11 Historical Novels About Women Misbehaving and Making History
Kate Manning, author of "Gilded Mountain", recommends books about women who challenge authority and defied gender norms
I found my history classes in school to be mind-numbingly dull: just memorization of dates and battles, kings and presidents. Conspicuously missing from the pages of my textbooks were women. To make up for this, I turned to novels, where I found heroines who too often were tormented, passive, wringing their hands over a man. Or they were witches, victims. Few of the heroines rebelled, and when they did, they suffered. Most of these tales were authored by men, written as though the women in them deserved their fates.
My novel, Gilded Mountain, makes use of a real-life troublemaker, newspaper editor Sylvia Smith, who, in the early 1900s, printed a paper in the small mountain town of Marble, Colorado. She was an advocate of labor unions and women’s suffrage in an age when women could not vote, and she had not one kind word to say about Big Business. She excoriated the marble-stone company that dominated the town, saying it was nothing but a stock-selling scheme to dupe investors. For her daring articles, she was arrested, jailed, and thrown out of town, her press destroyed—a perfect example of how the women’s side of the story is often erased.
An abundant new crop of literary historical novels also feature heroines who are no shrinking violets, taking chances as they flout authority and accepted norms, transgressions for which they are branded as troublemakers. These eleven novels challenge notions of how women lived in the past. Their authors have given us voices we have not heard before. These stories are riveting, and without a doubt, important.
Vera by Carol Edgarian
The Great San Francisco Fire of 1906 is the dramatic catalyst for this vivid novel pulsing with action. As a child, Vera is sent by her powerful mother, Madame Rose, to live with foster parents. Madame Rose runs a brothel, and wants a different life for her daughter. When the catastrophic fire destroys most of the city, both women show their crafty resourcefulness and strength. Teenage Vera comes to understand that, in her scheming and hunger to live, she is more like her mother than she knew; but unlike her mother in her capacity to love and care for others. Edgarian shows San Francisco in all its teeming, seamy, broken glory. Vera mourns her losses and carries on, and the city staggers after the disaster, beginning to heal. Opportunists move in, corrupt city officials among them. Beautifully written, with real-life historical characters—opera star Enrico Caruso for one—threaded through the story, Vera is a novel of resurrection and yearning, as a young woman searches for her mother and for family among her “fellow scrappers.”
The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline
Christina Baker Kline’s The Exiles is a captivating novel set during the violent colonization of Australia in the 19th century, featuring a trio of courageous women as resilient witnesses to its catastrophic cruelty. Evangeline is a naïve London governess, falsely accused of theft by her employer (who has sordid motivations for doing so). When she is sentenced to 14 years in a penal colony and sent to Tasmania on a fetid convict transport, she is thrown together with Hazel, a midwife who has also been exiled for theft. They arrive in Van Dieman’s land, territory stolen from Aboriginal people. Many of these Aboriginal people have been relocated by force, including young Mathinna, an orphan adopted by the governor of the penal colony. Each of these exiled women find their own way to thwart imperious authorities, and in the kindness they show each other, they find a way to survive and persevere. The story wears Kline’s fascinating research lightly, and the prose is rich with precise and beautiful imagery (including, for example, “sleek as a wombat in a formfitting tuxedo,” and “yellow as a yolk in a cast-iron sky”). This ambitious, powerful story is wide-ranging in its curiosity and compassion. The Exiles is both heartbreaking and uplifting.
Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge
As a child in pre-civil war Brooklyn, the watchful Libertie observes her mother, a doctor, minister to the sick. She believes her mother’s power to be so strong that she has raised a man from the dead. The man in question was shipped north to escape slavery, and Libertie witnesses his release from the casket he’d hidden in to escape. Themes of freedom and healing—of community and family—infuse this novel, as Libertie engineers her own form of escape. Her mother’s character is based on an actual doctor, Susan Smith McKinney Steward, the first Black female doctor in New York State. Libertie follows in her mother’s footsteps, until circumstances—and love—send her to Haiti. Her life and times are rendered in lush prose, and I read Libertie with a consuming admiration for Greenidge’s sentences (“She answers with a crack of her knuckles”) and turns of phrase (“that jostling year”). This novel revives lost history with great detail, emotion, and soaring imagination.
