Though the genre may suggest narratives covered in a fine layer of dust, rooted as they are in ancient artifacts like crinkled letters and age-dark paintings, historical fiction is actually pretty sensational, often brought to life by quirky casts of characters that are painstakingly researched. And the best kind of historical fiction typically revolves around a Bad Girl who immediately catches my interest, and keeps me turning pages far into the night. Below, 6 historical novels that feature a veritable attic full of rule-breaking, trailblazing, and nearly always scandalous women:
Savage Girl, by Jean Zimmerman
Meet bewitching Bronwyn, plucked from the wilds of Nevada in 1875, adopted by a fabulously rich New York couple, and thrust into high society at the height of the Gilded Age. She’s irresistible to suitors, but they keep on ending up murdered! It’s a tantalizing mystery, and the narrative is constructed as a confession from one of her besotted beaux.
The Last Runaway, by Tracy Chevalier
From the author of The Girl with the Pearl Earring comes the dramatic tale of Honor Bright, an English Quaker who leaves home and ends up in Ohio in 1850, unmoored and entirely dependent on strangers until she discovers her true vocation as an assistant on the Underground Railroad. Her life now defined by defiance, Honor must decide what path to take, and at what personal cost.
Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue
This inventive novel—Donoghue’s first since the highly acclaimed Room—brings to life the seedy corners and back alleys of San Francisco in the summer of 1876, as sweltering heat and a smallpox epidemic rage. Based on actual events, the novel begins with the murder of Jenny Bonnet, a frog trapping, cross-dressing bicyclist, and follows a thrillingly winding narrative path as we get to know Jenny’s friend, Blanche Beunon—a single mother and an exotic dancer—who relentlessly pursues justice and a painful search for her own son, and is ultimately forced to decide between these hopelessly divergent goals.
Fallen Beauty, by Erika Robuck
Robuck’s fourth and latest novel since the haunting Call Me Zelda is immense and lyrical, constructed of two parallel narratives. It’s 1928 when Laura Kelley, a struggling seamstress, sneaks off with her lover to see the exotic Ziegfeld Follies, an act that sets her singular fate in motion, for it simultaneously invites judgment from her small town and ignites a lifelong passion for costume design. Meanwhile, in a stunning portrait of poetess Edna St. Vincent Millay (“Vincie”), Robuck introduces us to a fascinating woman who, as she attempts to maintain artistic focus while engaged in romantic entanglements and other frivolities, is also existing perilously close to the edge. The two women’s lives eventually converge, resulting in a reaffirming meditation on friendship and the transformative power of art.
Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France, by Nicholas Shakespeare
While technically a biography, this work has all the makings of a spellbinding historical novel, filled with the complicated story of Priscilla, an Englishwoman who lived mysteriously in occupied France during WWII. Shakespeare, Priscilla’s nephew, narrates, telling the story as only a relative can, piecing together letters and other historical documents with rumors from multiple family members in order to hold up a mirror to a morally ambiguous woman who lived dangerously in a dangerous time.
The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd
Kidd’s latest epic accounts for about 40 years of slavery, oppression, and brutality in the American South, and is told in two distinct voices: that of a slaveholder, real-life historical figure Sarah Grimke, who became a Quaker and abolitionist after a painful upbringing on a Southern plantation, and the slave she’s given as a girl, Hetty “Handful,” created by Kidd. Inspired by Grimke’s uncommon fortitude in an era of American history that had no place for female independence, Kidd explains (in her notes following the novel) that she chose to recognize Grimke’s contribution to the abolitionist and women’s movements of the 19th century by creating a complex character who resides “at the intersection of history and imagination.”
What bad girls of historical fiction are we forgetting?