books, Cleopatra, early modern England, Elizabeth I, Empress Theodora, history, medieval studies, Nefertari, Nefertiti, reading recommendations, Renaissance studies, Roman history, women in history, women's history month
Fuse Literary (the agency that represents me) ran a reclist on Tumblr for Black History Month all through the month of February, and they’re looking to do so again in March for Women’s History Month. Since this is an area of personal interest and importance to me, I took up the challenge when they asked for some recs — and I thought I’d share them with y’all, too.
Admittedly my list cants towards medieval and Renaissance studies in England and western Europe, since that was the main focus of both my undergraduate and graduate studies, with a hefty dose of the classics thrown in for good measure. I’m hoping that the recs I see this month will help me build a diverse to-read list! I need to expand my horizons past the bounds of what I focused on in school. And yes, not all of the historical fiction is perfect from the view of historiography (neither, for that matter, are some of the older nonfiction titles) — but that’s okay. Historical fiction doesn’t have to be 100% accurate to serve the purposes of getting readers interested in the topic and of raising the visibility of women in history. My rec doesn’t mean that the book is 100% flawless — it means I enjoyed it, I think others would, and I think it helps the cause of women’s history month.
- Kate Quinn’s Roman series: Mistress of Rome, Daughters of Rome, Empress of the Seven Hills, and Lady of the Eternal City, releasing this week. A fascinating era of Imperial Rome in which the women behind the fasces played a hugely significant role. I’ve really enjoyed these books — they were a major influence a few years ago when I was deciding to write Aven — particularly because there are so many different women in them. No woman has to be Everything. They can be difficult, stubborn, manipulative, unlikeable. They can — and do — make mistakes. And, they’re part of a vibrant world, one in which women played a huge role, both in public and in private.
- Karen Cushman’s Catherine, Called Birdy, a YA novel (maybe considered MG now? I have trouble with that boundary since as a kid I read whatever I wanted whenever I wanted) depicting 13th century England through the eyes of a knight’s daughter. One of my all-time favorite books. Catherine’s voice is so wonderful, and it’s a great thing when a historical book makes a nine-year-old reader see herself in it.
- Michelle Moran’s Nefertiti and The Heretic Queen, about her niece Nefertari. I really enjoy these for how they speak to the interplay of political power and religion in ancient Egypt, and to the role that women played in the establishment of the pharaoh’s power and legacy.
- Stephanie Dray’s Cleopatra’s Daughter series, about Cleopatra Selene, the only child of Cleopatra to actually survive to full adulthood and make a life for herself. Michelle Moran also has a book on her. They’re quite different — Dray’s takes a slight historical fantasy angle, endowing Selene with the powers of Isis — but they’re both pretty revelatory for an interesting but often-overlooked figure in early imperial Rome.
- Gillian Bagwell’s The Darling Strumpet, a novel about Restoration actress Nell Gwynn, mistress to Charles II. This book doesn’t shy away from the ugly things about the era, but it still represents Nell as a buoyant character, in spite of all the difficulties she faces.
- Alice Hoffman’s The Dovekeepers: the siege and fall of Masada through the eyes of four Jewish women. The narrative tone of this book is pretty different from a lot of historical fiction, but it’s an engrossing read.
- Stephanie Thornton’s The Secret History, a novel of Byzantine Empress Theodora, one of the greatest true rags-to-riches stories you’ll find. I wish it spent a bit more time on her later life, but it’s still great for opening the door to one of history’s all-time most-fascinating women.
- Jean Plaidy. Just. All of it. She wrote a ton of books from the perspectives of notable women, mostly medieval and Renaissance, mostly but not entirely English and French. She makes them all the heroines of their own stories — even when they’re the villains in each others’. They’re older books, so the historiography approach isn’t, y’know, fully modern, but I still love these books for making the women of famous eras so visible.
- Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life, a fantastic biography reclaiming the woman from the exoticized legend. Schiff has to spend a lot of time defining in the negative, telling us who Cleopatra was by telling us what her enemies said about her that wasn’t true, but it remains a tremendous work of research and reclamation.
- Susan Griffin’s The Book of the Courtesans, an account of European courtesans, mostly from the Italian Renaissance through the Belle Epoque.
- Guida Jackson’s Women Who Ruled: A Biographical Encyclopedia, a culturally diverse look at 360 women who held the reins of power all over the world. A great jumping-off place for further research.
- Alison Weir’s The Life of Elizabeth I, a very readable biography notable for being one of the first and still among the the few on QE1 actually written by a woman.
- And as a rebuttal, Julia Walker’s Dissing Elizabeth: Negative Representations of Gloriana, for anyone wanting a bit more of the dirt behind the glitz of early modern england. I like this for its balance. QE1 was an amazing woman, tremendously intelligent, capable and clever and such a survivor — and she was also ruthless, manipulative, arrogant, and self-centered. Admiring her for her brilliance doesn’t mean you have to overlook her faults.
- Susan Frye’s Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women’s Alliances in Early Modern England. A collection of essays examining how women related to each other, personally and politically, in the 15th and 16th centuries.
- Susan Cerasano’s Gloriana’s Face: Women, Public and Private, in the English Renaissance. Similar to the Frye.
- Anne Somerset’s Ladies in Waiting: From the Tudors to the Present Day, a look at women of the English royal court over several centuries.
So — What are some of your favorite books about women in history, fiction or nonfiction? I only have about eight books sitting on my to-read shelf at the moment, so clearly I need some more. 😉