By Emily Verona
Some women loom large in the history books, while others slip through the cracks and are all-but-forgotten. The list we’ve complied below features novels about some of history’s most well-known female figures, along with others who might not sound so familiar. The only thing more amazing than these leading ladies is the fact that they are based on real people. Prepare to be dazzled, impressed, horrified, and heartbroken. Publishers’ descriptions are included below.
America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie
In a compelling, richly researched novel that draws from thousands of letters and original sources, bestselling authors Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie tell the fascinating, untold story of Thomas Jefferson’s eldest daughter, Martha “Patsy” Jefferson Randolph — a woman who kept the secrets of our most enigmatic founding father and shaped an American legacy.
From her earliest days, Patsy Jefferson knows that though her father loves his family dearly, his devotion to his country runs deeper still. As Thomas Jefferson’s oldest daughter, she becomes his helpmate, protector, and constant companion in the wake of her mother’s death, traveling with him when he becomes American minister to France.
It is in Paris, at the glittering court and among the first tumultuous days of revolution, that 15-year-old Patsy learns about her father’s troubling liaison with Sally Hemings, a slave girl her own age. Meanwhile, Patsy has fallen in love — with her father’s protégé William Short, a staunch abolitionist and ambitious diplomat. Torn between love, principles, and the bonds of family, Patsy questions whether she can choose a life as William’s wife and still be a devoted daughter.
Her choice will follow her in the years to come, to Virginia farmland, Monticello, and even the White House. And as scandal, tragedy, and poverty threaten her family, Patsy must decide how much she will sacrifice to protect her father’s reputation, in the process defining not just his political legacy, but that of the nation he founded.
Why we love it: While plenty has been written about Thomas Jefferson, his daughter Martha — a.k.a. Patsy — often gets nothing more than a footnote. This novel changes that, bringing this complicated, intelligent, and brave woman out from behind her father’s shadow and into the spotlight.
Empress by Shan Sa
Such is the voice of Shan Sa’s unforgettable heroine in her latest literary masterpiece, Empress. Empress Wu, one of China’s most controversial figures, was its first and only female emperor, who emerged in the seventh century during the great Tang Dynasty and ushered in a golden age. Throughout history, her name has been defamed and her story distorted by those taking vengeance on a woman who dared to become emperor. But now, for the first time in 13 centuries, Empress Wu (or Heavenlight, as we come to know her) flings open the gates of the Forbidden City and tells her own astonishing tale — revealing a fascinating, complex figure who in many ways remains modern to this day.
Writing with epic assurance, poetry, and vivid historic detail, Shan Sa plumbs the psychological and philosophical depths of what it means to be a striving mortal in a tumultuous, power-hungry world. Empress is a great literary feat and a revelation for the ages.
Why we love it: The only woman to ever rise to the title, the story of China’s fierce and ambitious female emperor has all but faded from history. Sa revives this tale of an extraordinary woman who came to lead a notoriously patriarchal society.
The Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George
Bestselling novelist Margaret George brings to life the glittering kingdom of Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile, in this lush, sweeping, and richly detailed saga. Told in Cleopatra’s own voice, this is a mesmerizing tale of ambition, passion, and betrayal, which begins when the 20-year-old queen seeks out the most powerful man in the world, Julius Caesar, and does not end until, having survived the assassination of Caesar and the defeat of the second man she loves, Marc Antony, she plots her own death rather than be paraded in triumph through the streets of Rome.
Most of all, in its richness and authenticity, it is an irresistible story that reveals why Margaret George’s work has been widely acclaimed.
Why we love it: While Cleopatra is well known as a historical icon, George explores the woman behind the legend. Written from Cleopatra’s perspective, this novel boast a cast of larger-than-life characters that surrounded the Queen of the Nile.
Becoming Madame Mao By Anchee Min
From the bestselling author of Red Azalea, this extraordinary novel tells the stirring, erotically charged story of Madame Mao Zedong, the woman almost universally known as the ‘white-boned demon,’ whom many hold directly responsible for the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. Bringing her lush psychological insight to bear on the facts of history, Min penetrates the myth surrounding this woman and provides a “convincing, nuanced portrait of a damaged personality” (Entertainment Weekly) driven by ambition, betrayal, and a never-to-be-fulfilled need to be loved. With all the compressed drama and high lyrical poetry of great opera, Becoming Madame Mao is a “remarkable accomplishment… Madame Mao is finally given her own voice” (Ha Jin).
