Historical Musings #43: Wives, daughters, sisters…

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction. This month’s topic is something which occurred to me while I was in the middle of one of my recent reads, The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton. Given that there are only one or two scenes in which the clockmaker actually appears, very few details on the science of clockmaking, and little relevance to the fact that one of the characters is the daughter of a clockmaker, I wondered why that particular title was chosen. Was it an allusion to the role of time in the story or is it just that books with titles which follow the format The __’s Daughter or The __’s Wife are easy to market?

As well as The Clockmaker’s Daughter, in the last two years I have also read The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown, The Pharmacist’s Wife by Vanessa Tait, The Cursed Wife by Pamela Hartshorne, The Coroner’s Daughter by Andrew Hughes, Warwyck’s Wife by Rosalind Laker, and The Tea Planter’s Wife and The Silk Merchant’s Daughter, both by Dinah Jefferies. In that same period, the only book I’ve read with an equivalent ‘male’ title is Jean Teulé’s The Hurlyburly’s Husband. With the exception of Warwyck’s Wife, these are all recently published books and it does seem to me that it has been a growing trend.

It’s easy enough to see why these are popular titles for historical fiction in particular. Historically, a woman would not, in most cases, have had the opportunity to be a clockmaker, a pharmacist or a coroner, but she could certainly be the wife or the daughter of one. And of course, some books are specifically about a woman’s experience of being a man’s wife or daughter or sister, which in previous decades or centuries could be very different from modern day experiences. In that case, it’s probably less important to tell us what it was like to be a husband, a son or a brother, as men in those times tended to have so much more freedom than women anyway. But where a book is not specifically about being a wife, daughter or sister, as with The Clockmaker’s Daughter, is there no other way the woman could be defined instead of by her relationship to a man?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Why do you think there are so many books with titles like these? What are your favourite Wife, Daughter or Sister novels? You may also be interested in this article in which the author Emily St. John Mandel posts a detailed analysis of books with ‘Daughter’ titles and looks at the possible reasons why these titles are so popular with publishers, booksellers and readers.

28 thoughts on “Historical Musings #43: Wives, daughters, sisters…

  1. Pam Thomas says:

    Apologies to anyone who loves ‘daughter’ or ‘wife’ books, but I find them seriously annoying on a superficial level (they’ve become such a cliche) and also rather worrying. As you say, the whole series implies that women, even in historical times, can only be defined in terms of their menfolk. And a surprising number of women who had no menfolk forged independent paths for themselves, from mediaeval widows running their husbands’ businesses, to the Leveller women who marched for democracy, the women in 18th century London who ran coffee houses, the stalwart young ladies pioneering bicycles or going to university or training to be doctors in the late 19th century, the suffragettes – the list goes on and on, it isn’t hard to find examples at every period of history. I suspect that in the case of the Kate Morton book, the publishers decided to climb onto the ‘daughter of’ bandwagon, however irrelevant to the actual contents of the book!

    • Helen says:

      Yes, it is quite worrying because it suggests that historical women had no identity of their own, other than being a man’s wife or daughter. With the example of the Kate Morton book, the title has almost no relevance to the story and just feels like a marketing ploy – although judging by the comments here these titles may attract some readers but will certainly put off others!

  2. Lark says:

    I never knew there were so many wife/daughter titles ’til you pointed it out. But there are! And it does make you wonder….do these titles just sell really well? Or couldn’t they come up with a better title?

    • Helen says:

      It’s surprising how many you notice when you start looking out for them! I’m sure there are more imaginative titles they could choose, so it must be that the publishers think the wife/daughter books will sell well.

  3. jessicabookworm says:

    If I’m honest I hadn’t noticed this trend, but now you mention it there are a lot of titles like this now. I wonder if they think it will help appeal to women, as women, wives and daughters were perhaps usually sidelined in history and here they are now front stage left in the title? I haven’t read any of your examples, but I do have Philippa Gregory’ The Kingmaker’s Daughter on my TBR!

  4. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review says:

    Oh lord, I do wish this titling trend would fade out; it’s gotten so cliched and boring. One can hardly distinguish the hordes of wives, daughters etc. from one another any more!

    Someday, men will be defined by their relationships … then we’ll have some equivalent masculine titles.

    • Helen says:

      These titles aren’t very memorable, are they? I can understand why authors/publishers are choosing them, but I would prefer more imagination and individuality!

