Historical Musings #8: Women’s Classic Literature

Historical Musings From now until December 2016 I am participating in the Women’s Classic Literature Event hosted by The Classics Club. You can read more about it in this post (which includes my answers to the introductory survey) and I have already made a good start, having read My Ántonia by Willa Cather a few weeks ago. I’m hoping to read lots of other women’s classics over the next year – and as historical fiction is my favourite genre, I’m particularly interested in reading historical novels by classic female authors.

I have already read several, many of which I have reviewed on my blog, and I thought I would list some of them below.

Romola George Eliot

Most of George Eliot’s novels were set in her recent past, so not quite contemporary but not truly historical either (Middlemarch, for example, was published in the 1870s but set in 1829-32). She did, however, write one novel set in Florence during the Italian Renaissance – this was Romola, which I read earlier this year. It wasn’t an easy read but I did enjoy it.

Daphne du Maurier:

Du Maurier is usually associated with gothic suspense, but many of her novels are historical fiction. The King’s General is set in seventeenth century Cornwall during the English Civil War and follows the story of Honor Harris and her relationship with the King’s General in the West, Richard Grenvile. Jamaica Inn, one of du Maurier’s best known novels, is set in the early 1800s and is an atmospheric story of smugglers, shipwrecks, and the inhabitants of a lonely inn on Cornwall’s Bodmin Moor. Hungry Hill is a family saga covering five generations of the Brodrick family who live at Clonmere Castle in Ireland and whose fortunes revolve around the copper mine on Hungry Hill.

And there are others: The House on the Strand is a dual timeline novel in which part of the action takes place in the 14th century and The Glass-Blowers is based on the lives of du Maurier’s own ancestors who lived through the French Revolution. Mary Anne, which I haven’t read yet, is set during the Regency, and Frenchman’s Creek, also still to be read, is set during the reign of Charles II.

Sylvia's Lovers Madame de Lafayette

Published in 1678, The Princess of Cleves is thought to be the first French historical novel. It is set between 1558 and 1559 at the court of Henri II. I found the writing quite dry (although that could be the fault of the translation) but I loved the portrayal of the French court. It’s worth reading if you’re interested in French history or the early development of the novel form.

Elizabeth Gaskell

Sylvia’s Lovers is set in the 1790s in Monkshaven (a fictional English town based on Whitby, North Yorkshire). The story of Sylvia Robson and the two men who hope to marry her is played out against a backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars. I haven’t read all of Gaskell’s other books yet, but I think this is the only historical one. It’s also, in Gaskell’s own words, “the saddest story I ever wrote”.

Orlando Baroness Emmuska Orczy

Baroness Orczy wrote many historical fiction novels, the most famous being The Scarlet Pimpernel, her adventure novel set during the French Revolution. I have tried two of the many Pimpernel sequels (there are at least ten, plus some prequels and short story collections) but so far they haven’t lived up to the original.

Virginia Woolf

The only Virginia Woolf novel I have read so far is Orlando. It could be described as historical fiction, though not in the conventional way: the protagonist, Orlando, lives for four hundred years and experiences the Elizabethan era, the Great Frost of 1608, the Restoration, the 18th century, and the Victorian period. I found this book a lot easier to read than I’d expected.

Margaret Mitchell

It’s been years since I last read it, but this list wouldn’t be complete without Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell’s classic story of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler set in the American South during the Civil War.


Womens Classic Literature Event

These are all I can think of at the moment, though I’m sure I’ve probably read more. There are plenty of other books that I consider to be ‘classic historical fiction’ but maybe not ‘classics’ in the usual sense of the term.

Can you think of any other historical fiction novels by classic women authors? Just to clarify, the Classics Club’s definition of a classic is a book published before 1960 (although this is just a guideline and would rule out some of the du Maurier titles I’ve mentioned above). I do already have Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset on my list to be read, but I would love some more suggestions.

And for those of you who are also taking part in the Women’s Classic Literature Event, I hope I’ve given you some ideas to consider!

