The best books about history’s hidden heroines

Ellen Alpsten Author Of The Tsarina's Daughter
By Ellen Alpsten

Who am I?

Even though I was born and grew up in the Kenyan Highlands (which taught me the value of storytelling in Technicolor!) and studied in Paris (where I won a short-story competition) before moving to London, the Germano-Russian ambivalence runs straight through my family: my father grew up in the GDR. He still remembers the people’s terror when the US tanks withdrew one morning, and the Soviets rolled in after renewed territorial negotiations. On the other hand, my cousin owns a high-brow publishing house that publishes nothing but latter-day Russian intellectuals. My fascination for the early Romanov women and their unique century of female reign started when I was thirteen – I'm theirs ever since!

I wrote...

The Tsarina's Daughter

By Ellen Alpsten,

Book cover of The Tsarina's Daughter

What is my book about?

Born into the House of Romanov to Peter the Great and Catherine I, beautiful Tsarevna Elizabeth is the world's loveliest Princess. Insulated by luxury and as a woman free from the burden of statecraft, Elizabeth seems born to pursue her passions. However, a dark prophecy predicts her fate as being inexorably twined with that of Russia. When her mother dies, Russia is torn, masks fall, and friends become foes. Elizabeth's idyllic world is upended. By her twenties she is penniless and powerless, living under constant threat. As times change like quicksand, an all-consuming passion emboldens Elizabeth: she must decide whether to take up her role as Russia's ruler and what she's willing to do for her country – and for love.

The books I picked & why

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Child of the Morning

By Pauline Gedge,

Book cover of Child of the Morning

Why this book?

Who would have thought that one of the most important rulers of Egypt’s powerful eighteenth dynasty was a woman, who was never intended to rule, yet eclipsed them all – had not her (male) successor diligently erased all literary & visual traces of her reign. I love the first-person narrative, adopting the same today for my own novels. Also, Gedge’s fine plotting teaches us that the ups and downs of life are not enough to keep a reader enthralled. It takes a red line with a good hook to pull the reader in. This brilliant novel about Pharaoh Hatshepsut spawned my life-long passion for ancient Egypt. I cried when I first visited her temple in Deir-El-Bahari, which still inspires modern Architects.


By Annemarie Selinko,

Book cover of Desiree

Why this book?

I am astounded how many people have not read Desiree despite it being the world’s second best-selling historical novel, after Gone with the Wind. A Marseilles silk merchant’s daughter gets engaged to a destitute Corsican Cadet, who ditches her in favor of Josephine de Beauharnais and goes on to become Napoleon, Emperor of France. She marries one of his generals, who is later voted King of Sweden. And yes, it’s all true, just that we didn’t know. What joy! I love the narrator’s strong, innocent, and then maturing voice, which is so porous to her emotions. This inspires me when I write today: emotions make us human. The book teaches us that fate is no straight line; God’s quiver has many arrows. It’s a sweet, female, wonderful twist on the times of the Sharpe Saga!

The Other Boleyn Girl

By Philippa Gregory,

Book cover of The Other Boleyn Girl

Why this book?

Ok this is a massive bestseller by now, but how lucky was Philippa Gregory to give Mary-Rose Tudor her long-overdue moment in the limelight? It made her career as an author. The other Boleyn girl had been always there, yet hid in plain sight, overshadowed by her fascinating and more forthcoming sister. It’s the same for my erstwhile debut, so it inspired me to keep going. An artist needs a voice and a brand, only focus brings success. Gregory does a great job in accentuating both Anne’s and Mary-Rose’s character and how their hands were forced in a Court steaming with sex appeal and intrigue – or not! There is a great movie, too, which doesn’t harm.

Innocent Traitor: A Novel of Lady Jane Grey

By Alison Weir,

Book cover of Innocent Traitor: A Novel of Lady Jane Grey

Why this book?

Ah, those Tudors. Just when I think I am fed up with their well-recorded antics, they have a terrific comeback. Lady Jane Grey is not that hidden in history; she merely had no time – no time at all! - to make her mark. Books about England’s most unknown Queen are few and far between, which makes this novel by Alison Weir – an ambitious writer - such a delight. Grey’s fate fascinates me as it is filled with tantalizing questions – what sort of Queen would she have been, once she shed the shackles her ambitious family placed her in? Often in writing what you do not say is more powerful than what you say. I have learnt to love letting my imagination free reign, asking my heroines: "So, what was this really like?"

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China

By Jung Chang,

Book cover of Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China

Why this book?

The memory of this 'novel' – which crosses the line to biography for some – still gives me heartache. It offers the most fascinating insight into the demise of an Empire and the brutal, ruthless making of a communist nation, in which nothing is as superfluous and as expendable as human life. As such, it is reminiscent of my series and the making of Russia we know today. However, I left the last pages of Wild Swans unread, as the inhumane suffering so casually imposed on women was unbearable to witness. Still, I took so much away from it, above all the strength and resilience of human nature. It’s a monument to all women, all over the world, something I would like to reflect in my novels and in my heroines’ voices, too.

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