The best books about scandalous women you’ve never heard of

Who am I?

I’ve always loved reading about women who lived in earlier eras, whether that was through nonfiction or historical fiction. Books gave me access to worlds beyond my own and I loved thinking about what I would do in a particular situation, whether I would have made the same choices as the women I was reading about. I suppose it’s no surprise that I have a Ph.D. in history and teach European history. I love sharing my passion for the past and I hope you love the books I recommended as much as I do!


I wrote...

The Red Widow: The Scandal that Shook Paris and the Woman Behind it All

By Sarah Horowitz,

Book cover of The Red Widow: The Scandal that Shook Paris and the Woman Behind it All

What is my book about?

The Red Widow is the true story of a Parisian femme fatale who left a trail of death and destruction in her wake. Determined to rise at any cost, Marguerite Steinheil broke every rule in the book to become one of France’s most notorious women. She first shot to fame in 1899 when her lover, the president of France, had a fatal stroke during one of their assignations. Nine years later, her husband and mother were found murdered in their home, leaving Marguerite as the sole survivor and only witness. She baffled the public and the press by telling a series of shifting and improbable stories about what happened, stories that vaulted her into infamy in the most dangerous way possible.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of My Blue Notebooks: The Intimate Journal of Paris's Most Beautiful and Notorious Courtesan

Sarah Horowitz Why did I love this book?

I love reading about women who had messy, complicated lives and Liane de Pougy certainly fits the bill.

Born in 1869, she was a chaos agent like no other. Soon after she got married as a teenager, she left her husband after he shot her when she was in bed with a lover. Then she went to Paris to become an actress and courtesan and became famous for her affairs with both men and women.

She was so captivating and so toxic that she inspired one lover to write multiple novels about her! After she made a fortune from her affairs, she married a prince and then, to top it all off, became a nun in the last years of her life.

Her diary is an intimate portrait of a woman who faced violence, exclusion, disappointment, but always with great bravery and an incredible zest for love, life, and adventure.

By Liane de Pougy,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked My Blue Notebooks as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A fascinating and provocative glimpse into the life of the legendary early twentieth-century courtesan--a Folies-BergFre dancer who became a princess and died a nun, details her many acquaintances including poet Max Jacob, Colette, and Marcel Proust, and vividly discusses her numerous sexual encounters with both men and women. Original.


Book cover of Venus Noire: Black Women and Colonial Fantasies in Nineteenth-Century France

Sarah Horowitz Why did I love this book?

This book had me in tears. It’s the story of Black women who lived in Paris and were scandalous not necessarily because of anything they did, but because of who they were.

Sarah Baartmann had a tragic life where she was exhibited as a sexual spectacle in the 1810s. Jeanne Duval was the mistress of the famous poet Charles Baudelaire and was vilified and blamed for all his problems – even though it’s clear that he was a hot mess. One reason that I love this book is that the author wrote it with such heart.

By Robin Mitchell, Manisha Sinha (editor), Richard S. Newman (editor) , Patrick Rael (editor)

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Even though there were relatively few people of colour in post-revolutionary France, images of and discussions about black women in particular appeared repeatedly in a variety of French cultural sectors and social milieus. In Venus Noire, Robin Mitchell shows how these literary and visual depictions of black women helped to shape the country's post-revolutionary national identity, particularly in response to the trauma of the French defeat in the Haitian Revolution.

Venus Noire explores the ramifications of this defeat by examining visual and literary representations of three black women who achieved fame in the years that followed. Sarah Baartmann, popularly known…


Book cover of Death at the Priory: Love, Sex, and Murder in Victorian England

Sarah Horowitz Why did I love this book?

I could not put this book down. It’s the riveting tale of Florence Bravo, whose life was one of enormous privilege and horrific violence.

She came from one of the wealthiest families in nineteenth-century Britain, fell in love with a dissolute military officer who abused her, only to have her parents insist that she stay with him. After he died and left her fabulously rich, she married a ne’er-do-well lawyer who was poisoned a few months later.

Ruddick solves the riddle of the murder, all while telling a tragic tale about the very limited options for women in the Victorian era. If you like a mystery, this is a great real-life one!