Why we love it: Min takes a politically charged piece of Chinese history and makes it human.
Sisi: Empress on Her Own by Allison Pataki
Married to Emperor Franz Joseph, Elisabeth — fondly known as Sisi — captures the hearts of her people as their “fairy queen,” but beneath that dazzling persona lives a far more complex figure. In mid-19th-century Vienna, the halls of the Hofburg Palace buzz not only with imperial waltzes and champagne but with temptations, rivals, and cutthroat intrigue. Feeling stifled by strict protocols and a turbulent marriage, Sisi grows restless. A free-spirited wanderer, she finds solace at her estate outside Budapest. There she rides her beloved horses and enjoys visits from the Hungarian statesman Count Andrássy, the man with whom she’s unwittingly fallen in love. But tragic news brings Sisi out of her fragile seclusion, forcing her to return to her capital and a world of gossip, envy, and sorrow where a dangerous fate lurks in the shadows.
Through love affairs and loss, dedication and defiance, Sisi struggles against conflicting desires: to keep her family together, or to flee amid the collapse of her suffocating marriage and the gathering tumult of the First World War. In an age of crumbling monarchies, Sisi fights to assert her right to the throne beside her husband, to win the love of her people and the world, and to save an empire. But in the end, can she save herself?
Featuring larger-than-life historic figures such as Bavaria’s “Mad King Ludwig” and the tragic Crown Prince Rudolf, and set against many of Europe’s grandest sites — from Germany’s storied Neuschwanstein Castle to England’s lush shires — Sisi brings to life an extraordinary woman and the romantic, volatile era over which she presided.
Why we love it: Not only has Pataki written a moving novel about Empress Elisabeth, she has made her the focus of the “Sisi” series. What’s better than one incredible book about a little-known queen? Two, of course!
The Vatican Princess by C. W. Gortner
For fans of Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir, bestselling author C. W. Gortner effortlessly weaves history and drama in this captivating novel about one of the world’s most notorious families. Glamorous and predatory, the Borgias fascinated and terrorized 15th-century Renaissance Italy, and Lucrezia Borgia, beloved daughter of the pope, was at the center of the dynasty’s ambitions. Slandered as a heartless seductress who lured men to their doom, was she in fact the villainess of legend, or was she trapped in a familial web, forced to choose between loyalty and survival?
With the ascension of the Spaniard Rodrigo Borgia as Pope Alexander VI, a new era has dawned in Rome. Benefitting from their father’s elevation are the new pope’s illegitimate children — his rival sons, Cesare and Juan, and beautiful young daughter Lucrezia — each of whom assumes an exalted position in the papal court. Privileged and adored, Lucrezia yearns to escape her childhood and play a part in her family’s fortunes. But Rome is seductive and dangerous: Alliances shift at a moment’s notice as Italy’s ruling dynasties strive to keep rivals at bay. As Lucrezia’s father faces challenges from all sides, the threat of a French invasion forces him to marry her off to a powerful adversary. But when she discovers the brutal truth behind her alliance, Lucrezia is plunged into a perilous gambit that will require all her wits, cunning, and guile. Escaping her marriage offers the chance of happiness with a passionate prince of Naples, yet as scandalous accusations of murder and incest build against her, menacing those she loves, Lucrezia must risk everything to overcome the lethal fate imposed upon her by her Borgia blood.
Beautifully wrought, rich with fascinating historical detail, The Vatican Princess is the first novel to describe Lucrezia’s coming-of-age in her own voice. What results is a dramatic, vivid tale set in an era of savagery and unparalleled splendor, where enemies and allies can be one and the same, and where loyalty to family can ultimately be a curse.
Why we love it: While two separate television shows have been made about Pope Alexander and his children, this novel is told from the perspective of his daughter Lucrezia. It goes beyond her public image in search of the truth about a woman born into one of history’s most notorious families.