27 thoughts on “Historical Musings #8: Women’s Classic Literature

    • Helen says:

      Thanks, Jillian! That’s exactly the sort of suggestion I was hoping for. I’ve never come across Mary Johnston’s books before, but now I’m intrigued.

  1. Jane @ Beyond Eden Rock says:

    I have The World is Not Enough by Zoe Oldenbourg, set in mediaeval France, on my list and it looks very promising, otherwise the historical novels I have in mind I’m sure you’ve already read. And I have a series of American historical novels by Elswyth Thane in my sights – I’ve not read a historical novel by her yet but I did read a romance/ghost story that I loved.

  2. heavenali says:

    Ooh you make me want to re-read Romola and Sylvia’s Lovers I loved both many years ago. I know I found Romola tough going too and ended up loaning to it someone at work who never returned it. She left several years ago too. Great choices.

  3. jessicabookworm says:

    I am currently immersed in Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, and I have The House on the Strand and Frenchman’s Creek on my to-be-read pile which I am looking forward to even more now.

  4. elainethomp says:

    I’ve read both Elswyth Thane’s work and one of Mary Johnston’s. They were both enjoyable. Thane’s real surname was ‘Beebe’ and the library sometime had her shelved there under B, so look there, too. Thane’s fame is mostly due to her Williamsburg novels, which follow two hundred years of a set of families from the Revolutionary War through WWII. They do branch out of Williamsburg to NY, England and France, and most frequently feature a war: Revolution, Civil, Spanish American, WWI, WWII. And a couple of in between the wars, IIRC. I’d find a couple of the romantic story lines somewhat creepy now, I think, but was fine with them when I read them. (very young girl & mature man. Fortunately they wait till she’s older.)

    Johnston’s book that I’ve read is THE FORTUNES OF GARIN, a medieval romance-y sort of thing: troubadors, chivalry, courtly love, disguises, daring escapes, seige, Richard the Lionheart… what’s not to like?

    Suggestion: Anya Seton’s KATHERINE.

    • Helen says:

      Oh, I loved Katherine (and some of Anya Seton’s other books) but I wasn’t sure whether people would consider it classic literature or not – although if I stick to the ‘published before 1960’ rule, it would obviously qualify.

      The Fortunes of Garin sounds great! If I do decide to give Mary Johnston a try I’ll think about reading that one. And thanks for the information on the Elswyth Thane novels. 🙂

  5. Sahara says:

    “…the early development of the novel form.” I had never thought about the novel as something that hasn’t always been around, as something that was developed. Can you imagine how thrilling it must have been to be part of the creation of it! My interest is piqued; thank you!

  6. elainethomp says:

    One more suggestion, from 1810: Jane Porter, THE SCOTTISH CHIEFS, about William Wallace & Robert Bruce. In her day she was supposedly more popular than Sir Walter Scott. According to various things on the web about her she pioneered many techniques used in later historical novels. I read the Scribner illustrated edition (500+ pages, illos by NC Wyeth) as a child, and later dug up an undated, unabridged edition (illustrated by photos of the locations) and loved both. Highly romantic, heroic men, heroic women, villainous men, villainous women, derring do, swashes buckled, battles, daring escapes, hearts changed, disguises, kings, knights, etc. Never read a Scott I enjoyed quite as well.

    The timeline of the novel is vague – I don’t remember much in the way of hard dates, other than the one provided at the opening – but as far as I can tell,, and I dug into the era in detail over the years, she tried to match history as far as she could source it.

    • Helen says:

      Thanks, Elaine. That’s another book to add to the list! I have heard Jane Porter’s name before, in connection with Sir Walter Scott, but I’ve never investigated her work. The Scottish Chiefs definitely sounds like the sort of thing I would enjoy and I’m pleased to hear you think it compares well to Scott.

  7. whatmeread says:

    Nice list! When I first read Gone with the Wind in high school, I hated Scarlet so much that I didn’t really pay attention to much else about the book. But I reread it a few years ago, and it is actually an excellent historical novel. People get so carried away by the romance that they don’t seem to pay attention to that, and anyway, I think they’re thinking of Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, not the actual characters in the book, which is much less romantic.

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