By James Ruddick,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Death at the Priory as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1875, the beautiful and vivacious widow Florence Ricardo wedded Charles Bravo, a daring barrister. The marriage seemed a happy one, although society gossips whispered that Bravo had married Florence for her fortune. Yet behind this charming public persona, Charles Bravo was a brutal and vindictive man, who dismissed Florence's steadfast companion Mrs Cox, and who regularly subjected his wife to violent abuse. One night, four months after the wedding, Bravo collapsed. For the next 55 hours, with some of London's most distinguished physicians in attendance, Charles suffered a slow and agonizing death. All the doctors agreed: Charles Bravo had…


Book cover of The Trial of Madame Caillaux

Sarah Horowitz Why did I love this book?

Henriette Caillaux was the wife of a prominent politician who marched into the office of a newspaper editor in 1914 and shot him dead. There’s no question she pulled the trigger, but was she actually guilty of murder?

That’s the central question of this book and Berenson dives deep into the culture and society of the day to answer it. I love this book because it’s such a rich exploration of Henriette Caillaux’s life and of everyone involved in the case, from her husband to the judge.

By Edward Berenson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Trial of Madame Caillaux as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Early in the evening of 16 March 1914, Henriette Caillaux, the wife of a powerful French cabinet minister, paid an unexpected call on her husband's most implacable enemy, "Le Figaro" editor Gaston Calmette. Concealed inside the muff that protected her hands from the wintry cold was a Browning automatic. After murmuring a few words, she fired six shots at point-blank range. Calmette slumped to the floor, fatally wounded; office workers seized Madame Caillaux, smoking gun in hand. Four months later - just two weeks before Europe exploded into war - Caillaux stood accused of murder. So mesmerizing was the trial…


Book cover of The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper

Sarah Horowitz Why did I love this book?

Ok, so I’m cheating a little bit here. A lot of people have heard of the women Rubenhold writes about because they’re famous for being Jack the Ripper’s victims.

And for many of the women, what they did was not particularly scandalous, since Rubenhold goes a long way to show that not all of them were streetwalkers. But this book is such a beautiful and heartbreaking read. It’s a meticulous and gripping reconstruction of the lives of women we thought we knew but don’t. She brings nineteenth-century London alive in a way that few authors have – when I read the book, I felt like I was there.

By Hallie Rubenhold,

Why should I read it?

11 authors picked The Five as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

THE #1 SUNDAY TIMES BESTSELLER
WINNER OF THE BAILLIE GIFFORD PRIZE FOR NONFICTION 2019
'An angry and important work of historical detection, calling time on the misogyny that has fed the Ripper myth. Powerful and shaming' GUARDIAN

Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane are famous for the same thing, though they never met. They came from Fleet Street, Knightsbridge, Wolverhampton, Sweden and Wales. They wrote ballads, ran coffee houses, lived on country estates, they breathed ink-dust from printing presses and escaped people-traffickers.

What they had in common was the year of their murders: 1888.

Their murderer was never identified, but…


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Make Her Pay

By Miranda Rijks,

Book cover of Make Her Pay

Miranda Rijks Author Of The Homemaker

New book alert!

Who am I?

Author Reader Mountain-lover

Miranda's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

A twisty psychological thriller about beautiful, successful Leonie who has just met Markus, the man of her dreams. But Leonie has a secret. Ten years ago, she was involved in an accident in which another driver died. Leonie shouldn’t have been behind the wheel that night – so she fled the scene. And ever since, she’s struggled with the terrible guilt.

Now, as her wedding to Markus draws near, it seems someone is out to get her. It’s little things at first but it soon escalates into a terrifying campaign which threatens her business, her family and even her life. Leonie realizes there’s a link to the accident that happened all those years ago. Someone knows what she did. Someone is determined to make her pay.

Make Her Pay

By Miranda Rijks,

What is this book about?

Leonie has the perfect life. Someone wants to take it away.

Leonie is living her best life. Still in her twenties, she’s beautiful, successful and has just met Markus, the man of her dreams.

But Leonie has a secret. Ten years ago, she was involved in an accident in which another driver died. Leonie shouldn’t have been behind the wheel that night – no license, no insurance – so she fled the scene. And ever since, she’s been struggling to deal with the terrible guilt.

Now, as her wedding to Markus draws near, it seems someone is out to get…


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