildly popular among leftists. Just as vapid as anything else that comes out of her mouth.

Does she trigger you, hun?

Here I'll give it a shot:

"Sarah Palin will make a fortune for the first one. Likely ghost written. Wildly popular among conservatives. Just as vapid as anything else that comes out of her mouth."

Except that Palin lives in an eccentric part of the country which is great story fodder, spent 20 years building a family, and spent 11 years of her life supervising public agencies. None of which AOC has done.

Every time you utter something you reveal there is nothing of value between your ears.

I didn't realize Palin was an Hispanic woman under 40.

Palin has an extensive career as a popular elected executive.

AOC's greatest exhibited talent thus far has been limited to flashing flesh to coax drunk men into giving larger tips.

Cracks me up how you guys don't see the symmetry at all. AOC is precisely the equivalent of Sarah Palin for the other team. Kinda cute, not too bright, drives the other side crazy. If you weren't so partisan you could see it. Oh well.

She makes me laugh for every stupid idea that falls out of her mouth.

The "Hispanic women under 40" comment to which I was responding leads to one notable person (and perhaps only one).

Yes and the left was obsessed with every dumb thing Palin said too. Both sides are the same, you included. Partisan petty predictable puppets.

Confessions, by St Teresa de Avila

Other Carmelites who are worth reading, in this regard, are Therese of Lisieux and Elizabeth of the Trinity.

If you want something more like the Reader's Digest Version, "A Right to Be Merry" is a good choice.

Brittain: Testament of Youth.

I may be the only one I know in this state of mind, but I actually love Simone de Beauvoir's four-volume autobiography:
Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958)
The Prime of Life (1960)
Force of Circumstance (1963)
A Very Easy Death (1964).
You may add to this a kind of fifth volume:
Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre (1981),
sad but very beautiful.

England's Child, by Jill Johnston. A biography of her father, with her life story woven in.

Alice B. Toklas/Gertrude Stein

Well behaved women rarely make history.

Poorly behaved women don't make history either.

Margaret Thatcher is the only one worth buying. Ann Frank is great because she is an ordinary person writing about extraordinary events; she was thrust into greatness.

Laura Ingalls Wilder

I'm glad you mentioned LIW, especially since she's been cast out of the children's canon. A lot of autobiographies are in great part the story of someone's parents. The Little Laura books are in some ways the story of her beloved Pa, who is the light of her childhood, and is portrayed so tenderly - through failure after failure. "The Long Winter" is an American frontier contribution to survival literature, that need not be read only in the company of children.

The Bell Jar is overrated.

I'd say overrated by women and underrated by men.

Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle.

Christabel Bielenberg, The Past Is Myself

Jung Chang, Wild Swans

Le Ly Hayslip, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places

Sybille Bedford, Jigsaw

And how did I forget...

Simone de Beauvoir, A Dutiful Daughter

Along similar lines to Hayslip's book, Nien Cheng's "Life and Death in Shanghai".

I second the recommendations of "West with the Night", not only a great memoir/autobio, but also one of the greatest adventure books ever written (National Geographic rates it #8 on its list of the 100 greatest adventure books). Also high on the National Geo list, but I have not read these: Mary Kingsley's "Travels in West Africa" and Isabella Bird's "A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains" as well as Dinesen's "Out of Africa", already mentioned in another comment. Also notable is Arlene Blum's "Annapurna: A Woman's Place" which is not only on National Geo's list but also on Fortune magazine's list of the smartest business books.

Giving Up the Ghost, Hilary Mantel
My Own Two Feet, Beverly Cleary
The Egg and I, Betty MacDonald (memoir, more or less)
Things I Don't Want to Know, Deborah Levy (also memoir, more or less)
Smile, Please, Jean Rhys
Dadland, Keggie Carew (another more or less memoir)

"My Own Two Feet, Beverly Cleary"

Beverly Cleary grew up in Portland OR, which actually does have a Klickitat Street (as well as a Quimby Street), and now has a Beverly Cleary School and a nearby park with a Beverly Cleary Sculpture Garden.