Nefertiti by Michelle Moran
Nefertiti and her younger sister, Mutnodjmet, have been raised in a powerful family that has provided wives to the rulers of Egypt for centuries. Ambitious, charismatic, and beautiful, Nefertiti is destined to marry Amunhotep, an unstable young pharaoh. It is hoped by all that her strong personality will temper the young Amunhotep’s heretical desire to forsake Egypt’s ancient gods, overthrow the priests of Amun, and introduce a new sun god for all to worship.
From the moment of her arrival in Thebes, Nefertiti is beloved by the people. Her charisma is matched only by her husband’s perceived generosity: Amunhotep showers his subjects with lofty promises. The love of the commoners will not be enough, however, if the royal couple is not able to conceive an heir, and as Nefertiti turns her attention to producing a son, she fails to see that the powerful priests, along with the military, are plotting against her husband’s rule. The only person wise enough to recognize the shift in political winds — and brave enough to tell the queen — is her younger sister, Mutnodjmet.
Observant and contemplative, Mutnodjmet has never shared her sister’s desire for power. She yearns for a quiet existence away from family duty and the intrigues of court. Her greatest hope is to share her life with the general who has won her heart. But as Nefertiti learns of the precariousness of her reign, she declares that her sister must remain at court and marry for political gain, not love. To achieve her independence, Mutnodjmet must defy her sister, the most powerful woman in Egypt — while also remaining loyal to the needs of her family.
Love, betrayal, political unrest, plague, and religious conflict — Nefertiti brings ancient Egypt to life in vivid detail. Fast-paced and historically accurate, it is the dramatic story of two unforgettable women living through a remarkable period in history.
Why we love it: Moran does not just explore Nefertiti’s fame, but she also tells the story of the sister that Nerfertiti overshadowed. This is sibling rivalry on an epic scale and is as much Mutnodjmet’s story as it is her iconic sister’s.
Circling the Sun by Paula McLain
Paula McLain, author of the phenomenal bestseller The Paris Wife, now returns with her keenly anticipated new novel, transporting readers to colonial Kenya in the 1920s. Circling the Sun brings to life a fearless and captivating woman — Beryl Markham, a record-setting aviator caught up in a passionate love triangle with safari hunter Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen, who as Isak Dinesen wrote the classic memoir Out of Africa.
Brought to Kenya from England as a child and then abandoned by her mother, Beryl is raised by both her father and the native Kipsigis tribe who share his estate. Her unconventional upbringing transforms Beryl into a bold young woman with a fierce love of all things wild and an inherent understanding of nature’s delicate balance. But even the wild child must grow up, and when everything Beryl knows and trusts dissolves, she is catapulted into a string of disastrous relationships.
Beryl forges her own path as a horse trainer, and her uncommon style attracts the eye of the Happy Valley set, a decadent, bohemian community of European expats who also live and love by their own set of rules. But it’s the ruggedly charismatic Denys Finch Hatton who ultimately helps Beryl navigate the uncharted territory of her own heart. The intensity of their love reveals Beryl’s truest self and her fate: to fly.
Set against the majestic landscape of early-20th-century Africa, McLain’s powerful tale reveals the extraordinary adventures of a woman before her time, the exhilaration of freedom and its cost, and the tenacity of the human spirit.
Why we love it: Everyone knows about Amelia Earhart, but few know the story of the female pilot named Beryl Markam. In addition to breaking records when she flew across the Atlantic in 1936, Beryl led a colorful and fascinating life, detailed in McLain’s mesmerizing novel.
The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman
From the New York Times bestselling author of The Dovekeepers and The Museum of Extraordinary Things: a forbidden love story set on the tropical island of St. Thomas about the extraordinary woman who gave birth to painter Camille Pissarro — the Father of Impressionism.
