These novels are listed in roughly chronological order of the historical period in which they are set, ranging from biblical times to the 1960s. Click on the title of those that interest you to read my review.
Lux by Elizabeth Cook takes us right back to New Testament with – among other themes – a feminist reimagining of the story of Bathsheba, supposed seductress of the psalm-writer, King David.
Records show that there was a woman aboard the Golden Hind for nine months in 1579, although nothing is known of her beyond her name. In On Wilder Seas, Nikki Marmery has taken these bare facts to build a fascinating account of Elizabethan exploration, colonisation and survival in harsh times.
In April 1815, a volcano eruption on an island in Indonesia caused a catastrophic drop in global temperature; in The Year without Summer, Guinevere Glasfurd reimagines this period from the perspective of six of those affected including Mary Shelley and Sarah Hobbs, a farm labourer.
Set in mid-19th-century Scotland, Ali Bacon’s In the Blink of an Eye is an absorbing fictionalised overview of a point in history where religion, art and science coincide, told from multiple viewpoints with several strong women from art critic Lady Eastlake to a Newhaven fishwife.
At a party in Berlin, a photographer captures Anna May Wong, Leni Riefenstahl and Marlene Dietrich in the same frame. In her beautifully accomplished debut, Delayed Rays of a Star, Amanda Lee Koe presents the personalities behind the performance, entwined with the politics of prejudice and the murky world beneath the cinema glitter.
I Never Promised You a Rose Garden is a semiautobiographical novel by Joanne Greenberg about psychiatry in 1950s America with a therapist closely based on the famous analyst Frieda Fromm-Reichmann who, along with others, promulgated the view that psychotic illness could be understood as an adaptation to adverse experience and is therefore amenable to therapy.
Bird Cottage by Eva Meijer, translated from the Dutch by Antoinette Fawcett, is a heart-warming – but unsentimental – novel about an inspiring woman: English eccentric, lay scientist, talented musician and ornithologist with the courage to live life on her own terms.
Historical happenings from a female perspective
These eight novels are grouped by theme: slavery, war and the fight for social justice.
Sally Magnusson’s debut novel, The Sealwoman’s Gift, provides a fascinating insight into a period when not only Iceland, but many other parts of Europe, were beset by slavery of and by both Muslims and Christians alike.
In The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins, we meet two women damaged by slavery: the eponymous house slave Frannie, tried for murder, and a wealthy white woman, Marguerite, who takes a peripheral interest in the emancipation movement, while her husband argues not for abolition, but reform.
On Africa’s Gold Coast in the mid eighteenth century, a woman gives birth to twin daughters. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi follows the fortunes of these two girls and their families across the next six generations addressing religion, slavery, and the use and abuse of power.
In another story of twins, this time set in mid-20th-century Europe, Mischling by Affinity Konar is a harrowing but ultimately uplifting account of Mengele’s perverted doctoring in Auschwitz.
Published in time for the bicentenary of the Peterloo massacre last year, The Song of Peterloo by Carolyn O’Brien is both an engaging story of family, sacrifice and courage, and a homage to a neglected part of British working-class history.
A River in the Trees by Jacqueline O’Mahony is about a young woman caught up in the Irish War of Independence. There’s also the contemporary thread about a woman at a crossroads in her life toying with returning to her roots.
Lissa Evans’ Old Baggage is a moving tribute to the campaign for women’s suffrage with a credible portrait of a heroic woman whose loyalty to the wrong person ends up hurting herself and those who love her best.
Women’s history in my own writing
I haven’t yet dared fictionalise a historical figure from any gender, although I have been wondering about Florence Nightingale and Charlotte Brontë. However I did address the recent history of gender identity in my debut novel, Sugar and Snails, about a woman who has kept her past identity secret for thirty years.
My third novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, scheduled for publication in May next year, about a brother and sister separated for fifty years against the backdrop of the longstay psychiatric hospital closures, has strands set in the 1930s and early 1990s. You’ll be in with the chance of winning one of three signed copies (and get a free short-story e-book immediately) if you sign up to my newsletter here:
I’m sure I’ve read several more good novels on women’s history; no doubt you have too! So don’t be shy, leave your recommendations in the comments below.
By sheer serendipity, this week’s flash fiction challenge is to write a 99-word story about a historical woman by the name of Clarice. I’ve chosen Claris Orsini, a character I know nothing about beyond what I’ve just read on Wikipedia. Prepare to be enlightened (or not)!
I took 6000 florins into my marriage, and almost as many staff. But when my confessor sneered at Florentine heathens, I banished him to Rome. I hadn’t wed to be controlled.
I lured Lorenzo nightly to my chamber, not for love or lust or desire to produce an heir. Because if he strayed he’d get the pox and pass it on to me.
I wanted to live forever, or past thirty years which is near enough the same. Despite birthings, plague and politicking Pazzis, I would surely thrive. Petitioned by both Medici and Orsini, I revelled in my power.