  5. piningforthewest says:

    Thanks for the interesting link. I find these titles really annoying, I hate that females are defined by a relationship, especially to men. So often even nowadays women are anonymous, if you listen to the radio as I do it’s amazing how often men ask for a dedication for their wife – but they don’t say what her name is!

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I often hear men talking about ‘the wife’ as if she didn’t have a name! It’s disappointing that it’s happening with book titles as well.

  6. FictionFan says:

    You’ve touched on a pet hate of mine – this current trend of describing a woman purely as an appendage to a man. I get it, and it clearly does work in terms of marketing, but I do wish authors would concentrate on women as women actually were – there are plenty of interesting stories to be told without distorting history, or – shock! – they could even write about a male character occasionally! I know, I know – then they’d be being sexist… 😉 I have a cousin whose Twitter name is a reference to her being her brother’s sister and it drives me crazy.

    • Helen says:

      That’s what frustrates me too – there were plenty of interesting historical women who would make great subjects for novels in their own right, without being reduced to just ‘the wife’ or ‘the daughter’. And yes, I’m quite happy to read about male characters now and then as well!

  7. Small Review says:

    I don’t mind this one so much. I think in a lot of cases it makes sense, much like you described. Especially when the woman in the book isn’t really well known, but her husband, brother, father is well known like in The Conquerer’s Wife (Alexander the Great and Roxana) or The Traitor’s Wife (Hugh le Despenser and Eleanor de Clare).

    I’ve noticed this trend is also used with a famous woman, like in The Queen’s Handmaiden (Elizabeth I and a fictional seamstress) and The Queen’s Daughter (Eleanor of Aquitaine and Joan), so I read it less as a knock against women and more just an acknowledgement that some people are more recognizable and famous than others. Honestly, if someone asked me who Eleanor de Clare was, I’d say “Hugh le Despenser’s wife” because that really is the best way to describe her.

    I guess since it makes sense in many cases it’s now become a trend and is used even when it doesn’t make any sense. Annoying, since I like the title to reflect the story, but then again many titles don’t reflect their stories very well. I have to admit, since I do like so many of these stories, the marketing gimmick works for me since it’s almost like a genre sticker or some other marker letting me know I’ll probably like that book.

    Now, what really does annoy me are all those “The Secret Diary of…” or “The True Confessions of…” insert famous person’s name. Those titles always make me roll my eyes!

    • Helen says:

      Yes, it certainly makes sense when the man is famous and the woman is not, as with the examples you’ve given. I think it’s more of a problem when the characters are fictional, like in The Clockmaker’s Daughter where the woman’s father is barely mentioned and has no real relevance to the story. I do read and enjoy a lot of books with titles like these, though, so the marketing gimmick appears to have been working for me too!

  8. Jillian says:

    I TOTALLY AGREE WITH YOU. Have you heard of the Literary Wives reading project?

    I just wrote a post about a week ago on a similar topic: I’ve noticed that historical fiction by women these days tends to end with marriage or the promise of marriage — as if that’s the ultimate focal point, even though other stuff happens to women in history. Literally, I’ve begun rolling my eyes whenever I read the description of some new and supposedly revolutionary book about a forgotten woman in history, because it’s ALWAYS something like, “So and so is bound and determined to such and such, and is just beginning to find her feet when A MAN WALKS BY. Will she or won’t she? Can she or should she? Together, they will find out!” UGH. Get him off the screen. I want to read about HER. Not every woman in history needs to fall in love and struggle with falling in love and how it distracts her from her goal. Can she PLEASE have some obstacle beyond romance?

    It seems the publishers assume all we really want is to see her marred off, eh? That seems to be the implication. I might be reading the wrong books. It irks me. Give me a thunderous woman with things on her mind beyond her empty ring finger.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I’ve come across the Literary Wives before – it seems like an interesting project. Thanks for the link.

      I completely understand why you’re frustrated by the number of historical fiction novels ending in marriage! It’s not something that I mind too much as I do like books with a romantic element, but I agree that it’s not always necessary and implies that a woman’s life is not complete until she’s been happily married off.

