Collected Poems and Selected Prose, by Charlotte Mew (1981). The melancholic Mew (1869—1928) is now mostly forgotten (she killed herself out of loneliness at fifty-eight—appallingly—by ingesting creosote). Female fans have occasionally launched rescue parties, but the lit-crit blokes still don't pay much attention, though she is the opposite of a gaggy dead "poetess." Mew's poems are few, somber, and spinsterish, but in their sad, shriveled way supremely beautiful. They give voice to some part of our shared and irrevocable pain.
The Pure and the Impure, by Colette (1941). Forget the mascara, blue lampshades, and fluffy kitty cats: there is no one more tough-minded in twentieth-century European letters. (You will have to decide for yourself how to assess her actions under Vichy.) This is an anatomy of the sophisticated sexual life as lived in great cities by those who are thoughtful and unafraid. Male readers will be shocked to discover how much Colette knows about them—about the emptiness, the tristesse, lurking at the heart of virility.
An Autobiography (To the Is-Land, An Angel at My Table, The Envoy From Mirror City, by Janet Frame (1989). Such poignancy, farce, tragedy, and joy—one can only pay homage. Born poor and muddle-headed in New Zealand in 1924, Frame was accidentally-on-purpose incarcerated in a mental hospital in her twenties and stayed there for seven years. She somehow emerged to become a world-class novelist and the one person able to explain—with consummate kindliness to everyone involved (herself included)—just how the catastrophe had come about. Men should read her to grasp how hard and sad it often is to be a girl.
The Hotel, by Elizabeth Bowen (1927). Shockingly unknown, even among Sensitive Guy fans of Wharton, Welty, and Woolf, Bowen set her earliest novel in a vaguely Forsterish milieu: an English pensione on the Italian Riviera, filled with the requisite lady tourists, clergymen, and handsome young fellows in tennis whites. When the heroine falls in love—with a seductive older woman who wants to marry her off to her son—the comedy of manners turns abruptly into a chilling portrait of female-on-female emotional sadism. No knock on Forster, but Bowen is heaps better than he is.
Catherine and Other Writings, by Jane Austen (1993). Teenage genius goes on comic rampage. Austen seems to have been born with a fatuousness detector implanted in her mobcapped skull. Her collected juvenilia—plays and sketches like the droll History of England she wrote at sixteen—are subversive and hilarious. Pompous middle-aged men with Dick Cheney waistlines, proceed at your own risk. As long as you're reading Austen, Persuasion's pretty good too.