Growing up on idyllic St. Thomas in the early 1800s, Rachel dreams of life in faraway Paris. Rachel’s mother, a pillar of their small refugee community of Jews who escaped the Inquisition, has never forgiven her daughter for being a difficult girl who refuses to live by the rules. Growing up, Rachel’s salvation is their maid Adelle’s belief in her strengths, and her deep, life-long friendship with Jestine, Adelle’s daughter. But Rachel’s life is not her own. She is married off to a widower with three children to save her father’s business. When her husband dies suddenly and his handsome, much younger nephew, Frédérick, arrives from France to settle the estate, Rachel seizes her own life story, beginning a defiant, passionate love affair that sparks a scandal that affects all of her family, including her favorite son, who will become one of the greatest artists of France.
Building on the triumphs of The Dovekeepers and The Museum of Extraordinary Things, set in a world of almost unimaginable beauty, The Marriage of Opposites showcases the beloved, bestselling Alice Hoffman at the height of her considerable powers. Once forgotten to history, the marriage of Rachel and Frédérick is a story that is as unforgettable as it is remarkable.
Why we love it: Hoffman’s study of the famed painter’s mother is scandalous and breathtaking. The story of Rachel is not to be missed!
Jubilee by Margaret Walker
Here is the classic — and true — story of Vyry, the child of a white plantation owner and his black mistress, a Southern Civil War heroine to rival Scarlett O’Hara. Vyry bears witness to the South’s prewar opulence and its brutality, to its wartime ruin and the subsequent promise of Reconstruction. It is a story that Margaret Walker heard as a child from her grandmother, the real Vyry’s daughter. The author spent 30 years researching the novel so that the world might know the intelligent, strong, and brave black woman called Vyry. The phenomenal acclaim this bestselling book has achieved from readers black and white, young and old, attests to her success.
Why we love it: Walker researched the real-life heroine for decades, and the result is a compelling story about an amazing woman who lived a hard and honest life during a dark time in America’s history.
The Dream Lover by Elizabeth Berg
At the beginning of this powerful novel, we meet Aurore Dupin as she is leaving her estranged husband, a loveless marriage, and her family’s estate in the French countryside to start a new life in Paris. There, she gives herself a new name — George Sand — and pursues her dream of becoming a writer, embracing an unconventional and even scandalous lifestyle.
Paris in the 19th century comes vividly alive, illuminated by the story of the loves, passions, and fierce struggles of a woman who defied the confines of society. Sand’s many lovers and friends include Frédéric Chopin, Gustave Flaubert, Franz Liszt, Eugène Delacroix, Victor Hugo, Marie Dorval, and Alfred de Musset. As Sand welcomes fame and friendship, she fights to overcome heartbreak and prejudice, failure and loss. Though considered the most gifted genius of her time, she works to reconcile the pain of her childhood, of disturbing relationships with her mother and daughter, and of her intimacies with women and men. Will the life she longs for always be just out of reach — a dream?
Brilliantly written in luminous prose, and with remarkable insights into the heart and mind of a literary force, The Dream Lover tells the unforgettable story of a courageous, irresistible woman.
Why we love it: George Sand is a 19th-century enigma. As passionate as she was brilliant, Sand lived a life which seems the stuff of fiction. Berg’s prose certainly does justice to this incredible woman.
Hild by Nicola Griffith
In seventh-century Britain, small kingdoms are merging, frequently and violently. A new religion is coming ashore; the old gods are struggling, their priests worrying. Hild is the king’s youngest niece, and she has a glimmering mind and a natural, noble authority. She will become a fascinating woman and one of the pivotal figures of the Middle Ages: Saint Hilda of Whitby.
But now she has only the powerful curiosity of a bright child, a will of adamant, and a way of seeing the world — of studying nature, of matching cause with effect, of observing her surroundings closely and predicting what will happen next — that can seem uncanny, even supernatural, to those around her.
Her uncle, Edwin of Northumbria, plots to become overking of the Angles, ruthlessly using every tool at his disposal: blood, bribery, belief. Hild establishes a place for herself at his side as the king’s seer. And she is indispensable — unless she should ever lead the king astray. The stakes are life and death: for Hild, for her family, for her loved ones, and for the increasing numbers who seek the protection of the strange girl who can read the world and see the future.
