For this week’s Sapphic Book Bingo category, read a book that is considered a classic sapphic book—one of the trailblazing books published in the 20th century or before, at a time when most mainstream publishers wouldn’t publish LGBT+ literature and sapphic characters often didn’t get a happy ending.
Today, we are lucky to live in a time when more sapphic books are published every year than most of us can read, across all subgenres, and we owe it all to these amazing authors who blazed the trail for us!
For the sake of this reading challenge, I would considered any sapphic book that was first published (or first written) before the year 2000 a “sapphic classic.”
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20 classic sapphic books
Here are my recommendations for the sapphic classics category, sorted by year of publication. Since there were so many deserving books that played an important role in the history of sapphic literature, I listed 20 books instead of just 15.
The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall (published in 1928)
The Well of Loneliness, first published in 1928, is a timeless portrayal of lesbian love. The thinly disguised story of Hall’s own life, it was banned outright upon publication and almost ruined her literary career as the subject was that of an obscenity trial and forbidden at the time in England. The novel tells the story of Stephen, an ideal child of aristocratic parents-a fencer, a horse rider and a keen scholar. Stephen grows to be a war hero, a bestselling writer and a loyal, protective lover. But Stephen is a woman, and is attracted to women. As her ambitions drive her, and society incarcerates her, Stephen is forced into desperate actions.
Although Gordon’s attitude toward her own sexuality is anguished, the novel presents lesbianism as natural and makes a plea for greater tolerance. It became an international bestseller, and for decades was the single most famous lesbian novel.
The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith (published in 1952 under the pen name Claire Morgan; reissued as Carol under her own name in 1990)
Therese is just an ordinary sales assistant working in a New York department store when an alluring woman in her thirties walks up to her counter. Standing there, Therese is wholly unprepared for the first shock of love. She is an awkward nineteen-year-old with a job she hates and a boyfriend she doesn’t love;
Carol is a sophisticated, bored suburban housewife in the throes of a divorce and a custody battle for her only daughter. As Therese becomes irresistibly drawn into Carol’s world, she soon realises how much they both stand to lose . . .
First published pseudonymously in 1952 as The Price of Salt, Carol is a hauntingly atmospheric love story set against the backdrop of fifties New York.
Odd Girl Out (Beebo Brinker #1) by Ann Bannon (published in 1957)
In the 1950s, Ann Bannon, the queen of lesbian pulp fiction, broke through the shame and isolation typically portrayed in lesbian pulps by offering up women characters who embraced their sexuality.
Odd Girl Out, the first book of the Beebo Brinker series, introduces Laura Landon, whose love affair with her college roommate Beth launched the lesbian pulp fiction genre.
Desert of the Heart by Jane Rule (published in 1964)
Against the backdrop of Reno, Nevada, in the late 1950s, award-winning author Jane Rule chronicles a love affair between two women. When Desert of the Heart opens, Evelyn Hall is on a plane that will take her from her old life in Oakland, California, to Reno, where she plans to divorce her husband of sixteen years. A voluntary exile in a brave new world, she meets a woman who will change her life. Fifteen years younger, Ann Childs works as a change apron in a casino. Evelyn is instantly drawn to the fiercely independent Ann, and their friendship soon evolves into a romantic relationship. An English professor who had always led a conventional life, Evelyn suddenly finds all her beliefs about love, morality, and identity called into question. Peopled by a cast of unforgettable characters, this is a novel that dares to ask whether love between two women can last.
Patience and Sarah by Isabel Miller (published in 1971)
Set in the nineteenth century, Isabel Miller’s classic lesbian novel traces the relationship between Patience White, an educated painter, and Sarah Dowling, a cross-dressing farmer, whose romantic bond does not sit well with the puritanical New England farming community in which they live. They choose to live together and love each other freely, even though they know of no precedents for their relationship; they must trust their own instincts and see beyond the disdain of their neighbors. Ultimately, they are forced to make life-changing decisions that depend on their courage and their commitment to one another.
First self-published in 1969 in an edition of one thousand copies, the author hand-sold the book on New York street corners; it garnered increasing attention to the point of receiving the American Library Association’s first Gay Book Award in 1971. McGraw-Hill’s version of the book a year later brought it to mainstream bookstores across the country.
Patience & Sarah is a historical romance whose drama was a touchstone for the burgeoning gay and women’s activism of the late 1960s and early 1970s. It celebrates the joys of an uninhibited love between two strong women with a confident defiance that remains relevant today.
Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown (published in 1973)
A landmark coming-of-age novel that launched the career of one of this country’s most distinctive voices, Rubyfruit Jungle remains a transformative work more than forty years after its original publication. In bawdy, moving prose, Rita Mae Brown tells the story of Molly Bolt, the adoptive daughter of a dirt-poor Southern couple who boldly forges her own path in America. With her startling beauty and crackling wit, Molly finds that women are drawn to her wherever she goes—and she refuses to apologize for loving them back. This literary milestone continues to resonate with its message about being true to yourself and, against the odds, living happily ever after.
