The best historical fiction with wanton & wilful women

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a historical fiction author (one novel published by Penguin, plus several Sherlock Holmes stories with Belanger Books) – and I read it avidly too, although many of the Victorian novels I love were considered frighteningly modern in their day. I’m fascinated by the 19th century as both reader and writer because of the incredible changes (social and technological) it saw, and the resulting dramas and tensions that emerged. Literacy and literary culture exploded during Victoria’s reign, but it was also a time of astonishing contrast: poverty versus huge wealth, outward virtue versus secret vice, prejudice and injustice (especially regarding women’s rights) versus struggles for social progress… sound familiar?

I wrote...

The Unpierced Heart

By Katy Darby,

Book cover of The Unpierced Heart

What is my book about?

Love is a disease… which has proved mortal to many men down the ages.

 Set among the elite colleges and seedy backstreets of Oxford and Cambridge in the 1880s, The Unpierced Heart is a tangled story of passion, loyalty and betrayal, art and medicine, sin and redemption. Theology student Edward Fraser is shocked when his best friend, dashing doctor Stephen Chapman, agrees to help the mysterious Diana run a refuge for “fallen women” in Jericho, Oxford’s notorious red-light district. Diana is beautiful, headstrong, determined – and fatal to men, as Edward witnessed years before. As Diana’s dark history returns to haunt her, and the destinies of reformed prostitute Sukey and warped aristocrat Lord Kester collide with her own, the past proves it’s never dead – only buried. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Crimson Petal and the White

Katy Darby Why did I love this book?

It’s so rare that I read a novel and it instantly joins my all-time top five, but that’s what happened the second I finished The Crimson Petal and the White. Michel’s Faber’s 864-page epic tale starring shrewd, intelligent, and utterly convincing 1870s prostitute Sugar is rich with period detail and psychological insight, and apparently took him 20 years to write. Spoiler: it was worth it. Not only are Sugar, her flawed perfumier lover William Rackham and his troubled wife Agnes sensitively and credibly portrayed, Faber’s world of Victorian London throbs with life (and death). If you love complex characters, vivid atmosphere, exquisite writing, and truly daring plot and structural twists, you’ll adore Crimson Petal

By Michel Faber,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Crimson Petal and the White as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them . . .'

So begins this irresistible voyage into the dark side of Victorian London. Amongst an unforgettable cast of low-lifes, physicians, businessmen and prostitutes, meet our heroine Sugar, a young woman trying to drag herself up from the gutter any way she can. Be prepared for a mesmerising tale of passion, intrigue, ambition and revenge.

Book cover of Moll Flanders

Katy Darby Why did I love this book?

Defoe’s other novels are often overshadowed by his most famous, Robinson Crusoe, but most are absolute romps, and Moll Flanders is no exception. Narrator Moll is bumptious, buxom, and completely beguiling as a protagonist who just won’t quit: from an inauspicious start in life (born to a convicted felon in Newgate, the worst prison in London), she sets out to make her fortune – and has a series of remarkable adventures along the way. At first it’s the old tale of master-seduces-maid – but Moll’s much too chipper and clever to let being a “fallen woman” dent her ambition, and vigorously pursues prosperity, collecting five husbands, ten kids, and a successful criminal career of her own along the way. When she’s finally caught thieving and thrown into Newgate (just like her mum) all seems lost – but at 63, having survived much longer than most wanton women in fiction, Defoe gives her a well-deserved happy ending. 

By Daniel Defoe, David Blewett (editor),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Moll Flanders as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Daniel Defoe's bawdy tale of a woman's struggle for independence and redemption, Moll Flanders is edited with an introduction and notes by David Blewett in Penguin Classics.

Born in Newgate prison and abandoned six months later, Moll Flanders' drive to find and hold on to a secure place in society propels her through incest, adultery, bigamy, prostitution and a resourceful career as a thief ('the greatest Artist of my time') before her crimes catche up with her, and she is transported to the colony of Virginia in the New World. If Moll Flanders is on one level a Puritan's tale…

Book cover of Vanity Fair

Katy Darby Why did I love this book?

Famously, Thackeray subtitled his most celebrated work “a novel without a hero” – and frankly, that’s a major reason readers love it and it’s lasted so long. His anti-heroine Becky Sharp is even more notable for her wit, keen intelligence, and moral flexibility than for her personal attractions, and despite lacking both wealth and high birth, claws her way up the Georgian social ladder with scant regard for convention or other people’s feelings. Becky’s that rarity of (male-authored) nineteenth-century fiction: a female protagonist who’s fully-realised, three-dimensional, fascinating, and flawed – about as far from Dickens’s simpering tweens and caricatured crones as it’s possible to get. Through the Napoleonic wars, scandal, and ruin, we root for Becky even as we judge her: will she survive, even thrive? Read on!

By William Makepeace Thackeray,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked Vanity Fair as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair depicts the anarchic anti-heroine Beky Sharpe cutting a swathe through the eligible young men of Europe, set against a lucid backdrop of war and international chaos. This Penguin Classics edition is edited with an introduction and notes by John Carey.

