Incredible Women in Historical Fiction

As Alex Myers wrote his book Revolutionary, the story of a woman who disguised herself as a man to fight for the Continental army during the Revolutionary war, he found himself wondering what women his character would have met. That led him to creating the list of 10 Absolutely Incredible Women in Historical Fiction he posted this week.

Since Liddie Treadway, a young woman struggling to decide her own future, is the main character in my upcoming historical novel Go Away Home, I thought I’d weigh in on this topic, too. I think Liddie is pretty great, but readers will decide if she rises to occupy a place on any Top 10 list.

In the meantime, I’m sharing Myers’ list, adding incredible women from my own reading, and asking you to share the Incredible Women you’ve found in your historical fiction reading.

10 Absolutely Incredible Women in Historical Fiction

By Alex Myers

Too often, even in the twenty-first century, history’s all about the men. That’s just one reason why I love to read and write historical fiction: It provides the opportunity to explore or create or re-energize the roles of women across the ages. As I wrote Revolutionary, I kept wondering which women from history Deborah Sampson would have known. In 1782 Massachusetts, she probably read chapbooks that told the stories of Joan of Arc, or Mary Rowlandson (who survived being captured by Native Americans) or Hannah Snell (who disguised herself as a man and served in the British Navy). I have no doubt that these stories inspired Deborah to set off on her own adventures, disguising herself as a man, enlisting in the army, and fighting for a year and a half in the Revolutionary War.

How fortunate are we, then, to live in an era so abundant with texts that champion the role of women throughout history. Here are my 10 favorite works of historical fiction that feature women in the main roles. These women come from all sorts of time periods and class backgrounds, but every one of them has to fight and has to believe in herself, no matter what society tells her. Whatever the era, whatever the setting, these are the universal challenges that brave women face.

1. Orleanna Price in The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

2. Sethe in Beloved by Toni Morrison

3. Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

4. Anna Frith in Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

5. Orlando in Orlando by Virginia Woolf

6. Villanelle in The Passion by Jeanette Winterson

7. Mary Sutter in My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira

8. Joan in Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross

9. Lizzie, Reenie, Sweet, and Mawu in Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

10. Dinah in The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

Myers shares his thoughts on why each of the women in these novels deserves to be on his Top 10 list. To read his entire post, click.

Several of the books Myers lists are also on my list – The Poisonwood Bible, Pope Joan, and The Red Tent. I also nominate the following women and books to a list of historical fiction’s great women.

One Thousand White WomenMary Dodd of One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus: Mary Dodd is one of a group of white women (and one black woman) who travel to the western United States to intermarry with the Cheyenne Indians as part of a controversial “Brides for Indians” program sponsored by the U.S. Government under President Ulysses S. Grant. The alternative for these women is incarceration in an insane asylum. Mary and the others show remarkable fortitude, resourcefulness, and adaptability through this fascinating story.

Snow Flower and the Secret FanSnow Flower and Lily in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See: Snow Flower and Lily are two women in nineteenth century China. Rigid rules of conduct governed women in that era, beginning with the excruciating practice of foot binding. Yet the women have their own secret language and formed life-long friendships outside the view of men. Lily and Snow Flower are laotong, bound for life, but that relationship is challenged when Lily learns that her friend is of a lower social class.

I know as soon as I post this, other incredible women of historical fiction will come to mind. But I bet this list gets your minds churning. Who would you add?

Comments

  1. I have had One Thousand White Women on my to-read list for an age, Carol. I will get round to it very soon. My favourite book as a child was Wuthering Heights – I read it eight times. I still love the moodiness of it and the characterisation. Cathy was a great character. Although I never read the book, Gone With The Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara could be included, too. You’re right, though, there are plenty more, from the Hunger Games and Twilight to the the novels of Emily Bronte, and more besides. Great post.

    • Carol Bodensteiner says:

      Thanks for joining the discussion, David. One Thousand White Women was our book club choice some time ago and it remains a favorite for many of us. Beyond the story, which was excellent, as an author I was intrigued but the idea that a one sentence footnote to history could be worked into such a fascinating book. I haven’t read the Hunger Games or Twilight series, but I do perceive today’s writers are adding stronger women to their stories.