The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donaghue
Though The Pull of the Stars is set in 1918 London during the flu pandemic, it is not strictly a “pandemic” novel, but rather a story of women’s agency and compassion. Set in a hospital, 29-year-old midwife Julia Power must cope with the short-staffed ward where pregnant flu patients are sent to prevent them from infecting others. She works alongside Bridie Sweeney, a nurse raised in an orphanage, and the brilliant Dr. Kathleen Lynn, who is wanted by the police on the suspicion of taking part in Ireland’s Sinn Fein uprising. Worked to the bone, these women, risk infection and do their heroic best to deliver infants even as the mothers sicken. Donaghue’s tender and graphic descriptions of these laboring mothers—one who must deliver her 12th child, another who was herself abandoned at birth, a third so extremely young and uninformed that she expects a baby to be born from her navel—are tender and vivid. The pages turn quickly as the story follows these tired and tireless women on their rounds, and through their love affairs and lives outside the hospital, where the Great War rages on. Written before the COVID-19 pandemic, parallels to our own plague years abound, with some characters pinning their hopes on fake cures peddled by quacks. The Pull of the Stars immerses us in a long-ago time and place, rendered with beautiful specificity.
Mary Coin by Marisa Silver
This gorgeous novel takes inspiration from “Migrant Mother,” a famous Depression-era photograph by Dorothea Lange. Marisa Silver weaves a luminous portrait of that era, filtered through the perspective of our own as the story cuts back and forth between the past and the present. Three main characters drive the narrative. The first is Vera Dare, a photographer loosely drawn from details of Dorothea Lange’s life. The second, and most sympathetic, is Mary Coin, the eventual subject of a famous Vera Dare portrait. Of Cherokee descent, Mary Coin is the destitute mother of seven children who endures the Dust Bowl years. When Vera photographs Mary in a migrant workers camp, the resulting picture changes both of their lives. In the present day, a professor, Walker Dodge, digs into history’s dusty corners and reveals secrets about the famous picture’s subject and photographer. Written in beautiful sentences, the novel maps a landscape of hardship and dreams. Mary Coin gives the migrant mother—and “Migrant Mother”—not just a human face, but a body, mind, and soul.
Fever by Mary Beth Keane
Mary Beth Keane gives a human face and a nuanced life to the woman history branded as “Typhoid Mary.” Fever tells the story of Mary Mallon, a cook in early 1900s New York, an Irish immigrant striving to make a good life with a fellow immigrant, her troubled paramour. When fever becomes epidemic in the city, Mary shows no symptoms, but people in the households she cooks for get sick, and some even die. Dr. George Soper, of the city’s health department, tracks the source of the fever epidemic to Mary and her cooking, and develops the theory of the “asymptomatic carrier” of disease. In 1907, Mary is quarantined for three years on North Brother Island in the East River. Angry and unrepentant, Mary defies orders not to go back to work as a cook upon her release. Because people around her have sickened and died, Dr. Soper soon finds her cooking again in a hospital kitchen. This time, Mary is sentenced to quarantine for the rest of her life. She’s a headstrong character, and her willful ignorance of the harm she causes, and what little remorse she shows, is sympathetically rendered by Mary Beth Keane in a medical detective story that is clear-eyed about the consequences of disregarding science. Ever-asymptomatic, Mary is tested relentlessly and blames her plight on prejudice against Irish immigrants. Her fierce resistance makes her a spirited protagonist. The novel paints a vibrant portrait of New York in a difficult time, and echoes eerily in our present, when a fever of another kind has swept the world, and many—like Mary Mallon—have refused the efforts of health officials to control it, with disastrous effects.
What is Visible by Kimberly Elkins
Laura Bridgman was celebrated in the 1800s because she was the first deaf-blind person to acquire the use of language, fifty years before Helen Keller. But it was her wit and ferocity that marked her as extraordinary. She stunned large audiences with displays of her knowledge and abilities: sewing, housekeeping, and writing letters and poems. Her fame and accomplishments were credited to the teaching of the brilliant Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, founder of the Perkins Institute in Boston, where Laura—blind and deaf from scarlet fever since the age of two—was taken at age seven. The novel weaves together Bridgman’s story with that of Howe and his wife, the poet, suffragist, and abolitionist Julia Ward Howe. Laura is mischievous and sometimes violently temperamental. Dr. Howe dictates what she may eat and read, and when she is disobedient, he punishes her by gloving her hands, thereby depriving her of her only method of communication. And yet, she musters a profound courage and makes a life at Perkins. Elkins gives full throat to Laura’s strong voice. What Is Visible illuminates the historical willful ignorance of men, and women’s struggles to be seen and heard. Laura Bridgman’s important story has been hiding in plain sight for more than 100 years, and Kimberly Elkins resurrects her to the narrative of American history in all her remarkable, fully human complexity.