The garden has sculptures of Henry Huggins and Ribsy and a somewhat grotesque one of Ramona:

Also rather strange-looking is the Multnomah County Public Library's sort of bas-relief sort of bust of Beverly Cleary, reminiscent of Han Solo entombed in carbonite (but looking cheerful about it):

That Ramona. I think that artist might be responsible for some public art in my town. We also have somebody who for some reason persisted in making figures of real people at about 4/5 size, which is oddly disconcerting. Plus this this sassy lovely:


I've been thinking, as statues of remaindered people are getting torn down across the country, that this might be a golden opportunity to get a general moratorium on statuary.

Sassy indeed. I knew that Texas had a colorful history, but I had never heard of Angelina Eberly and the Archive War.

To have a fight about archives sounds initially rather cute, the sort of thing a place like Provincetown might do. But seen as part of a struggle over the state capital -- and then realizing that people are firing cannon in the middle of town as part of this struggle -- sounds like a stereotypical Texas approach to settling differences.

I wonder if Angelina Eberly wrote an autobiography?

And that sculpture of her is by Pat Oliphant, the political cartoonist; I had no idea he did sculpture (often political) too.

That totally makes sense! - since maybe the only thing dumber and more eye-rolling than contemporary statuary is political cartooning. That statue was privately paid for* (gee thanks) by some locals, the 80s Texas Monthly crowd, I think. They probably find the tedious caricatures on New Yorker covers hilarious. Oh, the Archive War definitely set the tone for the absurd goings-on at our statehouse, like the time the Democrats hid out in Ardmore, OK for a week; and yes, early Texas (well, early, and middle, and late) was predominantly violent. But the cannon may not have been all that. A revered, defining moment in Texas history that became a Texian flag, still sported today on T-shirts and bumper stickers: the Gonzales "Come and Take It!" cannon. This refers to a couple of Spanish cannons that became a flashpoint of contention between the Texians (no doubt gunning for something to fight over) and the Mexicans. Upon the Mexicans stating they wanted them back, the cannons were buried in a peach orchard; then figured in the Battle of Gonzales somehow, then were taken to the Alamo, except that the supposedly smaller one's carriage broke so it was dropped in a creek along the way; the *supposedly larger one at the Alamo was recaptured by the Mexicans, who buried it there in the compound (not sure why if it was such a great piece); and later dug up and cast into a bell for a San Antonio church (*you shoulda seen it, though, when it was a cannon!).

Anyhoo, drop in the decaying, vaguely Soviet-looking 1936-centennial Memorial Museum in sleepy Gonzales and you'll find the cannon that a landowner eventually turned up in the creek. I was so taken aback, I laughed: it's a pea-shooter. Apparently the Texians had asked for something to scare the Indians with. It's thought that they peppered them with pecans.

*Unlike our first attempt at Juneteenth memorial statue for the Capitol grounds; a state rep got through a million dollars to fund that one, and when it was finally revealed, who should have been the central figure - "The Preacher" - but the man himself!

Surprised that no one has mentioned Out of Africa.

Jung Chang - Wild Swans
Emily Wu - A feather in the storm.
It is hard to take Anglo memoirs quite as seriously after reading the above

Anglo people also face death sometimes.

Actually almost all of the time. Their own death, which is not always that big of a deal, but the death of those they love is not always easy to face.

And we are all children of God.

But I know what you were trying to say, and you do have a point.

The line between memoir and autobiography falls into play here, but Jill Ker Conway's "The Road from Coorain" should be somewhere on this list. Haven't yet read her two follow-up memoirs - this one covered childhood through university.

I haven't read Susan Jacoby's 'Half-Jew: A Daughter's Search For Her Family's Buried Past' but she has given good interviews on various topics in general.

