The Life-Changing Novels Every Woman Should Read ; A Survey Asking 400 Women Which Books Have Made a Difference to Their Lives Reveals Some Surprising Choices. Louise Jury Reports

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While works by Jane Austen, the Brontes and George Eliot are only to be expected on a list of essential female novels, the inclusion of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy comes as something of a surprise.

But a survey of 400 women from academia, the arts and publishing shows that women are as likely to cite Douglas Adams's comedy as the book that made a difference to their life as a novel by the feminist icon, Virginia Woolf.

The women were asked which novels had most changed the way they viewed themselves by the team behind the Orange Prize for Fiction, which celebrates women writers.

The novels could be written by men or women and could be from anywhere in the world. And the resulting long list, published here today, reveals that an eclectic band of writers have marked the female psyche.

Lisa Jardine, the academic and author who chaired the Orange Prize judges in 1997, carried out the research with Annie Watkins, a fellow academic at Queen Mary College, University of London.

"We were fascinated as researchers by the idea of a life- changing book, the fact that absolutely every woman we spoke to had one and the wide variety of things that that book meant to each individual woman," Professor Jardine said.

The most common response was "What a wonderful question," she said. "What has been brought home is that ranked lists are only as good as the questions you ask and that every list is only a beginning, a basis for further challenging and questioning."

This list of 40 now serves as a launch pad for a national vote to find the top 10 essential novels for women with listeners to Radio 4's Woman's Hour invited to nominate their own suggestions. A final list will be announced on 8 December.

The most-chosen author among the women polled so far was Jeanette Winterson, 45, who came to national attention with Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. That makes the list along with two of her other works, The Passion and The PowerBook. Doris Lessing, 84, has two nominations as do George Eliot, Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte.

Childhood classics such as Little Women by Louisa May Alcott are joined by adult tales such as Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. European greats such as Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary are among the more challenging reads on the list, which includes James Joyce's Ulysses.

In total, 15 male authors made the grade. However, the top five, decided strictly by the number of votes received, were all books by and very much about women, topped by Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre.

Her sister Emily's Wuthering Heights made second place, with Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and George Eliot's Middlemarch in third and fourth. Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice tied at fifth with Beloved by the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, Toni Morrison.

Ms Watkins, who is writing a PhD on Samuel Richardson's Clarissa but admitted she had not chosen that, said some choices were less odd than they first appeared.

Camus's The Stranger, the choice of the BBC presenter Sheena McDonald, "is a lonely book and sometimes when you're lonely, it can be a companion to you because you can identify with it," Ms Watkins said. By contrast, The Hitchhiker's Guide was chosen simply for its humour.

Winterson was an absolutely unsurprising choice, Ms Watkins said. "I think that she has revolutionised the novel, particularly with The Powerbook. What she does with time and language is fascinating. I find her thought- provoking and I find comfort in the fact that my voice is like hers and I think many women see this."

But she admitted to being somewhat bemused by suggestions such as Polo by Jilly Cooper - which did not make it onto the list - and even by The Lord of the Rings, which she suspected may have won inclusion thanks to the influence of the films.

Yet it appeared that people had been honest. …