The best historical novels featuring strong, feisty women

Bárbara Mujica Author Of I Am Venus: A Novel
By Bárbara Mujica

Who am I?

A professor of 16th- and 17th-century Spanish literature and culture at Georgetown University with a focus on women’s writing and the mystics, I am also the author of four bio-novels, all of which feature indomitable female protagonists. Whether queens, saints, or not-so-ordinary housemaids, the protagonists of the books I have chosen (and my own) demonstrate the power and vulnerability of women in early modern Europe. Fiction and scholarship overlap in my work, as I am often able to bring my academic research into my fiction. Two of my latest scholarly books are Teresa de Ávila, Lettered Woman and Women Religious and Epistolary Exchange in the Carmelite Reform


I wrote...

I Am Venus: A Novel

By Bárbara Mujica,

Book cover of I Am Venus: A Novel

What is my book about?

Spain. Seventeenth century. The Inquisition has forbidden the painting of nudes, but Diego Velázquez, court portraitist, has defied the rules. He has painted an exquisite Venus—a woman seen from the back, gazing at her reflection in a mirror. How has he dared? Who commissioned the painting? And more intriguing: Who is the model?

Set in an atmosphere of political turmoil and romantic scandal, I Am Venus recreates the public and private lives of Diego Velázquez, Spain’s greatest baroque artist, and narrates his fascinating rise to fame. It also tells the story of the mysterious woman who posed for “The Rokeby Venus,” Velázquez’s only extant female nude, whose intimate knowledge of the court and detailed descriptions create a vivid image of a monarchy in decline. 

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The books I picked & why

Artemisia

By Alexandra Lapierre,

Book cover of Artemisia

Why did I love this book?

A brilliant portrait of Italy’s great female baroque painter, Artemisia Gentileschi. Daughter of the highly respected artist Orazio Gentileschi, Alexandra studied painting under her father, who recognized her extraordinary talent. However, she was raped by one of Orazio’s colleagues, Agostino Tassi, and when Artemisia denounced him, the trial became an enormous scandal. This book brings to life the dynamic art world of seventeenth-century Italy and reveals the power a gifted woman could wield in a patriarchal society.

By Alexandra Lapierre,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Artemisia as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In a vivid re-creation of Baroque Italy, Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the Western world's first major women artists, is raped by her father's partner, Agostino Tassi, and refuses, in the face of family pressure, scandal, and torture to deny the crime, an attitude that ostracizes her from Rome and from her father. 25,000 first printing.


The Accidental Empress

By Allison Pataki,

Book cover of The Accidental Empress

Why did I love this book?

I have been fascinated with Sisi since I visited the Habsburg Castle in Vienna several years ago. In The Accidental Empress, Allison Pataki imbues Elisabeth of Bavaria—known as Sisi—with humanity and intelligence. Engaged to Sisi’s older sister, the emperor Franz Joseph falls in love with the younger girl instead, making Sisi an “accidental empress.” However, his choice unleashes a chain of intrigue and political maneuvering. Pataki’s novel is rich in psychological insight, and her detailed descriptions of court life and the Austrian landscape transport the reader to another time and place. Pataki captures beautifully the atmosphere of luxury and intrigue of the Habsburg court and having been in the Castle, I can well imagine Sisi gliding through its vast space or dining on its priceless china. 

By Allison Pataki,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Accidental Empress as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

*NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER * Discover the "captivating, absorbing, and beautifully told" (Kathleen Grissom) love story of Sisi, the Austro-Hungarian empress and wife of Emperor Franz Joseph-perfect for fans of the Netflix series The Empress!

The year is 1853, and the Habsburgs are Europe's most powerful ruling family. With his empire stretching from Austria to Russia, from Germany to Italy, Emperor Franz Joseph is young, rich, and ready to marry.