      I’m finding it difficult to think of examples that don’t involve any romance at all, but I did enjoy two historical novels by Rebecca Mascull – The Wild Air and Song of the Sea Maid – in which the heroines do fall in love but don’t let it distract them from pursuing their careers (in aviation and natural sciences). There’s also the Amelia Peabody mystery series by Elizabeth Peters, where the main character continues her work as an archaeologist both before and after her marriage. Then of course there are plenty of novels about women who famously never married, such as Elizabeth I. I’ll see what else I can think of. 🙂

      • Jillian says:

        Oh, the Rebecca Mascull novels look great!! I hadn’t heard of her. Thanks! I added both titles you mention to my list.

        I don’t mind a love story either! At all. I mind when a love story is tucked into a story about something else simply because the main character is female. Example, can you imagine the novel Moby-Dick these days, if Ishmael was a woman? Female Ishmael would be so worried about his status as unmarried he’d never get around to telling the story of Ahab. Instead, he’d fall in love with Ahab and will she or won’t she and oh my feelings and give me a ring would clutter up the book’s actual story. And AHAB would be more worried about falling in love with the whale than killing it. 🙂 It would be a TOTALLY different book with totally altered themes, simply because the character(s) are female. So what isn’t being written about women because so many of them are fainting divinely into matrimony? Surely we have more to think about than who we will marry? Implying that we don’t and haven’t throughout literature suggests women were constantly thinking about marrying, when I imagine many of them thought a lot more about surviving. And (insert crazy thought) universal themes of humanity against nature similar to what literature about men implies was on their mind throughout history.

        Love stories in books about men are love stories. Love stories in books about women are EVERY story and threaten to diminish their actual story, which is that they are human and think all sorts of interesting thoughts totally unrelated to men. Ishmael is able to go through a giant novel without ever taxing his mind about his personal relationship status. But for a female Ishmael such lack of attention to romance would break some kind of literary rule. Readers would be expecting a man without a shirt to walk by and steal her attention, and that is a crime and a travesty. Not that a female character might fall in love, but that it is expected she will and is undeniable that she must, in literature.

      • Jillian says:

        Also, thanks for “I’ll see what else I can think of.” Someone recommended the novel “Madame Tussaud” to me, as well as “Pope Joan.” Neither of which I’ve read yet, but I now own them. I also really like the work of Alison Weir (she is AWESOME), and I have a feeling Margaret Atwood would be to my liking. Someone else has suggested Joyce Carol Oates.

        I haven’t read a novel on Elizabeth I yet, but I’d love to read one about the immense pressure she must have felt to marry, and what went though her mind as she refused. Hers was a capital mind, ripe for a good novel! 🙂

        I think in the past, women writers (like the Brontes, Woolf, Austen and Eliot) were far more inclined to challenge the idea that a woman thought of nothing but marriage. I’m excited to see so many women lately writing about forgotten women of the past in historical fiction. But it (really, really) troubles me to see them turning these real women’s tales into stock love stories. Again, I don’t mind a love story: I mind when it’s a half-hearted insertion of a love story into the tale for no reason beyond the apparent assumption that no one would care about a book about a woman unless she falls in love. I’m seeing it over and over again, and while I love seeing these women brought to light, I think turning their lives into cardboard romances is a disservice to history as well as our own era.

        From my reading, I can recommend “My Name Is Mary Sutter” by Robin Oliviera, “Mary: Mrs. A. Lincoln” by Janis Cooke Newman, and “The Widow’s War” by Sally Gunning (contains a love story but it’s also a lot more revolutionary than works I’ve read lately). As for male writers, Charles Frazier is my go-to. His depiction of Ada in Cold Mountain is perfection. She is strong and falls in love, but her mind is on far, far more. And the love story isn’t just inserted into the book: it’s deeply tied to theme, and the theme is human survival, not “oh, my, my ring finger is empty.” Wonderful writing if you haven’t tried it. 🙂


  9. Liz says:

    Fascinating analysis and I love the linked essay too. I wonder what would happen if all these wives and daughters could get together to compare notes….!

  10. Judy Krueger says:

    Helen, you have brought up a point that unleashed plenty of opinions! I agree with them. If a title has wife or daughter in it, I just pass right by unless I read lots of positive reviews from readers I trust. I haven’t read it yet but plan to read All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister if for no other reason than to push back against this marketing trend.

    • Helen says:

      There are so many wife and daughter books, it’s becoming difficult to distinguish between them and it does seem that a lot of readers find those titles off-putting. All the Single Ladies sounds like a good alternative!

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