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. 

The books I picked & why

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By Alexandra Lapierre,

Book cover of Artemisia

Why 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.

The Accidental Empress

By Allison Pataki,

Book cover of The Accidental Empress

Why 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. 

The Girl with a Pearl Earring

By Tracy Chevalier,

Book cover of The Girl with a Pearl Earring

Why 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.

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

By C. W. Gortner,

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

Why 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.  

The Confessions of Catherine de Medici

By C.W. Gortner,

Book cover of The Confessions of Catherine de Medici

Why 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.   

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