Fifteen-year-old Elisabeth, "Sisi," Duchess of Bavaria, travels to the Habsburg Court with her older sister, who is betrothed to the young emperor. But shortly after her arrival at court, Sisi…


Girl with a Pearl Earring

By Tracy Chevalier,

Book cover of Girl with a Pearl Earring

Why did I love this book?

Although we actually know very little about Vermeer, Tracy Chevalier imagines a context for his celebrated painting, Girl with a Pearl Earring. As a professor of early modern literature and culture, I was especially fascinated by the interplay of religions in this novel. Griet, who comes to work for the Vermeers as a servant, is Protestant, and she is scandalized by some of the sumptuous Catholic art she sees hidden away in the Vermeer home. Intrigued by her master’s paintings, Griet begins to serve him as an assistant and finally agrees to pose for him. Through her experiences, Chevalier paints a vivid picture of a seventeenth-century Dutch household.

By Tracy Chevalier,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked Girl with a Pearl Earring as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The New York Times bestselling novel by the author of A Single Thread and At the Edge of the Orchard

Translated into thirty-nine languages and made into an Oscar-nominated film, starring Scarlett Johanson and Colin Firth

Tracy Chevalier transports readers to a bygone time and place in this richly-imagined portrait of the young woman who inspired one of Vermeer's most celebrated paintings.

History and fiction merge seamlessly in this luminous novel about artistic vision and sensual awakening. Girl with a Pearl Earring tells the story of sixteen-year-old Griet, whose life is transformed by her brief encounter with genius . .…


Book cover of The Queen's Vow: A Novel of Isabella of Castile

Why did I love this book?

Isabella of Castile is one of Spain’s most controversial and complicated queens. I have been teaching Spanish history for decades, so it was particularly thrilling for me to see how C.W. Gortner brings this dynamic woman to life. Having engineered her own marriage to Fernando of Aragon, Isabella contrived to back the voyages of Christopher Columbus and took an active part in the war against the Moors in Granada. She resists and finally succumbs to the demands of the fanatical inquisitor Torquemada, who urges her to rid the realm of Jews. Gortner recreates the climate of intrigue, the bloody battlefields, and the lush gardens of Andalusia so beautifully that you feel as though you were there.  

By C. W. Gortner,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Queen's Vow as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“A masterwork by a skilled craftsman . . . Make a vow to read this book.”—New York Journal of Books
 
Isabella is barely a teenager when she becomes an unwitting pawn in a plot to dethrone her half brother, King Enrique. Suspected of treason and held captive, she treads a perilous path, torn between loyalties, until at age seventeen she suddenly finds herself heiress of Castile, the largest kingdom in Spain. Plunged into a deadly conflict to secure her crown, she is determined to wed the one man she loves yet who is forbidden to her—Fernando, prince of Aragón. As…


Book cover of The Confessions of Catherine de Medici

Why did I love this book?

I have always been intrigued by Catherine de Medici, the most powerful—some say, ruthless—woman of sixteenth-century France. Narrating in Catherine’s own voice, C.W. Gortner brings Catherine to life. My own work in the area of religious conflict in early modern Europe made Catherine, who was caught up in France’s endless wars between Protestants and Catholics, a particularly attractive subject. Capturing exquisitely the inner workings of Catherine’s psyche, Gortner makes us feel Catherine’s anguish at having to ally herself with the Protestant leader Coligny and at the sacrifices she had to make on behalf of the monarchy.   

By C.W. Gortner,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Confessions of Catherine de Medici as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“The Confessions of Catherine de Medici is a dramatic, epic novel of an all-too-human woman whose strength and passion propelled her into the center of grand events. Meticulously-researched, this engrossing novel offers a fresh portrait of a queen who has too often been portrayed as a villain. Bravo Mr. Gortner!”—Sandra Gulland, author of The Josephine B Trilogy and Mistress of the Sun 

The truth is, not one of us is innocent. We all have sins to confess. So reveals Catherine de Medici, the last legitimate descendant of her family’s illustrious line. Expelled from her native Florence, Catherine is betrothed to…


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