Real Heroines in Historical Novels

Karen Harper

My passion for reading and writing historical novels was formed in the 1960s when I discovered Anya Seton’s Katherine (about Katherine Swynford/John of Gaunt) and Jan Westcott’s The Queen’s Grace (Catherine Parr/Tom Seymour/Henry VIII). Such novels are, in a way, a subgenre of historical fiction which I refer to as “faction,” a term attributed to Alex Haley, the author of Roots. These are well-researched books about real protagonists, but they are fiction, not biography.

Most, although not all, of these historical novels focus on an important woman who was influential in her era. Some of the recent novels which fit this apparently growing sub-genre would include two books focusing on the wife of the main character in the popular musical Hamilton: Susan Holloway Scott’s I, Eliza Hamilton (Kensington, 2017) and My Dear Hamilton: A Novel of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton (William Morrow, April 2018) by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie. Most aficionados of historical novels about real women would probably cite Queen Victoria as a fascinating main character, with one of the most recent books being Victoria (St. Martin’s, 2016) by Daisy Goodwin, the creator and writer of the hit TV show, Victoria.

It does seem that British royals make ideal heroines for “faction” historicals. I have followed the pattern of writing what I most love in my early Tudor novels, such as The Queen’s Governess (Katherine Ashley) or The Last Boleyn (Mary Boleyn). Heroines who are the focus of historical faction also include women of power in other cultures, such as Sisi: Empress on Her Own (Random House, 2017) by Allison Pataki, the story of the little-known but dynamic Elisabeth of Bavaria, Empress of Austria. Margaret George’s The Memoirs of Cleopatra (St. Martin’s, 1997) is another example, as is Michelle Moran’s Cleopatra’s Daughter (Crown, 2009). Of course, rulers and queens make excellent faction heroines, even ones who lose their heads as in Confessions of Marie Antoinette (Ballantine, 2013) by Juliet Grey and the numerous novels about Anne Boleyn.

Many excellent “herstorical” novels have fictional leads but present a key main or secondary character who was historical. The Dressmaker (Doubleday, 2012) by Kate Alcott drew my attention because, although the heroine is fictional, one of the book’s key characters is Lucile, Lady Duff-Gordon, who is one of the real-life sisters in my latest novel, The It Girls (William Morrow, 2017). Lucile, like Alcott’s heroine, sailed on the Titanic. A fabulous clothing designer in London, Paris, New York and Chicago, Lucile and her sister, notorious author Elinor Glyn, both created scandals in their quest to cross boundaries in their Victorian and Edwardian worlds.

Choosing historical central characters limits the plot and adds another layer of demanding research. For The It Girls, for example, besides nonfiction books on the culture of the eras and settings, I read both of the Sutherland sisters’ autobiographies: Lucile, Lady Duff-Gordon’s Discretions and Indiscretions (1932) and Elinor Glyn’s Romantic Adventure (1936). I also read Addicted to Romance: The Life of Elinor Glyn (Trafalgar Square, 1995) by Joan Hardwick and a dual biography The ‘It’ Girls by Meredith Etherington Smith and Jeremy Pilcher (Harcourt, 1987).

With “double heroines” I had to research two careers. Lucile’s fashion designs in numerous historical fashion books took me to the Ohio State University Historic Costumes & Textiles Collection, where they have a 1916 ivory silk wedding dress by Lucile. To really get inside Elinor’s skin, I read her breakout 1907 novel, Three Weeks (which was banned for indecency). For the first time in my faction writing career, I also found that instead of just viewing portraits, I could watch my heroine on Youtube, where there is a clip of Elinor describing “It!”. Another added surprise was to hear both women mentioned in Downton Abbey episodes.

Although I have learned much from novels with central fictional characters, I love the challenge of reading and writing about actual women. It is amazing how diverse the doorways to historical fiction can be.

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: In addition to her historical fiction, Karen Harper is also a New York Times bestselling author of contemporary suspense. She is a former university and high school English instructor.

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