The sea, historically, has mostly been a man’s world. Whether the people navigating it were sailors, pirates, explorers, whalers or fishermen bringing home the catch, the women in their families were usually left behind – but, of course, those women’s lives were shaped by the sea, too.
When I started writing my book about the sea, Salt on Your Tongue, it was around the time that I was pregnant with my first child. I’ve always felt drawn to the coast, but now it was the women of the sea who fascinated me most. Sea-women in novels, folklore and songs are often seductive, strong and even supernatural. In the Odyssey and Beowulf, women of the sea can be witches and goddesses, Sirens and mermaids luring men to their doom or spiritual protectors controlling the winds and seeing sailors safely to harbour. Salt on Your Tongue weaves together the spellbinding stories I found of the sea and its power over us across centuries, and particularly of women connected with water, mingled with my own experience of pregnancy and birth.
In later centuries, more women have told their own stories of the sea, and these have their own compelling power, showing that women and the sea are linked in all sorts of ways in our cultural memory. These are the books I want to thrust into the hands of kindred spirits who love being by the sea, eating fish and chips on shingly beaches and feeling invigorated by the smell of salt and seaweed. They explore hard work, mysticism, identity and a visceral connection to the natural world. Here are 10 favourites:
1. Female Tars: Women Aboard Ship in the Age of Sail by Suzanne Stark
Stark revealed the previously untold stories of female sea-goers from the 17th to the 19th centuries, women who were “officially ignored and often hidden”. Female Tars was a rare study of women at the sea when it was published in 1996, and has since become a crucial historical text, encompassing accounts of navy wives, prostitutes, deck hands, nurses, servants, and women who dressed as men in order to become sailors. I love Stark’s passionate writing, full of fascinating stories of a secret underclass.
2. The Waves by Virginia Woolf
I don’t need to introduce Woolf’s classic experimental novel to you, but no list of books about women and the sea would be complete without it. It’s a work of interconnecting lives and ways of seeing the world, all flowing into one another. The way it’s written reflects the sea itself, with waves of narrative rushing in on top of one another, forever in flux. It’s the essential modern example of a woman writing about the sea and about people.
3. The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh
Mackintosh’s 2018 debut novel was longlisted for the Booker prize, and deservedly so. It’s a chilling and precise story about three sisters whose lives are defined by control, and their position on an island surrounded by sea. But that all changes when three men wash up on the shore. It left me as shivery as if I’d just been for a January swim.
4. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
This novel by the visionary writer and artist – the genius behind the Moomins – is captivating. Through gently ebbing and flowing narrative, Jansson creates an intimate island world for the little girl Sophia and her grandmother in the Gulf of Finland, their relationship framed by the sea. It’s about female family relationships, age and childishness, wisdom and whimsy, in fresh sea air.
5. The Outrun by Amy Liptrot
Liptrot’s Wainwright prize-winning memoir of overcoming addiction while swimming in the seas around her home in Orkney is sharp, tender and beautiful; a remarkable, clear-eyed study of nature, wildness and hope.
6. Petticoat Whalers: Whaling Wives at Sea by Joan Druett
Some of the few women who spent significant time at sea in the 19th century were the wives of captains on whaling ships. Druett’s historical study brings together diary entries from women of the time and ships’ logs written by men who often didn’t quite know what to do with the women on board. It is packed with extraordinary stories of women struggling with harsh conditions, living as the only female presence on a ship full of rowdy men, and sometimes giving birth miles away from land.
7. Sea Journal by Lisa Woollett
The British coastline encapsulated in a treasure trove of a book. Writer and photographer Woollett brings together her thoughtful diaries from walking on beaches across a full calendar year, in all weathers, with photographs of the waves and of the treasures that she has found on the way, which range from shells and cuttlebones to ammonite fossils and mermaid’s purses.
8. The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan
This novel is set in the near future, when sea levels have risen and engulfed most of the land. On a circus boat travelling the waves giving glitter-soaked performances, a young female performer and her captive bear have a secret. They meet another young woman who lives alone in the middle of the ocean, tending the watery graves of those who have died at sea. Logan is a gifted modern fairytale teller and the women in The Gracekeepers find in the sea freedom and captivity, consolation and desolation.
9. The Salt Path by Raynor Winn
Raynor Winn is a master of writing about nature and grief. The coast is the backbone of her memoir about walking the 630-mile South West Coast Path from Somerset to Dorset in the wake of learning that her husband of 32 years was terminally ill, and that they had lost their home. It’s a gripping story about a search for home, resilience and emotion, all the while in conversation with the sea.
10. Katie Morag’s Island Stories by Mairi Hedderwick
These are the stories, I think, that first showed me the sea as a romantic place. As a child I was mesmerised by the stories of Katie Morag’s idyllic childhood on the fictional Hebridean Isle of Struay. Here, daily life is structured around the tides and the ferry timetable, and Katie’s adventures take place on wild beaches, windswept cliffs and among a strong community.
• Salt on Your Tongue: Women and the Sea by Charlotte Runcie is published by Canongate, priced £14.99. To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on orders over £15.