Hold Still by Sally Mann
Just Kids by Patti Smith
Daybook by Anne Truitt

A snippet of autobiography - a memoir, perhaps: WKPD reports "To War with Whitaker" received immediate and general critical acclaim.

When World War II broke out, Dan Ranfurly was dispatched to the Middle East with his faithful valet, Whitaker. These are the diaries of his young wife, Hermione, who, defying the War Office, raced off in hot pursuit of her husband. When Dan was taken prisoner, Hermione vowed never to return home until they were reunited. For six years, travelling alone from Cape Town to Palestine, and meeting such charismatic characters as Churchill, Eisenhower, and a parrot called Coco on the way, she kept her promise.

There is a very good memoir by WWII Soviet attack pilot Anna Timofeeva-Eorova. I reviewed it here:


Testament of Youth, by Vera Brittain, Shirley Williams' mother.
She was just going up to Oxford when WWI broke out. This is her account of her life during those years. You can see why the intelligentsia in Britain became pacifists (with disastrous results).

"Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Dirt Road."

That's a good one.

I also liked Shelley Winters' autobiography.


Katharine Graham, Personal History

Are you Somebody? Nuala O'Faolain
A Life of One's Own: Marion Miller

A Diary from Dixie by Mary Chestnut.

The memoir of Madame Roland (1754–1793) is celebrated for its crystalline French, and her bourgeois Girondism will surely appeal to readers of this blog.

Also vaguely Cowenish is the memoir of Princess Dashkova (1743–1810), who moved from St. Petersburg to Edinburgh so her son could receive a Scottish Enlightenment education from the likes of Adam Smith.

Heh. Deftly flattering our utterly non-existent ability to appreciate "crystalline French" while paving our naive way to the guillotine. You were at my wedding, Helen.

TC, can you Talk to her? I think it might be fun.

Thanks, commenters: I am planning to look at "Testament of Youth," "Girl from the Metropol Hotel," and the Zora Neale Hurston and Diana Athill books.

Linda Niemann traded in her PhD in English for a brakeman job on the Southern Pacific Railroad, and wrote a great memoir about her experiences. Review here:


Pearl Buck, My Several Worlds
Definitely Out of Africa.

There are several well known autobiographies by well regarded writers.

Theresa of Avila - Autobiography
Edith Wharton - A Backward Glance
Miles Franklin - My Brilliant Career
Isak Dinesen - Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass
Mary McCarthy - Memories of a Catholic Girlhood
Thylias Moss - Tale of a Sky-Blue Dress
Tracy K. Smith - Ordinary Light
Sally Ito - The Emperor's Orphans
Joyce Carol Oates - The Lost Landscape and A Widow's Story
Edna O'Brien - Country Girl
Annie Dillard - Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Jeannette Winterson - Oranges are Not the Only Fruit and Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Elizabeth Bishop wrote some short memoirs.

There are many journals by literary women including Sei Shonogan, Lady Murasaki, Dorothy Wordsworth, Marina Tsvetaeva.

It's also worth going deep into this list for suggestions:

Toni Bentley wrote a well regarded autobiographical book about being a ballet dancer . . . and then another about her passion for anal sex.

I think you missed the very best— Testament of Youth, Vera Brittan

I highly recommend French writer Annie Ernaux's THE YEARS. It is a short book (230 pp) but highly evocative and well-written. It is a remarkable account of both the world of the 60's and 70's, the French view of happenings in the US, and the personal journey of a talented and sensitive writer.

Living My Life by Emma Goldman

Wild Swans - Chang
I am Malala - Yousafazi
Daughter of the River - Ying
Lucky - Sebold

Fanny Kemble, a British actress and diarist who spent much of her life in the US...she married a Georgia plantation owner and became a noted critic of slavery. Great writer, very much worth reading.

Casanova's. I read all of it - 3500 pages? - and it's a masterpiece of confession

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