Feature Image Credit: @cappyreads
Historical fiction takes many forms but the guiding focus is a story based on historical events or set in the past, usually 50-plus years or more. I am always fascinated by stories about actual people so I am partial to stories that teach me about actual individuals. I find that historical fiction tales provide a great reading experience to learn about people in the past because it is often easier to connect with the characters. Here are ten novels that highlight historical women that left their mark on the world.
By Her Own Design by Piper Huguley
Based on the true story of one of the 20th century’s forgotten clothing designers, By Her Own Design tells the story of Ann Lowe, the Black woman who designed Jacqueline Kennedy’s bridal gown. In 1918 Tampa, 12-year-old Ann meets an older man who sweeps her off her feet and marries her. When things quickly turn rocky, Ann realizes that her dream of designing dresses may be gone forever. But Ann is saved when a prominent socialite sees Ann’s work and offers her a job designing clothes for the wealthy Tampa crowd. In 1953, Ann is dealing with the damage to her shop which ruins the dresses she so carefully designed and created for the Kennedy wedding. With only two weeks left until the wedding, she and her seamstresses must work to have the dresses ready to go in order to show the world Ann’s immense talent.
The Chanel Sisters by Judithe Little
This book chronicles the lives of Antoinette and Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel from their early years at the convent orphanage in Aubazine. Their time at the orphanage left a lasting impression on both girls and forged a determination in Coco to create a better life for herself and to seek entrée into the upper-crust society who refused to accept her. From the days of their hat shop on rue Cambon in Paris to the years after the war, Little tells the women’s stories through the eyes of Antoinette, detailing their friendships, romances and success in the fashion business. In her Author’s Note, Little includes fascinating tidbits about Coco Chanel’s inspiration for her CC symbol, which recreated the interlocking loops in Aubazine’s stained glass and for her jewelry which copied the patterns found on the orphanage’s stone floors. Readers will be captivated by this page-turner.
The Dragon Lady by Louisa Treger
The Dragon Lady tells the story of Virginia “Ginie” Courtauld, her husband Stephen, and their time in Rhodesia before the colony succeeded with its independence quest and became Zimbabwe. Ginie was an independent, free-thinking woman who opted to push for the necessary social changes she knew should happen, even when those views made her incredibly unpopular with her peers. Particularly fascinating are the portions of the story about Rhodesia’s quest for independence including an actual meeting the Courtaulds had with Robert Mugabe prior to his ascent to power.
Dorothea Lange’s photographs from the Great Depression—and from the Japanese American internment camps to a lesser extent—are iconic and part of the fabric of our culture, but the story of her life is less well known. Hooper’s novel tells Lange’s tale including the sacrifices she made to bring about social change for the less fortunate. Learning to See is a fabulous tale from start to finish, and the inclusion of some of Lange’s photographs at the end of the novel is an added bonus.
The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict
The Only Woman in the Room chronicles the long and accomplished life of Hedy Lamarr (born Hedwig Keisler), the Hollywood screen star from the 1940s-50s. Escaping her Nazi-affiliated husband in the dead of night, she arrives in Hollywood where she launches the acting career for which she is well known. Unable to forget the horrors she witnessed in Austria, she recruits a partner (George Antheil), and they quietly begin work on an invention that she hopes will help the United States win the war against Germany. While the U.S. Navy did not adopt their invention until the 1960s, their work eventually led to the creation of Bluetooth and ultimately WiFi and the cell phone. She and Antheil were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.
The Collector’s Daughter by Gill Paul
Inspired by actual events, The Collector’s Daughter follows Lady Evelyn Herbert, daughter of the Earl of Carnarvon, the only female present at the opening of Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 and the first person to enter the tomb in over 3,000 years. Fifty years later, an Egyptian academic shows up with an agenda of her own to interview Lady Herbert about what really happened when the tomb was discovered. Paul wraps in a mysterious curse surrounding King Tut’s tomb and the issue of who should own the artifacts that are discovered while vividly recreating 1920’s Egypt and placing the story in its historical context.
