Finding Women’s Voices in Historical Fiction

“Since I was a very small child, I’ve had a kind of reverence for the past, and I felt a very intimate connection with it.” 

Hilary Mantel

I’ve been channeling this sentiment of Hilary Mantel’s since I was a child, when my grandmother told me stories of our female ancestors, women she revered for their strength and perseverance. Although I didn’t appreciate her tales right away, they stayed with me. As an adult, I decided these women’s stories needed to be told. Not having enough information to write a biography, I turned to historical fiction for inspiration.

Historical fiction is full of stories (both men’s and women’s) written by men. History is written by those who win the wars, and men win wars, so it makes sense that so much historical fiction is written by men. Stories of people like the women, the slaves, and any underrepresented group are lost in tales of valor on the battlefield. A different type of historical fiction is  growing in popularity, though—books about real women who are inspiring by living life on their own terms. Even so, many of the titles reflect the relationship of the woman to her man rather than her identity itself.

Don’t get me wrong. I read and enjoy these books. But none of my female ancestors were married to well-known men, and none of them were strong in spite of, or in support of, a man. I remember their stories of fighting for the vote, a man’s career, and education for a daughter. I admire the drive to create a legacy future generations can be proud of.

Another batch of historical fiction does have the woman’s name in the title. These are women whose stories are already familiar to us. The authors present the tale in a new way or from a different perspective, but we know the stories. That didn’t work for my ancestors, either. You wouldn’t know any of their names.

I love this batch of titles because they include the name of the woman the book is about, but because these names are virtually unknown, the covers need unwieldy subtitles. The thumbnails are hard to read, but here’s one: Code name Lise: The True Story of the Woman Who Became WWII’s Most Highly Decorated Spy. After reading the subtitle, I’m interested, but I don’t like how all those words clutter the cover. 

This last batch of covers shows the type of book that always grabs my attention, with a good cover image and intriguing title. These books showcase women who made a place in history on their own merits, like my ancestors. They don’t have a famous husband or famous name. These novels  allow me as a reader to connect to real people in the past and live history through the eyes of a normal woman like me.

Powerful, interesting women changed history and inspired their daughters, but their voices were never recorded so they appear silent. Historians can’t do anything with them because there is no written record of their words, attitudes, or even actions. It is the duty and delight of historical novelists to bring out these women’s voices and connect them to modern women as I have done in my novels. 

My historical biographical novels

Linda Ulleseit is the award-winning author of The Aloha Spirit and Under the Almond Trees. Her next historical novel, The River Remembers, will be published in June 2023. To interact with her and other historical fiction authors and readers, join PLW’s Facebook group SHINE.

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4 responses to “Finding Women’s Voices in Historical Fiction”

  1. Have you read anything by Eliza Knight, Heather Webb, Hazel Gaynor, Ariel Lawhon, or Greer Macallister? They’re all women writing historical fiction about women.

  2. Some of those are new to me. I’ll check them out!

  3. This is so important. Imagining their lives, researching their lives, and reading about their lives offers such a rich perspective of the present. Thank you for this, Linda. I’ll check out some of these books.

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