Five years ago, I put together a rec list for Women’s History Month. I’ve read a lot of books since then! So I thought I’d expand the list with some newer titles (or new-to-me titles) featuring amazing women from history.
As in 2015, inclusion on this list doesn’t mean the book is perfect or 100% historically accurate. It just means I enjoyed the read, and I think other folk might, too! For the purposes of this list, I’m focusing just on books with real historical figures as characters. I’ve read a ton of other books featuring invented female characters inside real historical context, though, and I might make another list with those, because so many of them are just so good.
- The First Actress, by C. W. Gortner: I would subtitle this book “The Rise of Sarah Bernhardt”, as it mostly follows the early life of the Divine Sarah. It’s a rich exploration of the formation of one of the modern world’s first celebrities. Much attention is paid to her family and their echoing influence on her life. I don’t know enough about Bernhardt to know how much of that is historically verified and how much was authorial invention, but I could certainly believe it all within the context of fiction, and it makes for a compelling character study.
- The Borgia Confessions, by Alyssa Palombo: A dark spiral into one of the Renaissance’s most fascinating and infamous families. While the main female character is Palombo’s invention, we see enough of women like Lucrezia and Vanozza that I feel solid including it on this list. Palombo also faithfully re-creates the world of Renaissance Rome in all its spectacle and decadence.
- The Magnolia Sword, by Sherry Thomas: I’m including this one even though Mulan is more of a legend than a historical figure, because this retelling is so rooted in the history of 5th-century China. This YA novel centers not only Mulan, but other women she encounters on her journey, plus it has some really spectacular fight scenes, all rendered in Thomas’s typically wonderful writing.
- Ribbons of Scarlet, by Kate Quinn, Sophie Perinot, Laura Kamoie, Stephanie Dray, E. Knight, and Heather Webb: This ambitious multi-authored project tracks six women across the French Revolution’s various phases, showcasing a variety of political opinions and socioeconomic realities. I really appreciated how the authors gave each heroine her own voice. Sophie de Grouchy and Charlotte Corday’s sections were probably my favorites, but each section of the book invests you in its characters and their trials navigating a period of upheaval and danger.
- Glass Town Game, by Catherynne Valente: This book really is a fantasy, but I’m including it on this list anyway, because the heroines are the Brontë sisters as children! Who get transplanted, along with their brother, into a strange world derived from their games and imaginings. Somewhere between Wonderland, Narnia, and Fairyland, you’ll find Glass Town. This is a middle-grade novel, but I can highly recommend this flight of fancy for readers of all ages.
- The Mercies, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave: A deep dive into a witch trial I had no idea existed, in 1620s Norway. This book is bleak and moody but absolutely enthralling, exploring the poisoned psyche and power dynamics in an isolated Arctic town. (FWIW, I’ve seen it positioned as a fantasy novel in a few places, but I would definitely place it firmly on the historical side of the fence. The narrative never really suggests that the folk magic some of the women get attacked for has actual magical force in the way you’d expect from a fantasy novel).
- Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood: I read this after watching the miniseries, and only then realized that it was based on real historical events. Grace Marks, aged 16, was arrested in 1843 for the murder of her employer and his housekeeper/mistress. The trial was sensationalized, and it was never quite clear how culpable Grace was — but it makes for a gripping read, and the book unfolds in a way that unsettles the reader’s brain.
- Women & Power: A Manifesto, by Mary Beard: Look, Mary Beard is just awesome. This tract is a trumpet calling out the deeply ingrained misogyny of our world, in history and in the modern day. I’d love to read a deeper dive from her on the same topic.
- Domina: The Women Who Made Imperial Rome, by Guy de la Bédoyère: I had some issues with this book taking Tacitus a little much at face value, but overall, it’s a solid exploration of the women of the Julio-Claudian dynasty — who are the only reason, Bédoyère frequently reminds us, that the dynasty existed at all. Particularly great is the examination of Roman feminine virtues and the way in which transgression could lead to both power and punishment.
- Jane Austen: A Life, by Claire Tomalin: I don’t read a lot of biographies, but I enjoyed this one. It goes into incredible detail about Jane Austen’s life and the world she was living in, lending color and context to her books. I only had a sketchy outline of her bio prior to reading this book, and mostly her early life at that (which, okay, I mostly got from watching Becoming Jane); this filled in a lot of those gaps.
And here are a few historical books on my TBR!
- Bakhita, by Véronique Olmi
- Queens of the Conquest, by Alison Weir
- Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore, by Emma Southon
- The Hidden Lives of Tudor Women: A Social History, by Elizabeth Norton
- My Dear Hamilton: A Novel of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie
- Alison Weir’s Tudor Queens series