Loving Her by Ann Allen Shockley (published in 1974)
A groundbreaking novel of two very different women, one black and one white, and a remarkable love threatened by prejudice, rage, and violence
A struggling African American musician, Renay married Jerome Lee when she discovered she was pregnant with his child. Yet even before their daughter, Denise, was born, Renay realized what a terrible mistake she had made, tying herself to a violent, abusive alcoholic. Then, while performing at an upscale supper club, Renay met Terry Bluvard. Beautiful, wealthy, and white, Terry awakened feelings that the talented black pianist had never realized she possessed—and before long, Renay was leaving the nightmare of Jerome Lee behind and moving with little Denise into Terry’s world of luxury and privilege.
Now, in this strange and exciting new place, Renay can experience for the first time what it is to have everything she needs for herself and her little girl. The rules here are different—often confusing and sometimes troubling—but in Terry’s home, and in Terry’s arms, Renay can be who she truly is . . . and be loved with caring tenderness and respect. Yet the storm clouds of her previous life still threaten, and Terry’s love alone may not be enough to protect Renay and her little girl from the tragedy that looms on the horizon.
Riverfinger Women by Elana Dykewomon (published in 1974)
Written when she was just twenty-four years old, Riverfinger Women is Elana Dykewomon’s beloved, intimate coming-of-age novel about Inez and her circle of friends—the Riverfinger women—struggling to find themselves amid the changing social mores of the Civil Rights era. Inez has known she was a lesbian since childhood, and while moving between Highland, her boarding school, and her friends’ Greenwich Village apartment, she experiences longing and disappointment, friendship and romance, and her first real relationship, with schoolmate Abby. Along with their experimental and outgoing friend Peggy, Inez and Abby graduate from Highland and move into adulthood, confronting the prejudices of the larger world as they go.
Told in an engrossing interweaving narrative, Riverfinger Women explores the characters’ brushes with sexual violence, prostitution, drugs, love, and, ultimately, happiness amid the thrills and challenges of lesbian life during the second women’s liberation movement.
Originally published in 1974, this groundbreaking novel was honored with the 2018 Lee Lynch Classic Award.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker (published in 1982)
A powerful cultural touchstone of modern American literature, The Color Purple depicts the lives of African American women in early twentieth-century rural Georgia.
Separated as girls, sisters Celie and Nettie sustain their loyalty to and hope in each other across time, distance and silence through a series of letters spanning twenty years, first from Celie to God, then the sisters to each other despite the unknown.
Abused repeatedly by the man she calls ‘father’, Celie has two children taken away from her and is trapped into an ugly marriage. But then she meets the glamorous Shug Avery, singer and magic-maker – a woman who has taken charge of her own destiny.
And gradually Celie discovers the power and joy of her own spirit, freeing her from her past and reuniting her with those she loves.
Beloved by generations of readers, The Color Purple broke the silence around domestic and sexual abuse, narrating the lives of women through their pain and struggle, companionship and growth, resilience and bravery. Deeply compassionate and beautifully imagined, Alice Walker’s epic carries readers on a spirit-affirming journey towards redemption and love.
Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden (published in 1982)
When Liza Winthrop first lays eyes on Annie Kenyon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she knows there’s something special between them. Soon, their close friendship develops into a deep and intimate romance. Neither imagined that falling in love could be so wonderful, but as Liza and Annie’s newfound sexuality sparks conflict in both their families and at their schools, they discover it will take more than love for their relationship to succeed.
One of the first books to positively portray a lesbian relationship, Annie on My Mind is a groundbreaking classic of the genre. The subject of a First Amendment lawsuit over banned books and one of School Library Journal’s “One Hundred Books that Shaped the Century,” Nancy Garden’s iconic novel is an important story for anyone discovering who they’re meant to be.
Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde (published in 1983)
If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.
A little black girl opens her eyes in 1930s Harlem, weak and half-blind. On she stumbles – through teenage pain and loneliness, but then to happiness in friendship, work and sex, from Washington Heights to Mexico, always changing, always strong. This is Audre Lorde’s story. A rapturous, life-affirming autobiographical novel by the ‘Black, lesbian, mother, warrior poet’, it changed the literary landscape.
Curious Wine by Katherine V. Forrest (published in 1983)
The intimacy of a cabin at Lake Tahoe provides the combustible circumstances that bring Diana Holland and Lane Christianson together in this passionate novel of first discovery.
Candid in its eroticism, intensely romantic, remarkably beautiful, CURIOUS WINE is a love story that will remain in your memory.
The Swashbuckler by Lee Lynch (published in 1985)
Frenchy Tonneau leaves her closeted home in the Bronx for the bars of New York City, the freedom of Provincetown, and the liberation of Greenwich Village in the 1960s and 1970s. Her hangouts, her women, her small yet universal world tell the stories of the times – and the stories of lesbians today. A timeless journey and a riveting read, The Swashbuckler is heart-wrenching, heartwarming, and unforgettable.
