Who? Edith Wharton (nee Jones), American novelist and writer
When? 24 January 1862
Where? New York
Why should I read her work? The first female writer to win the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 1920, Wharton’s novels are sharply observed and witty examinations of the wealthy American upper class and nouveau riche societies, their morals, hypocrisies and materialism at the turn of the 20th century.
Try: The House of Mirth (1905), The Custom of the Country (1913), The Age of Innocence (1920)
Interesting fact: A staunch supporter of the Allies in World War I, Wharton established hostels, schools and employment for impoverished French and Belgian women; she reported from the front lines and urged America to join the Allies.
Who? Maria Edgeworth, Anglo-Irish writer for children and adults
When? 1 January 1767
Where? Black Bourton, Oxfordshire
Why should I read her work? An outspoken advocate of women’s education, she also held advanced views for her time on politics and economics. Edgeworth managed her father’s Edgeworthstown estate in Co. Langford, Ireland and her knowledge of the rural economy and Irish peasantry is the backbone of her novels.
Try: Castle Rackrent (1800), The Absentee (1812), Ormond (1817)
Interesting fact: At the height of her fame, Maria Edgeworth earned more than Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott from her writing.
Who? (Adeline) Virginia Woolf (nee Stephens), English novelist and writer
When? 25 January 1882
Where? Kensington, London
Why should I read her work? A major 20th century novelist, Woolf was a highly intellectual, influential writer and a pioneering feminist; she experimented with various literary techniques and was an early exponent of stream-of-conscious narration.
Try: Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1928), A Room of One’s Own (1929)
Interesting fact: As a child, Woolf spent many summers at St Ives; the family’s summer house, Talland House, still stands today and has a view of Godrevy Lighthouse, the inspiration for her 1928 novel.
Who? (William) Wilkie Collins, English novelist and playwright
When? 8 January 1824
Where? Marylebone, London
Why should I read his work? A close friend and collaborator of Dickens, Collins’s best-known work was published in the 1860s, earning him an international reputation as a fine story-teller.
Try: The Woman in White (1859), The Moonstone (1868)
Interesting fact: The Moonstone is considered to be the first modern, full-length English detective novel.
Who? E.M. Forster (Edwin Morgan Forster), English novelist, short story writer, essayist
When? 1 January 1879
Where? Marylebone, London
Why should I read his work? Forster’s novels, informed by his strong humanist moral vision, are densely-plotted, witty and brilliantly perceptive stories examining class differences and hypocrisy in early 20th century British society, at home and abroad.
Try: A Room with a View (1908), Howard’s End (1910), A Passage to India (1924)
Interesting fact: Forster was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature no fewer than sixteen times, but never won.
Who? (William) Somerset Maugham, novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright
When? 25 January 1874
Why should I read his work? Maugham was a consummate story-teller, his work revealing a shrewd insight into human nature expressed in clear, unsentimental and vivid language. His masterpiece, Of Human Bondage, has never been out of print.
Try: Of Human Bondage (1915), The Painted Veil (1925), Cakes and Ale (1930), The Razor’s Edge (1944)
Interesting fact: Maugham was recruited into British Secret Intelligence in 1916; his subsequent novel Ashenden: Or the British Agent (1928) is said to have influenced Ian Fleming’s James Bond.