Hild is a young woman at the heart of the violence, subtlety, and mysticism of the early Middle Ages — all of it brilliantly and accurately evoked by Nicola Griffith’s luminous prose. Working from what little historical record is extant, Griffith has brought a beautiful, brutal world to vivid, absorbing life.
Why we love it: This novel has it all — war, religion, mysticism, and a young girl destined to become legend. The story of St. Hilda of Whitby isn’t just a remarkable story, it’s a rare one. Few novels like this one can boast a real-life heroine at the center of it all, and it is definitely worth the read.
Z by Therese Anne Fowler
When beautiful, reckless Southern belle Zelda Sayre meets F. Scott Fitzgerald at a country club dance in 1918, she is 17 years old, and he is a young army lieutenant stationed in Alabama. Before long, the “ungettable” Zelda has fallen for him despite his unsuitability: Scott isn’t wealthy or prominent or even a Southerner, and keeps insisting, absurdly, that his writing will bring him both fortune and fame. Her father is deeply unimpressed. But after Scott sells his first novel, This Side of Paradise, to Scribner’s, Zelda optimistically boards a train north, to marry him in the vestry of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and take the rest as it comes.
What comes, here at the dawn of the Jazz Age, is unimagined attention and success and celebrity that will make Scott and Zelda legends in their own time. Everyone wants to meet the dashing young author of the scandalous novel — and his witty, perhaps even more scandalous wife. Zelda bobs her hair, adopts daring new fashions, and revels in this wild new world. Each place they go becomes a playground: New York City, Long Island, Hollywood, Paris, and the French Riviera — where they join the endless party of the glamorous, sometimes doomed Lost Generation that includes Ernest Hemingway, Sara and Gerald Murphy, and Gertrude Stein.
Everything seems new and possible. Troubles, at first, seem to fade like morning mist. But not even Jay Gatsby’s parties go on forever. Who is Zelda, other than the wife of a famous — sometimes infamous — husband? How can she forge her own identity while fighting her demons and Scott’s, too? With brilliant insight and imagination, Therese Anne Fowler brings us Zelda’s irresistible story as she herself might have told it.
Why we love it: F. Scott is considered one of the great American novelists, but it is Zelda who draws the reader in. Fowler explores Zelda’s struggles without exploiting her, immortalizing the humanity of a woman known primarily for her downfall.
Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar
London, 1905: The city is alight with change, and the Stephen siblings are at the forefront. Vanessa, Virginia, Thoby, and Adrian are leaving behind their childhood home and taking a house in the leafy heart of avant-garde Bloomsbury. There they bring together a glittering circle of bright, outrageous artistic friends who will grow into legend and come to be known as the Bloomsbury Group. And at the center of this charmed circle are the devoted, gifted sisters: Vanessa, the painter, and Virginia, the writer.
Each member of the group will go on to earn fame and success, but so far Vanessa Bell has never sold a painting. Virginia Woolf’s book review has just been turned down by The Times. Lytton Strachey has not published anything. E. M. Forster has finished his first novel but does not like the title. Leonard Woolf is still a civil servant in Ceylon, and John Maynard Keynes is looking for a job. Together, this sparkling coterie of artists and intellectuals throw away convention and embrace the wild freedom of being young, single bohemians in London.
But the landscape shifts when Vanessa unexpectedly falls in love and her sister feels dangerously abandoned. Eerily possessive, charismatic, manipulative, and brilliant, Virginia has always lived in the shelter of Vanessa’s constant attention and encouragement. Without it, she careens toward self-destruction and madness. As tragedy and betrayal threaten to destroy the family, Vanessa must decide if it is finally time to protect her own happiness above all else.
The work of exciting young newcomer Priya Parmar, Vanessa and Her Sister exquisitely captures the champagne-heady days of prewar London and the extraordinary lives of sisters Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf.
Why we love it: Virginia Woolf is considered one of the most talented and complex writers in history. As a result, Parmar undertook a massive task in bringing not just Virginia to life on the page, but also her entire family. The story of Virginia and sister, Vanessa, is a compelling one. This novel sheds light on their early life and explores the ways in which their bond both fed and tormented Virginia. It’s a truly beautiful and compelling read.