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Historical Fiction Featuring Female Protagonists

By Brittany Holness, Holly Butterfield and Gemma Mathers

Historical fiction has continued to grow in popularity, as it transports readers to an unfamiliar time period with exciting plotlines and romance narratives that transcend the beliefs of that time. There have been noticeable added elements to this type of storyline, such as an emphasis on the female protagonist. For example, how she might have been represented in history and how the past might influence any such pairing, with several factors intending to separate the couple, coming into play. Now a Netflix sensation, the novel All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, is a prime example of this. This week, we’re taking a look at the genre of historical fiction with a specific focus on female protagonists.

As aforementioned, historical fiction with a focus on female protagonists has become increasingly popular. More so due to the popularisation of media, like Netflix’s All the Light We Cannot See and Enola Holmes. In history, women notoriously did not have a voice, nor the independence that is evidenced by the modernisation of society. These books challenge history by granting women autonomy: a leg to stand on, a voice that demands to be heard when, historically, they would have been silenced. This genre provides the perfect opportunity for readers to delve into myths, legends and history, with a modern-day spin. This enables the books to reach a new audience, whilst also highlighting the empowerment of women. There are interesting overlaps of ancient history which typically focus on the myth and legend aspect, or more modern history that focuses on the way of life during that time period and the obstacles that a female protagonist might face – not only as a woman – throughout every aspect of her life.

Of course, these stories are rooted in a historical setting, telling tales of significant events of the past. The Last Witch of Scotland by Philip Paris, for example, is based on the final witch trial and execution in Scotland. Several of these books have crossovers with other genres, taking inspiration from folklore and war stories as they delve into the past. The details are believable; historical fiction has a tendency to be rooted in truth, with fashion, decor and even language choices being transformed, depending on the time period of the setting. Authors have the liberty to meddle with the truth – there is a certain amount of wiggle room – but most novels often remain within the realm of their era. It’s not like other genres, such as fantasy, where the rules can be completely bent to align with the author’s wishes. There’s also a certain amount of flexibility regarding the time period. A number of classic stories are split across multiple timelines, such as The Silk House by Kayte Nunn which dives between past and present. But there still has to be a main focus on the historical section (rather than the occasional flashback), as it allows the reader to get fully immersed in the world.

With so many options to choose from it can be hard to know where to start, so we’ve picked a few of our favourites where women take the lead. Philip Paris’ The Last Witch of Scotland depicts the infamous witch trials. It takes place during the 1720s in the Scottish Highlands and portrays a young woman and the rumours that follow her as she searches for a new life. Recent favourites have centred around telling stories rooted in Greek mythology, such as Circe by Madeline Miller, Ariadne by Jennifer Saint and Clytemnestra by Costanza Casati. But these stories put the focus on women in the classic tales that have often ignored them. Clytemnestra tells the story of the legendary queen and how she became such a notorious villain of the ancient world. Finally, we have The House of Eve by Sadeqa Johnson, a story that takes place in 1950s Philadelphia and examines what it means to be a woman and a mother during these times.

This surge in the popularity of historical fiction has allowed many great authors to take centre stage and shine a light on tales and stories that resonate with readers everywhere. Whether you’re a history buff or not, there is something for everyone. These stories can fill in the gaps missed by the history books and grant voices to heroines who had been silenced up until now, through the modernisation of a tale lost to time.



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