12 Novels about Historical Women to Inspire a Better Future
From Leonora Carrington to Queen Victoria, Courtney Maum recommends fiction about powerful women
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The Spanish philosopher and poet George Santayana once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” As a genre, historical fiction allows us to shuttle back in time to stand in the shoes, clogs, chopines, and go-go boots of people—real and imagined—to consider the events that shaped their personal characters and the outside world.
Novelists come to historical fiction from multiple points of origin, and their research approaches differ widely. In some historical novels, the time period itself is the main event: the customs, dress, and social manners of that period are the book’s protagonists. For other authors, trying to understand what a certain person was feeling and experiencing during an upheaval is the project’s appeal: what was it like for the dancer Isadora Duncan to lose both of her children at the height of her career? How did the young Alexandrina Victoria steel herself to the surprising news that she was—suddenly, and despite serious pushback—the Queen of England?
Putting an obstacle in the path of your protagonist’s hopes and dreams is Creative Writing 101, and it’s a narrative practice that the patriarchy has been burdening women with since the dawn of time. As Trump’s regime continues to make handmaidens out of its female citizens, we’d all do well to revisit books in which women gain ground—only to lose it— so that we can more thoughtfully examine the rinse and repeat cycle we’re currently mired in. From blousy bestsellers to voice-driven literary fiction, there is a book for every tote bag on this reading list—particularly if the patriarchy’s not your bag.
Isadora by Amelia Grey
In 1913, a freakish car accident saw both of dancer Isadora Duncan’s young children drowned in the Seine on the nanny’s watch. In this symphonic novel, steely-nerved Amelia Grey takes us through two years of Isadora’s mourning when she is casting about pre-war Europe trying to heal her mind and heart while gossip over her eclectic lifestyle and belief system only grew. An unflinching portrait of a grieving woman whose talent is seen as both a boon and a curse.
In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez
In Julia Alvarez’s 2010 classic, she revisits the assassination of the Mirabal sisters (who were leading opponents of Gen. Rafael Leónidas Trujillo terroristic regime in the Dominican Republic) literally breathing new life into the three women who died for their political beliefs. The only surviving sister is also heard from in this piercing epic that spans three decades and shines light on the cost—and necessity—of intellectual bravery.
Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar
Although Virginia Wolf’s diaries are beloved, there are no surviving diaries of her sister Vanessa Bell, a painter also played host to the famous group of intellectuals known as The Bloomsbury Group who visited the Bell/Wolf house regularly in the early twentieth century. Priya Parmar used years of letters between Vanessa, Virginia, and the other Bloomsbury members to reimagine how the sisters’ relationship fractured when needy Virginia “lost” her devoted sister to a suitor’s love.
Pearl of China by Anchee Min
It is the end of the 19th century, and nine year-old Willow is bored out of her skull in rural Chinkiang. This novel—by the acclaimed author of The Last Empress (which reimagines the life of one of the most important figures in Chinese history, the Empress Tzu Hsi)—depicts a relationship between the fictional Willow and the real Pearl S. Buck, the Chinese-born eldest daughter of a zealous American missionary who would grow up to be a Nobel Prize-winning writer and humanitarian. When the Boxer Rebellion separates the two childhood friends, their friendship is the only steady element in a life of war and broken dreams.
Kopp Sisters on the March by Amy Stewart
Moxie, humor, and meticulous research always go into an Amy Stewart project, and this latest offering in the Kopp Sisters series—inspired by the life of Constance Kopp, one of America’s first female deputy sheriffs—will not disappoint. On the March revisits the military preparedness movement of 1916, in which women began taking part in military camps before the US had even entered the war. In true Stewart style, the novel also manages to tackle reproductive rights, female desire, and mother/daughter/sister bonds.
The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch
Ever-inventive Lidia Yuknavitch reimagines Joan of Arc as a dystopian child-warrior whose supernatural gift allows her to commune with the earth at the exact time that a ruthless cult leader is turning humanity’s safe-house of a platform, CIEL, into a police-state battleground. It’s as mind-bending as it sounds—no one is writing quite like Yuknavitch right now.
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2006 precursor to her 2013 Americanah takes place in 1960s Biafra, when the state is trying to separate from Nigeria, an act of willfulness that results in a civil war of merciless violence. This seminal period in Nigerian history is told through a triangle of love stories—both requited, unrequited, and platonic—and centers mainly on a professor’s mistress, who has left her privileged life in Lagos behind to join her lover in a dull university town.