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson (published in 1985)
‘Like most people I lived for a long time with my mother and father. My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle; it didn’t matter what’
This is the story of Jeanette, adopted and brought up by her mother as one of God’s elect. Zealous and passionate, she seems destined for life as a missionary, but then she falls for one of her converts.
At sixteen, Jeanette decides to leave the church, her home and her family, for the young woman she loves. Innovative, punchy and tender, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a few days ride into the bizarre outposts of religious excess and human obsession.
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg (published in 1987)
Rediscover the ultimate comfort read in the classic story of friendship, loyalty and secrets set in the deep south of America in the 1930s.
The day Idgie Threadgoode and Ruth Jamison opened the Whistle Stop Cafe, the town took a turn for the better. It was the Depression and that cafe was a home from home for many of us. You could get eggs, grits, bacon, ham, coffee and a smile for 25 cents. Ruth was just the sweetest girl you ever met. And Idgie? She was a character, all right. You never saw anyone so headstrong. But how anybody could have thought she murdered that man is beyond me.
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe is a mouth-watering tale of love, laughter and mystery. It will lift your spirits and above all it’ll remind you of the secret to life: friends.
Lessons in Murder (Carol Ashton #1) by Claire McNab (published in 1988)
0n a hot summer day at Bellwhether High School in Sydney, Australia, teacher Bill Pagett lies murdered, the hole in his head accomplished with neat efficiency by a Black & Decker drill.
Detective Inspector Carol Ashton investigates, bringing with her a formidable reputation for competence. She soon uncovers tangled relationships and motives for murder among the six teaching staff, along with a maze of malicious anonymous letters and threatening phone calls. And then there is yet another corpse.
Carol’s investigation is further complicated by the flashfire attraction between herself and prime suspect Sybil Quade. Carol fights her desire, knowing its potential to compromise her investigation. Nor does Sybil welcome an ” unnatural” obsession with the alluring woman who is inexorably gathering the evidence to convict her of multiple murder.
Touchwood by Karin Kallmaker (published in 1991)
Fleeing the ruins of her life and relationship, Rayann Germaine rents a room from bookstore owner Louisa Thatcher. Decades older, Louisa offers shelter and work—and eventually passion that takes them both by surprise.
Falling in love, and into bed, turns out to be the easy part. Rayann’s mother disapproves of a liaison with a woman her own contemporary. Louisa’s son blames Rayann for revelations about his mother’s past and present that he does not want to accept. Friends universally agree that it can’t last.
These doubts would be easier to withstand if Rayann wasn’t already worried about sustaining the interest of a fascinating woman with a lifetime of experiences. Louisa isn’t sure she has any right to lay claim to the future of a much younger woman. Their only common ground seems to be the searing attraction that they simply can’t deny.
Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison (published in 1992)
In a novel that’ll make you want to hug every kid you know, Dorothy Allison captures the shame, anger, and helplessness of an abusive childhood. Ruth Anne, known as Bone, is a victim of the relentless horror that her supremely unlikable stepfather, Glen, inflicts on her. Her mother’s blind deference to him makes matters much worse. Allison’s raw narrative spares nothing, from family dinners of crackers and ketchup to Bone’s hope that her hands will be as strong as her tormentor’s one day. By the book’s gripping climax, Bone’s show of strength in the face of pain makes it clear why this was adapted into a TV movie—and why that movie won an Emmy.
Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg (published in 1993)
Published in 1993, this brave, original novel is considered to be the finest account ever written of the complexities of a transgendered existence.
Woman or man? That’s the question that rages like a storm around Jess Goldberg, clouding her life and her identity. Growing up differently gendered in a blue–collar town in the 1950’s, coming out as a butch in the bars and factories of the prefeminist ’60s, deciding to pass as a man in order to survive when she is left without work or a community in the early ’70s. This powerful, provocative and deeply moving novel sees Jess coming full circle, she learns to accept the complexities of being a transgendered person in a world demanding simple explanations: a he-she emerging whole, weathering the turbulence.
Amazon (Paperback only)
Love in the Balance by Marianne K. Martin (published in 1998)
Real life has a way of sneaking up on you.
Connie likes men. Sure, she’s just dumped one, but she’ll find another one soon enough. Instead she finds Kasey. Who happens to be a woman—a lesbian, actually. Connie reckons they’ll be good friends, and she soon realizes she wants more.
But Kasey has already had her heart broken. Her ex-girlfriend turned out to like men. Kasey won’t take a chance on that happening again. And her friends won’t let her, either. Especially not Sharon.
If this is love, Connie has a lot of convincing to do and a lot of people to win over. Just when it seems like maybe she has, real life comes sneaking up again. Some people hate lesbians—hate them enough to kill. And it’s not obvious that the authorities care. Connie and Kasey and Sharon must each put their doubts to the side and work together to get justice.
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