The best historical novels with real-life female protagonists

The Books I Picked & Why

Boudica: Dreaming the Eagle

By Manda Scott

Book cover of Boudica: Dreaming the Eagle

Why this book?

If any woman goes down in British history as ‘kick-ass’ it has to be Boudica and Manda Scott’s lyrical, elegant, exciting novel about her astonishing rebellion against the Romans really captures this real-life rebel in vivid and involving detail. This novel didn’t just show me the period in which it is set, but totally dropped me into it. Scott captures the mysticism of those times in an assertive, utterly convincing way to take you on the journey through the mud and blood of this astonishing woman’s fight for all that is right. Best of all – it’s the start of a series…


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Shadow on the Crown: A Novel

By Patricia Bracewell

Book cover of Shadow on the Crown: A Novel

Why this book?

As a writer fascinated by the period around 1066, I’ve long been intrigued by Emma of Normandy – a woman whose marriage to King Aethelred ‘the Unready’ and, after him, to King Cnut could be said to have started England on the path to the Norman conquest. It was a joy, therefore, to find this gutsy, involving, and utterly convincing novel about her life. Queen Emma is a woman who truly demonstrates that there has always – even in the seemingly most misogynistic of times – been space in history for determined women with the self-belief to step up and claim the power they deserve and Patricia Bracewell’s novel vividly brings to life both the woman and the times.


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The Other Boleyn Girl

By Philippa Gregory

Book cover of The Other Boleyn Girl

Why this book?

I loved this book when I first read it and I love it still. It takes a part of history we think we know well – Anne Boleyn’s stormy relationship with Henry VIII – and shows us another side of it. It does this by going into the story sideways, via Anne’s sister Mary, who was, it turns out, a fascinating woman in her own right, and also by taking a nugget of fact and turning it into a key part of the fiction. In real life, Anne’s brother George was dragged into her trial and accused of adultery with her. Phillipa Gregory grabs this small seed and asks – what if it was true…? A vibrant, dramatic, involving take on the high-stakes fight of Anne Boleyn and her family.


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The Lady of Misrule

By Suzannah Dunn

Book cover of The Lady of Misrule

Why this book?

Lady Jane Grey is an enticing character. Famous as a nine-day-queen, her story is a poignant segment of the brutal succession battle that tore the English crown apart for too many years. I’ve tended to see her as a tiny, tragic protestant foreshadowing of the far more ruthless Elizabeth to come and not thought much more about her, but this novel really brought her awful story to life. Told from the perspective of a fictional girl employed as Jane’s companion in her days in the Tower of London, it gives us a fresh and very real insight into her fate. A light but poignant read, this will draw you into another world and carry you through to the inevitably sad sending.


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Jackie and Maria: A Novel of Jackie Kennedy & Maria Callas

By Gill Paul

Book cover of Jackie and Maria: A Novel of Jackie Kennedy & Maria Callas

Why this book?

The most up-to-date of my choices, this fabulous book is about Jackie Kennedy and Maria Callas, who both had relationships with Ari Onassis. I had obviously heard of both women in their very different contexts as wife of the president and famous opera singer but didn’t know how intimately they were connected. I love the way Gill Paul’s sparky, pacey novel brings both women to life in all their flawed, fascinating glory. 


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