No one is better equipped in the struggle for wealth and worldly success than the alluring and ruthless Becky Sharp, who defies her impoverished background to clamber up the class ladder. Her sentimental companion Amelia Sedley, however, longs only for the caddish soldier George. As the two heroines make their way through the tawdry glamour…

Book cover of The Woman in White

Katy Darby Why did I love this book?

I wanted to punch the air when I first read this book! Wilkie Collins is massively overlooked compared to Dickens (one of his closest friends), as well as infinitely better at writing believable characters, especially women. Often, his plots are far superior too. Marianne Halcombe, arguably the co-protagonist of The Woman in White (after painter Walter Hartright), and certainly the most memorable character, is no wanton – but she’s compellingly strong-willed, defying convention, social expectation, and strong opposition to protect her half-sister Laura. Marianne knows her mind, and her own worth: she’s smart, self-possessed, and physically daring too, even climbing out on a roof to spy on the villainous Count Fosco. No wonder critic John Sutherland called her "one of the finest creations in all Victorian fiction"!

By Wilkie Collins,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked The Woman in White as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

HarperCollins is proud to present its range of best-loved, essential classics.

'The woman who first gives life, light, and form to our shadowy conceptions of beauty, fills a void in our spiritual nature that has remained unknown to us till she appeared.'

One of the earliest works of 'detective' fiction with a narrative woven together from multiple characters, Wilkie Collins partly based his infamous novel on a real-life eighteenth century case of abduction and wrongful imprisonment. In 1859, the story caused a sensation with its readers, hooking their attention with the ghostly first scene where the mysterious 'Woman in White'…

Book cover of Nights at the Circus

Katy Darby Why did I love this book?

Angela Carter is famous for her sumptuous language, structural playfulness, genre-bending, and seductive, logic-defying plots – and if you like gorgeous lyricism, unforgettable characters, and magical realism (emphasis on the magical), you’ll fall in love with Nights at the Circus. In 1899, journalist Jack Walser meets six-foot-two circus aerialist Fevvers, “the Cockney Venus”. Raised in a brothel and a graduate of freak shows, she’s now a star of the Victorian stage – but are her wings real, as she claims? Walser becomes part of the circus in body and spirit, as, disguised as a clown, he follows Fevvers to St Petersburg and into the wilds of Siberia, where Fevvers must draw on all her cunning and strength to survive – let alone save Walser, too. 

By Angela Carter,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Nights at the Circus as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction

From the master of the literary supernatural and author of The Bloody Chamber, her acclaimed novel about the exploits of a circus performer who is part-woman, part-swan

Sophi Fevvers-the toast of Europe's capitals, courted by the Prince of Wales, painted by Toulouse-Lautrec-is an aerialiste extraordinaire, star of Colonel Kearney's circus. She is also part woman, part swan. Jack Walser, an American journalist, is on a quest to discover Fevvers's true identity: Is she part swan or all fake? Dazzled by his love for Fevvers, and desperate for the scoop of…

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Returning to Eden

By Rebecca Hartt,

Book cover of Returning to Eden

Rebecca Hartt Author Of Rising From Ashes

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Idealistic Storyteller Teacher Mother Seeker

Rebecca's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Looking for clean romantic suspense with spiritual undertones?

Look no further than the Acts of Valor series by Rebecca Hartt. With thousands of reviews and 4.7-5.0 stars per book, this 6-book series is a must-read for readers searching for memorable, well-told stories by an award-winning author.

A dead man stands on her doorstep.

When the Navy wrote off her MIA husband as dead, Eden came to terms with being a widow. But now, her Navy SEAL husband is staring her in the face. Eden knows she should be over-the-moon, but she isn’t.

Diagnosed with PTSD and amnesia, Navy SEAL Jonah Mills has no recollection of their fractured marriage, no memory of Eden nor her fourteen-year-old daughter. Still, he feels a connection to both.

Unfit for active duty and assigned to therapy, Jonah knows he has work to do and relies on God, who sustained him during captivity, to heal his mind, body, and hopefully his family.

But as the memories lurking in his wife's haunted eyes and behind his daughter's uncertain smile begin to return to him, Jonah makes another discovery. There is treachery in the highest ranks of his Team, treachery that not only threatens him but places his new-found family in its crosshairs.

Returning to Eden

By Rebecca Hartt,

What is this book about?

Presumed Dead, Navy SEAL Returns Without Memory of His Ordeal in the Christian Romantic Suspense, Returning to Eden, by Rebecca Hartt

-- Present Day, Virginia Beach, Virginia --

A dead man stands at Eden Mills' door.

Declared MIA a year prior, the Navy wrote him off as dead. Now, Eden's husband, Navy SEAL Jonah Mills has returned after three years to disrupt her tranquility. Diagnosed with PTSD and amnesia, he has no recollection of their marriage or their fourteen-year-old step-daughter. Still, Eden accepts her obligation to nurse Jonah back to health while secretly longing to regain her freedom, despite the…

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