Who are the funniest female authors – whether poets, novelists, or writers of short fiction or non-fiction – in the English language? Reducing the number to just ten names is going to be a challenge, but here’s our essential pick of the funniest female voices in English (or English-language, more accurately) writing.
1. Jane Austen.
Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding—joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust.
No list of funny female writers in the English language would be complete without Jane Austen, one of the wittiest and cleverly ironic writers of all time. All six of her full novels contain sparkling wit on virtually every page – she was one of the earliest English writers to develop what came to be known as free indirect discourse – but our personal choice would be her brilliant parody of bad Gothic novels from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Northanger Abbey.
Recommended book: Northanger Abbey (Penguin Classics)
2. Virginia Woolf.
Orlando’s fathers had ridden in fields of asphodel, and stony fields, and fields watered by strange rivers, and they had struck many heads of many colours off many shoulders, and brought them back to hang from the rafters. So too would Orlando, he vowed.
Virginia Woolf, really? The woman who wrote about bleak things such as depression, shell-shock, alienation, and marital misery in her experimental modernist novels? But yes: Woolf is funny, and indeed one of the most comically inventive female writers of the twentieth century. See her mock-biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s pet cocker spaniel, Flush, or our own recommendation for Woolf at her funniest, her 1928 novel Orlando, in which the gender-swapping title character lives through three centuries of British history.
Recommended book: Orlando (Penguin Classics)
3. E. M. Delafield.
Do I know, she asks, how very late it is for indoor bulbs? September, really, or even October, is the time. Do I know that the only really reliable firm for hyacinths is Somebody of Haarlem? Cannot catch the name of the firm, which is Dutch, but reply Yes, I do know, but think it my duty to buy Empire products. Feel at the time, and still think, that this is an excellent reply. Unfortunately Vicky comes into the drawing-room later and says: ‘O Mummie, are those the bulbs we got at Woolworths?’
Edmée Elizabeth Monica Dashwood, née de la Pasture (1890-1943), or E. M. Delafield as she is better known, is best-remembered for her Diary of a Provincial Lady, a journal of the life of an upper-middle class Englishwoman living in rural Devon in the 1930s. Delafield’s Diary is perhaps best described as semi-autobiographical.
Although our (semi-fictional) diarist is well-to-do herself, her friends include the extremely snobby Lady Boxe (who is not upper-middle but firmly upper-class), a type of ‘friend’ whom we can instantly recognise, and the specific details Delafield drops into her diary entries – such as the unfortunate Woolworths interjection from the daughter quoted above – make Delafield the forerunner to later masters of comic writing, such as Sue Townsend and even, perhaps, Victoria Wood. Although she occupies the other end of the British class system from those who writers, Delafield imbues her work with qualities which make her world immediately recognisable to us.
The book started life as a series of comic pieces in a magazine, Time and Tide, before becoming a full-blown book.
Recommended book: The Diary of a Provincial Lady (Penguin Modern Classics)
4. Richmal Crompton.
Often mistaken for a male writer, because she writes predominantly about boys and has an unusual given name, Richmal Crompton (1890-1969) studied at Royal Holloway, London before becoming a schoolteacher – though, perhaps surprisingly for someone who would create the most famous schoolboy in twentieth-century fiction, she taught at an all-girls’ school. She created William around this time, and although she wrote some 30 books for adults, none of them attracted anything like the readership that William Brown and his ‘Outlaws’ (friends with whom he would often get into scrapes) did. She would soon come to resent the shadow that her schoolboy creation cast over her ‘serious’ fiction.
Crompton’s style and dialogue capture the upper-middle-class attitudes and personalities of English people in the first half of the twentieth century, and the vast number of stories she wrote featuring William Brown revealed an endlessly inventive mind.
We have offered some fascinating facts about Crompton’s most famous creation here.
Recommended book: Just William (Just William series)
5. Zora Neale Hurston.
Hurston (1891-1960) is known for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, a classic of African-American literature published in 1937. It’s an extremely witty novel, and essentially a Bildungsroman about the journey to adulthood of its female protagonist, the African-American woman Janie Crawford, in Florida in the early years of the twentieth century. Even ‘big’ themes such as race and sex are treated with humour by Hurston.
Recommended book: Their Eyes Were Watching God
6. Dorothy Parker.
Perhaps the female writer with the highest number of witty one-liners to her credit, Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) was a writer of humorous poetry, an acerbic and very funny critic, and a gifted satirist, who was probably the most famous member of the celebrated Algonquin Round Table who met regular in New York.
Recommended book: The Collected Dorothy Parker (Penguin Modern Classics)
7. Stella Gibbons.
Gibbons (1902-89) is best-known for one book: her 1932 novel Cold Comfort Farm. (She reportedly wrote some of the first draft while commuting on the London Underground.) In part a parody of the ‘loam and lovechild’ novels of writers like Mary Webb, set in rural Britain, Cold Comfort Farm eclipsed all of Gibbons’ subsequent work. There’s no denying that her barbed humour and use of the now ubiquitous phrase ‘something nasty in the woodshed’ make this novel a classic of twentieth-century comic literature.
Recommended book: Cold Comfort Farm (Penguin Modern Classics)
8. Wendy Cope.
Probably the funniest female poet of the last hundred years, and one the most popular living poets writing in English (at least, if we discount recent developments such as the rise of Instapoetry), Cope (born 1945) can make us laugh and then move us in her poetry, and she writes particularly tenderly about being in love.
Recommended book: Two Cures for Love: Selected Poems 1979-2006
9. Sue Townsend.
Townsend comes between E. M. Delafield’s Provincial Lady and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones, but unlike them, she writes brilliantly in the ‘voice’ of a teenage (and, in time, adult) male rather than a woman. A poverty-stricken single parent in Leicester in her twenties and thirties, she came up with ‘Nigel Mole’ – whose first name was eventually changed to Adrian because the original name was deemed too close to another fictional character, Ronald Searle’s Nigel Molesworth – and her greatest comic creation was born. In The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾ (1982), she introduces us to her adolescent wannabe poet living in the English midlands, and in doing so, a new classic fictional diarist was born.
Recommended book: The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ (The Originals)
10. Helen Fielding.
Like Townsend, Fielding is at her best when adopting the voice of a fictional diarist, although in this case, Fielding’s great creation is an adult woman, the perennial singleton Bridget Jones. Curiously, when ‘Bridget Jones’ began to appear in The Independent in 1995, Fielding’s name was not included, leading many to assume that Jones – a thirtysomething single woman in London – was a real person.
What many people forget, or simply never knew, is that Fielding created the character as a way to send up the 1990s media obsession with marriage and romance in women’s lives (embodied by Cosmopolitan magazine).
Recommended book: Bridget Jones’s Diary