The Paris Bookseller by Kerri Maher
Paris’ Shakespeare and Company remains one of the most famous and recognizable bookstores in the world today. In its early years, the store was a second home to authors such as Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce, and when Joyce’s book Ulysses is banned in the 1920s, store owner Sylvia Beach agrees to publish it under the Shakespeare and Company name. The Paris Bookseller brings to life this influential woman and her struggles to honor her love of literature following her decision to publish Ulysses and the financial crises that the Great Depression brings.
The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray
Belle de Costa Greene worked as J.P. Morgan’s personal librarian and curator of his private library housed in a townhouse off of East 36th Street before the collection became the Morgan Library and Museum. While she became an influential individual in the art world and one of the country’s most prominent librarians, she hid a big secret: she was a Black woman “passing” as a white woman, and moreover was the daughter of the first Black graduate of Harvard. The Personal Librarian chronicles Belle’s life and legacy, and what it was like to be torn between success and the desire to be herself.
Sister Mother Warrior by Vanessa Riley
Abdaraya Toya (“Gran”) is a member of the “Dahomeyan Amazons”, a term coined by the Europeans, and was sold into slavery and sent to Saint Domingue, a French colony. Within the slave community there, she becomes both a healer and mother to the many children without their own mothers, including to the revolutionary Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Marie-Claire Bonheur is a free woman living in Saint Domingue who was raised to help those suffering under the injustices of slavery. When she and Jean-Jacques meet, sparks fly and even though Marie Claire is married, she and Jean-Jacque fall in love and have children. When the war finally breaks out pitting the various groups against each other, both Marie Claire and Gran Toya take part in the revolution that brings freedom to the Haitian people.
Turnbull tells the story of Thelma Morgan, the American woman who was involved with Prince Edward before he took up with Wallis Simpson and made history by abdicating his throne for her. In addition to chronicling Thelma’s dalliance with the Prince of Wales, the book details her close relationship with her twin sister, Gloria Morgan, spouse of Reggie Vanderbilt. Gloria and Reggie were married for only two years when he died; they had one child, the renowned fashion designer and socialite Gloria Vanderbilt. After Reggie’s death, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt was eventually sued for custody of her daughter Gloria by her sister-in-law, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Turnbull provides a fascinating glimpse into the glitzy but eventually heartbreaking lives of both Thelma and Gloria.
The Other Boelyn Girl by Philippa Gregory
King Henry The Eighth’s second wife Anne Boelyn is as famous for her fiery attitude as she is for her beheading. What many don’t know is that she had a sister, one who was meant to be Henry’s wife instead. The Other Boleyn Girl tells the dramatical account of Anne’s sister Mary.
We Came Here to Shine by Susie Schnall
Set at the iconic 1939 New York World’s Fair, Susie Orman Schnall’s We Came Here to Shine is historical fiction featuring two bold and ambitious women who navigate a world of possibility and find out what they’re truly made of during a glorious summer of spectacle and potential. One’s an aspiring journalist. The other’s an unlucky actress. This is a remarkable novel about the challenges women face and the courage they must summon in order to lead the lives they deserve.
Island Queen by Vanessa Riley
Born into slavery on the tiny Caribbean island of Montserrat, Doll bought her freedom—and that of her sister and her mother—from her Irish planter father and built a legacy of wealth and power as an entrepreneur, merchant, hotelier, and planter that extended from the marketplaces and sugar plantations of Dominica and Barbados to a glittering luxury hotel in Demerara on the South American continent. From the bustling port cities of the West Indies to the forbidding drawing rooms of London’s elite, Island Queen is a sweeping epic of an adventurer and a survivor who answered to no one but herself as she rose to power and autonomy against all odds, defying rigid eighteenth-century morality and the oppression of women as well as people of color. It is an unforgettable portrait of a true larger-than-life woman who made her mark on history.
The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper
Little Women are fictional girls known around the world. Most people know their creator Louisa May just as well as they know Jo, the girl based on Louisa. The unfavored sister Amy is based on Louisa’s real sister, May. This is the untold story of her youngest sister, and an artist in her own right.