Paris, 7 A.M. by Liza Weiland
It’s Spring Breakers, but for poets—in this luminous novel about a college-aged Elizabeth Bishop who has come to Paris with her Vassar roommates to escape the husband-hunting that society expects young women to be occupied with. Instead of husbands, the college friends find a Paris on the brink of fascist occupation, along with an entirely new sense of what it means to be a woman and a citizen in a world divided.
The Dictionary of Animal Languages by Heidi Sopinka
The legendary Leonora Carrington is reimagined as the reclusive, ninety year-old painter Ivory Frame, who is quietly at work at a dictionary of animal languages when she finds out that she has a granddaughter she didn’t know of—a turn of events as disorientating as surrealism itself, as Ivory never actually had a child…
The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold
In this cultural moment where male serial killers are getting their own television shows, The Five rightfully turns the spotlight onto the female victims. This meticulously-researched book about the women that Jack the Ripper slaughtered reads like a novel, which is why I gave myself a hall pass to include it in this list.
She Would Be King by Wayetu Moore
The early history of Liberia is reimagined here through the lives of three different characters with an unexpected bond in Wayetu’s powerful debut, inspired by her own childhood during the Liberian civil war. Endowed with superhuman strengths and abilities, one of the characters is an indigenous “Vai” Liberian whose immortality convinces community-members to believe she is a witch, and to treat her with disdain and mistrust. Vai legends, magical realism and historical facts sensuously intertwine in this astonishing debut.
The Red Daughter by John Burnham Schwartz
The book’s cover says that novelist Lauren Groff read this story of Stalin’s daughter defecting to America in the 1960s to escape her father’s brutal legacy in “a single great draught,” and you’ll gulp it down, too.
The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin
When you’ve got a long weekend ahead of you and a brain that needs some candy, treat yourself to Benjamin’s exuberant portrayal of socialite Babe Paley’s headline-making friendship with Truman Capote in the martini-fueled corridors of 1950s high-society New York.
The Book of Night Women by Marlon James
In his 2015 Man Booker-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James took us behind the scenes of the 1976 home attack on Bob Marley in Kingston, Jamaica. In his 2009 Book of Night Women, we return to Jamaica—but at the end of the 18th century—where a young slave named Lilith seems to be possessed of the dark powers that the older, female slaves decide to leverage for a revolt that they’ve been planning. As Lilith comes of age though, she has other plans, plans that could make her an enemy within her own sisterhood.
Women Talking by Miriam Toews
In Women Talking, Miriam Toews reckons as much with her own Orthodox Mennonite past as she is with the current struggle for women’s rights throughout the world. This astonishing novel reimagines the real efforts of eight of the hundred plus Mennonite women who were drugged and raped repeatedly by male members of their community over a period of years in the mid 2000s. Presented to us via the minutes of their hayloft meeting, the women grapple with whether or not to confront, escape or forgive their perpetrators, who are currently in prison awaiting their Mennonite supporters and relatives to get them out on bail.
Victoria by Daisy Goodwin
Daisy Goodwin first started reading Queen Victoria’s diaries when she was a student at Cambridge, and the struggles and secret joys of the young nineteenth-century monarch fascinated her. The result of this obsession is the bestselling Victoria that kicks off in 1837 when eighteen year-old Alexandrina Victoria became Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, unexpectedly. Goodwin writes deliciously about a young woman coming into her own powers, while learning to wield and relish all the power of the throne.
The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer
Model Lee Miller moves behind the camera in Whitney Scharer’s buzzy debut about a woman’s transition from “muse” to artist in her own right. Set in Bohemian Paris of the 1930s, this book proves that Lee Miller was much more than a pretty face. Refreshingly, it also gives its female heroine a mighty appetite for sex.
Leonora by Elena Poniatowska
Leonora Carrington is having a moment not just in this reading list, but in the larger world. The film rights to Elena Poniatowska’s fictionalized biopic just sold at Cannes, which will hopefully bring more readers to the French-born Mexican author’s award-winning work. As a fierce defender of human rights and womens’ issues (and the first woman ever to win Mexico’s National Journalism prize) it’s no wonder that Carrington’s incredible life story becomes a hymn to passion and liberty in Poniatowska’s hands.
The Movement of Stars by Amy Brill
It’s Nantucket as you’ve never seen it. Inspired by the work of Maria Mitchell, the first professional female astronomer in American history, this is the story of two intelligent dreamers, both beguiled by astronomy, whose stars aren’t meant to align.