The best biofiction books of historical women

Who am I?

I’m a literary historian who works on the history of women’s reproductive bodies in the early modern era. I am also a debut novelist who has used my many years of researching the seventeenth century to bring to life the story of a seventeenth-century midwife. My own novel is not a bio fiction in the strictest sense of the term (novels with a named protagonist who was a historical figure) but it is based on the published works of two contemporary midwives, Jane Sharp (fl. 1671) and Sarah Stone who worked in the early part of the eighteenth century. I love reading works where other authors have brought to life figures I both research and teach.


I wrote...

The Gossips' Choice

By Sara Read,

Book cover of The Gossips' Choice

What is my book about?

Respected midwife Lucie Smith is married to Jasper, the town apothecary. They’ve lived happily together at the shop with the sign of the three doves for almost three decades. But 1665 is proving a troublesome year. Lucie is called to a birth at the local Manor, and Jasper is uneasy at her involvement with their former opponents in the English Civil War. Their only surviving son Simon flees plague-ridden London for his country hometown, only to argue with his father. Lucie is shaken to learn their loyal maid has been keeping a secret and knows when Jasper finds out he will be furious. How could she have missed the signs?

As the year draws to a close, Lucie is accused of serious negligence in her care of one of her mothers which could see her not only lose her license but face ex-communication.

The books I picked & why

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Katherine

By Anya Seton,

Book cover of Katherine

Why this book?

I work on early modern history and the rest of my recommendations are from that era, but I couldn’t resist starting with a classic and the novel that got me hooked on biofictions. Published in 1954, this book will show its age to new readers, but Seton tells the story of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster (1350-1403) in a wonderfully engaging way. It gives a colourful account of life in medieval England. I first read this book as a young teenager and have returned to it over the years.

Katherine was born the daughter of a minor Flemish herald and became the mistress and later wife of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. While the historical record does not always support all aspects of Seton’s depiction of Katherine Swynford’s life, as a historical saga, the story takes over and sweeps the reader along.


Margaret the First

By Danielle Dutton,

Book cover of Margaret the First

Why this book?

Much shorter than my first recommendation, Dutton’s biofiction tackles the life of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623-73) who was a standout character in the seventeenth century. She wrote and published works on a range of topics from philosophy and science to romantic fiction. What I love about this book is the way it pushes what is possible in a historical biofiction, in a compact but dense volume.


Dark Aemilia: A Novel of Shakespeare's Dark Lady

By Sally O’Reilly,

Book cover of Dark Aemilia: A Novel of Shakespeare's Dark Lady

Why this book?

Staying in the early modern era, this is an imaginative retelling of the story of Aemilia Lanier (1569–1645), a gifted writer in her own right but is often best remembered as a candidate for Shakespeare’s ‘dark lady’. This means some believe her to be the inspiration for the bard’s passionate sonnets. Born Aemilia Bassano she was the daughter of a musician in the court of Elizabeth I. Lanier published Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Hail, God, King of the Jews) in 1611. This biofiction brings her to life in new ways.


The Girl in the Glass Tower

By Elizabeth Fremantle,

Book cover of The Girl in the Glass Tower

Why this book?

This is such a good biofiction of Lady Arbella Stuart (1575-1615), niece to Mary, Queen of Scots, who was for many years presumed to be the natural successor to Elizabeth I. She lived under the strict rule of grandmother Bess of Hardwick, at the many-windowed palace, Hardwick Hall, the glass tower of the book’s title. As a bonus in this novel, we meet Aemilia Lanyer again. The two women’s paths cross in a most unexpected way.


The Puritan Princess

By Miranda Malins,

Book cover of The Puritan Princess

Why this book?

This is the chance to read about a woman on the side of Cromwell and Parliament during the English civil wars. It imagines the life of Oliver Cromwell’s youngest daughter, Frances, later Lady Rich and Lady Russell (1638–1720). It describes the reign of Cromwell, life in the court of the protector, and the end of the commonwealth following her father’s death. The story is told by Frances herself and features a twist about the real fate of Cromwell’s corpse at the end.


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