The best historical novels about strong women surviving the restrictions society and men in their lives place upon them

Helen Webster Author Of Company Wife
By Helen Webster

Who am I?

I have seen Degas’ astonishing paintings in the Quai d’Orsy in Paris and his wonderful sculptures of ballerinas. So I was immediately drawn to this book. Like most people who admire his incredible work, I had no idea of the pain suffered by the girls who saw the ballet as a way to rise above their pitiful lives. Nor did I know the stories behind the abuse of Degas’ models. It is difficult when we have to try to separate the works of genius from the horrible things geniuses did.

I wrote...

Company Wife

By Helen Webster,

Book cover of Company Wife

What is my book about?

Company Wife brings to life the story of a woman married to a Hudson’s Bay Company trader. Her story is one of bravery and endurance in the face of extreme hardship, isolation in the wilderness of the north woods of Ontario in the late 1800s, and escalating domestic violence. It is a tale of a woman of indomitable courage and strength.

This book is available here.

The books I picked & why

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The Cater Street Hangman

By Anne Perry,

Book cover of The Cater Street Hangman

Why this book?

I’m a woman. I have been successful in my profession, but even in today’s world, I have had to endure patronizing and sometimes obstructive men, who clearly showed that women were not welcome. The maxim that to succeed in a man’s world you had to be twice as smart and work twice as hard, still holds true. So, I am drawn to stories of strong women, like Charlotte Pitt in The Cater Street Hangman, who overcame the obstacles created by the beliefs and rules of the society in 1800s England. I am also the great-granddaughter of the protagonist of my own book, and was raised on stories of her life and how she survived and triumphed despite the rigours of her life and times.

While the policeman Thomas Pitt is the protagonist of this novel, his wife Charlotte, born to an upper-class family, defied the strict rules of her society to marry “beneath her.” Her connections to the aristocracy of the time, England in the 1800s, her intelligence, and her strength of character allow her to assist her husband, providing an entree to a society that scorns those of lower birth. The book taught me a great deal about Victorian England and how the strength of character and determination would allow me to overcome obstacles in my own path.

An Irish Hostage

By Charles Todd,

Book cover of An Irish Hostage

Why this book?

As a student of history I am impressed with the research that underpins this series, and especially the life of ordinary people in Ireland following the  Easter 1916 uprising. The whole Bess Crawford series tells the story of Bess, a strong-willed, independent woman who serves as a battlefield nurse in World War One. She needs all her courage and intelligence to survive then and in all of her ventures. Society’s expectations of women and how they should behave were dramatically changed during and following the Great War. How was it possible to expect a woman who had nursed on battlefields or driven an ambulance through enemy territory to return to a life of ‘proper’ behaviour, of tea and cucumber sandwiches, and absolute obedience to her husband?

An Irish Hostage finds Bess in Ireland at the wedding of a friend, only to become embroiled in the trouble and treachery following the Easter Uprising of 1916. She needs all her bravery and sound judgment to escape. 

A Sunlit Weapon

By Jacqueline Winspear,

Book cover of A Sunlit Weapon

Why this book?

As in all the books I have recommended the research is impeccable and there is much to be learned about the eras in which the novels are set. And, always, the woman at the heart of each story displays a great strength of character that carries her through adversity.

A Sunlit Weapon is the most recent book in the Maisie Dobbs series. In Maisie, we meet a young woman who began her life “below stairs” and who has grown up, again rising above almost impossible circumstances to gain an education, become a nurse in the Great War, marry into the upper classes only to lose her titled husband in a flying accident and finally, to set up her own business as a Psychologist and Investigator.

When Blood Lies

By C.S. Harris,

Book cover of When Blood Lies

Why this book?

The information about France after the first defeat of Napoleon, and the seething unrest of the populace under the rule of the restored Bourbons is fascinating to someone like me who has always been passionate about history. C.S. Harris weaves her backstory into the tale without ever boring the readers.  

When Blood Lies is the 17th in the Sebastian St. Cyr series. It is set in France in 1815, after the fall of Napoleon, when the Bourbon dynasty has been once again been elevated to the throne of France. It is the Regency period in England, and the book has vivid descriptions of both Paris and London of the time. The protagonist is Viscount Devlin, and his wife, Hero, who is careful to appear to be compliant with all that period’s restrictions on women. While she hides her strength and intelligence, she quietly pursues her own, socially unacceptable interests, including her passions for scholarship and what we today would call social justice.

The Painted Girls

By Cathy Marie Buchanan,

Book cover of The Painted Girls

Why this book?

This historical work is fiction but based on the true story of Edgar Degas and his models. It was a revelation for me to learn about the brutish lives led by the dancers in the ballet and the hard lives of most women outside the middle and upper class in Paris in 1878. We are taken behind the scene in the ballet, into cramped, unheated, dirty living quarters, brothels, and prisons. Of the three sisters in the story, only one will manage to make a marriage that will lift her out of the inevitability of having to survive through a life of thievery and prostitution on the mean streets of Paris. Unlike the first four books I recommended, this is not a story of a woman’s triumph, but rather one of how incredibly difficult it was for a girl without the trappings of wealth, to simply survive. 

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