Reading list

Historical fiction that puts women centre stage

Most of history is written from a male perspective - but what about the women who shaped our past? These 6 books follow heroines who are at the centre of the action

The Witchfinder's Sister

Beth Underdown

There were few more terrifying times for women to be alive in England than during the witch-hunts of the seventeenth century. It was an age of paranoia, betrayal and suspicion, and the hunts struck terrot into the very heart of villages, communities and families. Matthew Hopkins is a renowned witch-hunter based on a historical figure of the same name and profession, and he is neck-deep in plots and intrigue. Able to condemn women on a whim, he wields the ultimate power. But the highlights of this story focus on his sister Alice who, after finding herself hopelessly entangled in his campaign, finally seeks to free the women in her life from fear and mortal danger. 

 

Birdcage Walk

Helen Dunmore

From the siege of Stalingrad to Cold War espionage in London, Helen Dunmore thas told many stories  of ordinary people caught up in conflict with sensitivity and insight. The same is true of Birdcage Walk. In 1792, Lizzie Fawkes watches from Bristol as Europe is consumed by revolutionary spirit. Meanwhile, her husband seeks to build his business empire and subdue Lizzie's independence and curiosity. Soon  the couple find their fortunes inextricably linked to political events, and before long the terror Lizzie once saw from a distance comes right to her door.

 

Their Finest

Lissa Evans

The Second World war was a moment in history when millions of women got a chance to show the world what they were made of. Catrin Cole is one such woman - a copywriter whose services are requisitioned for the war effort. When she suddenly becomes a script-writer for government information films, she is tasked with putting together a somewhat 'alternative' account of the events at Dunkirk, working alongside an assortment of oddballs. As the war rumbles on in the background, you'd be forgiven for thinking the real drama is on a film set in rural Norfolk. With a major movie adpatiation set for release this April, now is the moment to read the book before catching the story on the big screen.

 

Neverhome

Laird Hunt

Ash is a fearsome fighter, a leader of men, a chivalrous hero. Ash is a woman in disguise. A country girl without education, she was married to a farmer. In her words: 'He was made out of wool and I was made out of wire'. And so begins her story as she runs away to fight for the Union in the American civil war. As her comrades knuckle down to the grit of war, no one pays enough attention to notice her secret, and her proficiency with weapons has everyone fooled. With the passage of time, the violence begins to take its toll, and Ash's accounts betray a battle-scarred soul. What makes Laird Hunt's book especially compelling is that its events echo the real experiences of hundreds of women who disguised themselves as men in order to fight.

 

Beloved

Toni Morrison

Putting women centre-stage means thinking about the experiences of all women. In Toni Morrison's masterpiece Beloved, we learn about the oppression, violence and misery faced by women of colour in America after the civil war. Morrison has a talent for staring tragedy right in the eye; never more so than in the story of Sethe - an enslaved mother on the run. Driven to the brink of madness by psychological and physical torture, she embarks upon the dangerous journey to a better life. Profoundly compelling and beautifully written, Beloved is about independence, strength, motherhood and oppression, but most of all, it's about power...in all its forms.

 

Little Women

Louise May Alcott

On a rainy day, is there anything in the world more comforting than curling up with a nice big cuppa and sinking into the story of the March girls as they come of age? Louisa May Alcott tells the tale of four sisters as they just about manage to run a household. Their father is away fighting and, although the family were once prosperous, their fortunes have changed. The girls pursue boys, adventure, education, money, true love and sisterhood, all with varying degrees of success. It's domestic, of course, but don't let that fool you into thinking the Marches don't face trials and tribulations. If you know what we're talking about, you're probably already weeping. If you don't, it's time to find out.

 

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