  2. When I first saw the title of this blog entry, I thought “That’s easy.” But then I started thinking and I realized I knew many more incredible women in history than in historical fiction. Hm. That does tell us something. I also note that a lot of these “incredible women” are women in men’s roles. As a historian as well as novelist, I prefer women who are more representative of their age. I’d like to submit Joanna Plantagenet in Sharon Kay Penman’s “Here be Dragons,” and “Katherine” in Anya Seaton’s classic about Katherine Swynford.

    • Carol Bodensteiner says:

      You make a good point, Helena. Even Myers’ protagonist is a woman fighting the war as a man. Many discussions initiate from that observation – what causes women to stand out? what makes for a good story? One thing I like about discussions like this is finding titles to add to my reading list. I haven’t read Penman yet and she keeps popping up. I’ll move her up the list. Thanks for commenting.

  3. Scarlett O’Hara

  4. Elfrieda Schroeder says:

    I would add Catherine the Great in “The Winter Palace” and “Empress of the Night”. Both books are written by Eva Stachniak in quick succession (2012 and 2014) and emphasize different aspects of Catherine’s personality. The first book illustrates her political, philosophical side and the second book dwells on her more personal and erotic side. I missed that in the first book. The author must have missed it too, otherwise why would she write two books about the same character in quick succession. It was almost as if she was saying,”hey, I forgot about this.” The first book is written from her servant’s perspective the second from Catherine’s own perspective.

    • Carol Bodensteiner says:

      Certainly a “Great” woman fits on a list of “Incredible” women, Elfrieda. Thanks for bringing Catherine the Great to the discussion. Your question about why Stachniak wrote two books on the same character so quickly is intriguing. Have you done any research on that? Has she done interviews that suggest a reason? Or could you post the question to her or her publisher? If you pursue this and find out, please share!

      • Elfrieda Schroeder says:

        Stachniak says one book would never be enough to encompass her subject. Rather, she sees her two novels as bookends, or garden gates, to the numerous biographies of the ruler. “One is from the outside, one is from the inside.”

        • Carol Bodensteiner says:

          What an interesting way for Stachniak to think about her book in the context of other books. Thanks for elaborating, Elfrieda.

  5. Fascinating look at women in historical fiction, Carol! As you know, historical fiction is at the top of my genre list to read. In thinking back to what I’ve read lately, I would suggest adding Lucy Ann Lobdell in The Rebellion of Miss Lucy Ann Lobdell by William Klaber. Lucy Ann needed work and so dressed as a man to make a living, better herself and hopefully bring her child to live with her. A unique twist, which I don’t want to give away here connects to some current day activitism that makes Lucy Ann’s strength and courage even more evident.

    • Carol Bodensteiner says:

      This discussion of incredible women in historical fiction has raised up so many women and books I’m not familiar with, including “The Rebellion of Miss Lucy Ann Lobdell.” I’ll look her up. In another thread one person commented on how many of the women had to disguise themselves as men and make it as men. That alone says interesting things about women and how they’re perceived in society.

  6. The character in The Song of the Lark, Thea Kronborg, was modeled on the life of a real opera singer, combined with Willa Cather’s own childhood in Red Cloud, Neb. My guess is that most fiction has roots in both the author’s life and in historical characters of the same era as the setting. E. L. Doctorow influenced postmodern fiction in some creative ways to include “real” people like Emma Goldman in stories made up about the past.

    I’m also a real fan of Liddie Treadway. 🙂

    • Carol Bodensteiner says:

      I was just talking with another author about how much of fiction – even historical fiction – has roots in the author’s life. I heard Amy Tan speak recently and the stories Tan shared about her mother have all shown up in her novels. The addition of “real” people in historical fiction helps set the story at a place in time. One of my favorite books is The Poet of Tolstoy Park by Sonny Brewer. It would have been an interesting enough story on its own, but when Clarence Darrow entered the picture, I appreciated the story and the time in which it took place in a whole new way.

      Thanks for mentioning Liddie. Though she doesn’t meet President Wilson, the discussions she has with her father about him ground readers to the early 20th century.

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