My favourite books are historical novels with heroines who are fighting for something that matters, something that has made a difference to the opportunities women have today. Heroines who inspire us to follow our own dreams, to keep going when the hurdles seem too great to surmount, to be truly courageous. With that in mind, here are 9 historical fiction heroines, some real, some imagined, whose stories and actions can continue to inspire us today. This brings my 3 part series on writing compelling heroines to an end. You can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.
Alma Whittaker in The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
No mater what Alma does, she throws her entire being into it. Whether it’s studying mosses in an attempt to understand the mysteries of evolution, exploring her own body, or taking off to Tahiti at a time when it was truly a strange land and travelling conditions were difficult to say the least, Alma accomplishes everything she sets out to do. She doesn’t let fear, barriers, or the notion that it isn’t her place to do such things stop her. In creating Alma Whittaker, Elizabeth Gilbert makes us sit up and see the forgotten women of science.
Zelda Fitzgerald in Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler
We all know that Zelda Fitzgerald was the drunk party-girl wife of the vastly more famous F. Scott Fitzgerald right? Therese Anne Fowler gives us a different Zelda. Yes, she’s still partial to parties and to drinking too much but, in this book, as in life, Zelda is also a writer of no small talent, penning stories that are deemed good enough to be published by the important newspapers and magazines of the time. Yet they’re published under Scott’s name, rather than her own. It’s simply a matter of money: his name on a story attracts more than hers.
But that Zelda could write a story every bit as good as one of her husband’s is a remarkable achievement, as is the fact that, in her twenties, she trained to be a ballet dancer and was good enough to join a professional company—if only Scott would have let her. A tragic story of a very clever woman who could have done so much more with her talents.
Ursula Todd in Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Ursula Todd is a heroine who truly does change the world. Afflicted with the potentially devastating, but also potentially transforming, ability to be reborn, to live life after life after life, to have second, third and fourth chances at getting things right, Ursula chooses not to be overcome by the endless groundhog-day nature of her life. Instead, she takes matters into her own hands and undertakes harrowing work with rescue teams in the London Blitz to save the lives of ordinary people, and also walks into a coffee shop in Germany in 1930 with a gun in an attempt to save the world from the horrors of war.
Marie-Laure in All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
To be blind and alone in the middle of a city ripped apart by war would be one of the most utterly terrifying things. This is what Marie-Laure goes through in this beautiful book. But rather than succumb to the horror, to allow her blindness and circumstances to defeat her, Marie-Laure takes extreme risks to protect her family, her father’s legacy, and to aid the French resistance. On a smaller scale, her simple acts of kindness at a time when selfishness would have been understandable make her a true heroine.
Philippa Somerville in The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett
If I was going to be a heroine in a historical novel, I would definitely be Philippa. Dunnett’s novels aren’t always easy to read but Philippa’s character lives far beyond the pages. From not just surviving, but using her intelligence and wit to save others during a stint in the Sultan of Turkey’s harem, to trading and protecting political secrets amidst the complexities of mid-sixteenth century relations between Scotland, France and England, to being a part of one of the most powerful and moving love stories ever told, Philippa Somerville has more courage in her little finger than most people possess in a lifetime.
Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan in The Help
At a time when the Jim Crow laws made racial segregation mandatory in some American states, Skeeter decides, in the face of grave personal danger, to write down the stories of the black maids in her town, to give them a voice. Of course, the easy thing to do would have been to walk away, to be like everyone else, following the laws out of fear or ignorance or, worse still, a belief that the laws were right. But Skeeter knows the laws are wrong and she also believes that, even though she’s just one person, she can, and does, make a difference.
Sarah Grimke in The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
Sarah is born with ambitions that are completely out of step with both her family’s and society’s beliefs. She wants to become the first female judge, and thinks her father loves her enough to support her desire. But rather than curl up in defeat when he tells her this dream is nonsense, she goes on to do and be even more, becoming an important voice in the anti-slavery movement, and an early activist in the women’s rights movement.
Evie Lockhart in A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald by Natasha Lester
I know she’s my heroine but I love her and could sometimes do with a dash of her bravery. Evie is meant to marry her handsome and wealthy neighbour and live a life of ease. Instead, after witnessing a woman die while giving birth in secret, she decides to battle society’s expectations, her parents’ expectations, and the male-dominated Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons in order to relentlessly and selflessly pursue her desire to become one of the first female obstetricians in New York City.
Isabelle Rossignol in The Nightingale
I wasn’t sure about Isabelle when I first started reading The Nightingale. She was a bit too impulsive and thoughtless, a bit too young. But by the end of the novel she had me sobbing. What she did to put her own life utterly at risk to help strangers, downed British airmen, cross the Pyrenees to safety in Spain in World War II had me taking a long hard look at myself and wondering how I would have acted in the same situation, whether I would have done what was safe or, like she did, what was right.
Who would you pick as your favourite historical fiction heroines? Do you agree with any of my choices? I’d love to know what you think; please leave me a comment below!