The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honorée Fannone Jeffers
In this monumental work, Ailey Pearl Garfield is a sharp-eyed, insatiably curious, brilliant, and hot-blooded young woman determined to understand everything about her warm, complicated family. Honorée Fannone Jeffers crafts a sweeping tale about the long roots of love, resilience, sorrow, and defiance that trace back through generations. Ailey begins exploring stories about her ancestors in the fictional town of Chicasetta, Georgia, and the novel moves back and forth from a 1733 village of Creek people, to “the city” in the present-day North. As she grows up, she learns from—and about—her elders, falls in and out of love, and recounts the struggles and triumphs of parents and grandparents, siblings, aunts, and uncles. Jeffers, a poet, writes gorgeous prose that is by turns funny and searing, poignant and pointed. Storylines provoke heartbreak and outrage. “Her heart drained,” Jeffers writes, of jealousy. And readers’ hearts, too, may drain reading the fates of Ailey’s forebears and contemporaries, before they’re replenished with laughter at the family’s antics, and the wisecracks of people who use humor as a survival tool. This novel doesn’t just fill in holes of American history; it adds and restores many missing chapters, which Jeffers has created out of research and the whole cloth of imagination. The story compels and informs through this long and absorbing tale. Love Songs was voted one of the ten best books of 2021, by The Washington Post and The New York Times, and was a National Book Award Nominee.
The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish
In 1660s Amsterdam, Ester Velasquez, a brilliant young Portuguese Jewish emigrant who has fled anti-Semitic violence, becomes a scribe for a blind rabbi, at a time when many women were kept illiterate. Ester’s work prompts her to ask dangerous and heretical questions about the nature of God, humanity, and the universe. Her story is woven into another from contemporary London, one in which a secret stash of Jewish theological papers written in Portuguese and Hebrew is discovered sealed in a wall. Historian Helen Watt sets out to discover the identity of the scholar who wrote these astonishing documents, racing another academic in the hunt for the truth. Kadish tells the stories of these women in fascinating detail, creating a novel that enriches history and renders visible what has been purposely obliterated: the courage and rebellion of women in the 17th century.
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
A fingersmith is a petty thief. Orphan Sue Trinder has grown up in a makeshift family of light-fingered crooks. When a con man proposes that Sue help him seduce a wealthy heiress and abscond with her fortune, Sue eagerly leaves the den of thieves that is her home, becoming a lady’s maid to the wealthy heiress Maud Lilly. But Sue and Maud find a deep attraction, one that confounds the best-laid, double-crossing plans. This Dickensian tale is a rip-roaring romance with head-spinning plot twists and intrigue. The dialogue crackles and the pages turn fast; vibrant characters and villains abound, and the prose is erotically charged with lines like, “An eye of marble would have swiveled in its socket to gaze as I did.” The removal of a glove, a glance, and a description of a mouth as being like, “an itch, a splinter,” all serve as teasing markers leading the reader to a thrilling conclusion.
Euphoria by Lily King
Nell is a brilliant anthropologist, her mind afire with ideas about human nature, and her life unshackled from the fetters of proper English society. She and her husband Fen are at work studying communities in the jungles along a river in New Guinea when they encounter fellow anthropologist Andrew Bankson. Bankson is smitten with Nell, and trouble soon arrives in the form of professional competitiveness and romantic jealousy. Still, though, the trio continue their research with a passion that King describes in gorgeous detail. Never heavy-handed, the prose is lush and gorgeous, the plot pulsing with forward momentum. The novel is drawn from true stories and the lives of anthropologists Margaret Mead, her husband Reo Fortune, and Gregory Bateson, whom Mead later married. Euphoria borrows from and reimagines their lives in a profound story of creative, intellectual, and romantic ferment.