The Mystery of Mrs. Christie by Marie Benedict
Agatha Christie went missing, and no one could find her. Investigators and her husband were stumped. All of a sudden, she reappeared, just as mysteriously as her disappearance. Her only answer to they mystery was that she suffered from amnesia.
I Shall Be Near to You by Erin Lindsay McCabe
When Rosetta’s husband Jeremiah enlists, she’s devastated. She’s worked her whole life as the son her father never had, but is told her place is inside the house with the other women. But Rosetta decides her place is with Jeremiah. Determined not to let him be alone, she cuts off her hair, hems his old pants, and signs up for life as a Union soldier.
American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson
It’s 1986, the heart of the Cold War, and Marie Mitchell is an intelligence officer with the FBI. She’s brilliant, but she’s also a young Black woman working in an old boys’ club. So when she’s given the opportunity to join a shadowy task force aimed at undermining Thomas Sankara, the charismatic revolutionary president of Burkina Faso whose Communist ideology has made him a target for American intervention, she says yes. Yes, even though she secretly admires the work Sankara is doing for his country. In the year that follows, Marie will observe Sankara, seduce him, and ultimately have a hand in the coup that will bring him down. But doing so will change everything she believes about what it means to be a spy, a lover, a sister, and a good American. Inspired by true events—Thomas Sankara is known as “Africa’s Che Guevara”—American Spy knits together a gripping spy thriller, a heartbreaking family drama, and a passionate romance.
The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen
Mary Bowser is a little known, but truly inspirational American Heroine; a freed African American slave who returned to Virginia at the onset of the Civil War to spy on the Confederates. Author Lois Leveen combines fascinating facts and ingenious speculation to craft a historical novel that will enthrall readers of women’s fiction, historical fiction, and acclaimed works like Cane River and Cold Mountain that offer intimate looks at the twin nightmares of slavery and Civil War.
Mademoiselle Chanel by C.W. Gortner
Coco Chanel is an iconic leader of the fashion world. But beyond little black dresses and signature scents lies an ambitious, gifted laundry woman’s daughter. She too endured drama, passion, tragedy and beauty. Her upbringing drove the madmoiselle to revolutionize the fashion industry as we know it today.
The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah
It’s Texas, 1934 and Elsa Martinelli had finally begun her dream life. She had a family, a home and a livelihood on a farm on the Great Plains. But when drought threatens everything, Elsa’s life is scattered to the winds. This rich, sweeping novel stunningly brings to life the Great Depression and the people who lived through it–the harsh realities that divided us as a nation and the enduring battle between the haves and the have-nots. A testament to hope, resilience, and the strength of the human spirit to survive adversity, The Four Winds is an indelible portrait of America and the American dream, as seen through the eyes of one indomitable woman whose courage and sacrifice will come to define a generation.
In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez
In 1960, the beautiful bodies of three educated sisters were found at the bottom of a cliff in the Dominican Republic. Everyone knows of the Las Mariposas sisters: the leading opponents of Trujillo’s dictatorship. Although their death was reported as an accident, everyone knows that’s not the case.
The Subway Girls by Susie Orman Schnall
Charlotte had always dreamed of a career in advertising. But when she’s whisked away to help in the family business, that dream is shattered. What she doesn’t know is she’ll be swept into something even more glamorous than advertising. But when her new friend makes an unforgivable choice, Charlotte must make a life-changing one as well.
The Great Mrs. Elias by Barbara Chase-Riboud
Born into a rough world in the late 1800s, Hannah Elias had to do whatever it took to survive. But when she moved to New York, she created a new identity for herself and buried her dark past far behind her. She became a rich robber baron in New York, then invested wisely in the stock market, amassing a fortune. When murder and a mistaken identity brings an investigation to her doorstep, the life that Hannah built suddenly beings to unravel. And when the truth of her identity comes out, she finds herself at the center of a public scandal and accused of having stolen her money from whites.