I always enjoy traveling back in time with a good historical fiction novel, especially those with women protagonists. Here are three terrific debut novels about women’s lives in the 1700s and 1800s:
Anna Freeman’s energetic novel, The Fair Fight, considers a topic I have never before seen in a historical novel: women prize fighters in late 18th-century England. It is told from several different viewpoints, and the voice that impressed me the most was that of Ruth, a woman who is plucked out of a Bristol brothel to become a somewhat infamous female pugilist. Ruth’s career is sponsored by Mr. Dryer, a gentleman who is obsessed with the ring, and Ruth creates her own somewhat clandestine relationship with his wife, Charlotte, who also has a voice in this book. This is a story as raucous as the late Georgian period, a refreshingly original take on a part of society little known to 21st-century readers.
Amy Snow, an eponymous novel by Tracy Rees, opens with a scene drawn from folklore: eight-year-old heiress Aurelia Vennaway finds a newborn infant in a snowbank, and hence names the child Amy Snow. They grow up alongside each other, both sharing experiences and keeping secrets. Upon Aurelia’s death when Amy is a young woman, Amy must follow a treasure-hunt-by-letter from her dearest friend. Her adventures take her all around England, to Twickenham and London, Bath and York, leading to entertaining characters and a fascinating secret to unlock. The story examines the varying roles of women in Victorian English society, and is a vastly absorbing read at the same time.
Considerably darker in tone is Elaine di Rollo’s ironically-titled A Proper Education for Girls, set in the midst of the Victorian era. Twin sisters Lilian and Alice Talbot grow up in an isolated mansion that is mainly a storage house for their father’s wide-ranging and vast collection of natural and scientific curiosities. Alice, the beautiful rebellious daughter, is married off to a missionary and travels to India. Alice, the plain and outwardly-docile daughter, remains at home in England to curate her father’s collection. The sisters share the goal of reuniting, a goal thwarted by their dominating father, who forbids direct communication between them. The various strands of the plot focus on the twisted, relentless efforts by men to control the lives and destinies of women during this time period, and the sisters’ drive to take power over their own fate. It’s troubling, but affirming to see Alice and Lilian overthrow these constraints and come into their own.
Other historical fiction novels featuring women protagonists include:
The Mapmaker’s Children by Sarah McCoy
Fiercombe Manor by Kate Riordan