16 Historical Fiction Books About the Great Women Behind Famous Men

Posted on March 5, 2017 by

As the saying goes: Behind every great man is a great woman. Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Benedict Arnold are men of historical significance, but the women linked to these iconic figures often led lives that were equally as fascinating and turbulent as their male counterparts. We’ve compiled a list of historical fiction, about the great women behind some of history’s best-known men. Publishers’ descriptions included below.

 

Z by Therese Anne Fowler

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler

I wish I could tell everyone who thinks we’re ruined, Look closer… and you’ll see something extraordinary, mystifying, something real and true. We have never been what we seemed.

When beautiful, reckless Southern belle Zelda Sayre meets F. Scott Fitzgerald at a country club dance in 1918, she is seventeen 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.

 

The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict

The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict

In the tradition of The Paris Wife and Mrs. PoeThe Other Einstein offers us a window into a brilliant, fascinating woman whose light was lost in Einstein’s enormous shadow. It is the story of Einstein’s wife, a brilliant physicist in her own right, whose contribution to the special theory of relativity is hotly debated and may have been inspired by her own profound and very personal insight.

Mitza Maric has always been a little different from other girls. Most twenty-year-olds are wives by now, not studying physics at an elite Zurich university with only male students trying to outdo her clever calculations. But Mitza is smart enough to know that, for her, math is an easier path than marriage. And then fellow student Albert Einstein takes an interest in her, and the world turns sideways. Theirs becomes a partnership of the mind and of the heart, but there might not be room for more than one genius in a marriage.

 

The Emancipator’s Wife by Barbara Hambly

The Emancipator's Wife by Barbara Humbly

As a girl growing up in Kentucky, she lived a sheltered, privileged life filled with picnics and plantation balls. Vivacious, impulsive, and intoxicated by politics, she is a Todd of Lexington, an aristocratic family whose ancestors defeated the British. But no one knows her secret fears and anxieties. Although she is courted by the most eligible suitors in the land, including future senator Stephen Douglas, it is a gangly lawyer from Illinois who captures her heart. After a stormy courtship and a broken engagement, Abraham Lincoln will marry 24-year-old Mary Todd and give her a ring inscribed with the words “Love Is Eternal.”

But their happiness won’t last nearly so long. Their first child will be born under the gathering clouds of a civil war, and three more follow. As Lincoln’s star rises, the pleasure-loving Mary learns, often the hard way, the rules of being a politician’s wife. But by the time the fiery storm of war passes, tragedy will have claimed two sons, scandal will shadow her days as First Lady, and an assassin’s bullet will take Lincoln himself, leaving Mary alone and all but forgotten by the nation that owed her husband its survival.

Yet it is in the years to come that Mary Todd Lincoln will truly come into her own. In public, she will fight to preserve Lincoln’s memory even as she battles a bitterly contested insanity trial. In private, she will struggle with depression and addiction as she endures the betrayals — both real and imagined — of family and friends.

With a gifted novelist’s imagination and a historian’s eye for detail, Barbara Hambly tells a story of astonishing scope, richly peopled with real-life characters and their fictional counterparts, a tour-de-force tale of power, politics, and the role of women in nineteenth- century America. The result is a Mary Todd Lincoln few have seen and none will forget — the fascinating, controversial woman of whom her husband could say: “My wife is as handsome as when she was a girl and I fell in love with her; and what is more, I have never fallen out” — Mary Todd, the woman who loved Abraham Lincoln.

 

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The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Chicago, 1920: Hadley Richardson is a quiet twenty-eight-year-old who has all but given up on love and happiness — until she meets Ernest Hemingway. Following a whirlwind courtship and wedding, the pair set sail for Paris, where they become the golden couple in a lively and volatile group — the fabled “Lost Generation” — that includes Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Though deeply in love, the Hemingways are ill prepared for the hard-drinking, fast-living, and free-loving life of Jazz Age Paris. As Ernest struggles to find the voice that will earn him a place in history and pours himself into the novel that will become The Sun Also Rises, Hadley strives to hold on to her sense of self as her roles as wife, friend, and muse become more challenging. Eventually they find themselves facing the ultimate crisis of their marriage — a deception that will lead to the unraveling of everything they’ve fought so hard for.

A heartbreaking portrayal of love and torn loyalty, The Paris Wife is all the more poignant because we know that, in the end, Hemingway wrote that he would rather have died than fallen in love with anyone but Hadley.

 

Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen

Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen

Inspired by literature’s most haunting love triangle, award-winning author Lynn Cullen delivers a pitch-perfect rendering of Edgar Allan Poe, his mistress’s tantalizing confession, and his wife’s frightening obsession in this new masterpiece of historical fiction to which Sara Gruen says, “Mrs. Poe had my heart racing… Don’t miss it!”

And make sure to check out the captivating new novel from Lynn Cullen — Twain’s End — where the acclaimed author tells a fictionalized imagining of the relationship between iconic author Mark Twain and his personal secretary, Isabel Lyon.

1845: New York City is a sprawling warren of gaslit streets and crowded avenues, bustling with new immigrants and old money, optimism and opportunity, poverty and crime. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” is all the rage — the success of which a struggling poet like Frances Osgood can only dream. As a mother trying to support two young children after her husband’s cruel betrayal, Frances jumps at the chance to meet the illustrious Mr. Poe at a small literary gathering, if only to help her fledgling career. Although not a great fan of Poe’s writing, she is nonetheless overwhelmed by his magnetic presence — and the surprising revelation that he admires her work.

What follows is a flirtation, then a seduction, then an illicit affair… and with each clandestine encounter, Frances finds herself falling slowly and inexorably under the spell of her mysterious, complicated lover. But when Edgar’s frail wife, Virginia, insists on befriending Frances as well, the relationship becomes as dark and twisted as one of Poe’s tales. And like those gothic heroines whose fates are forever sealed, Frances begins to fear that deceiving Mrs. Poe may be as impossible as cheating death itself…

 

The Moon in the Palace by Weina Dai Randel

The Moon in the Palace by Weina Dai Randel

There is no easy path for a woman aspiring to power.

A concubine at the palace learns quickly that there are many ways to capture the Emperor’s attention. Many paint their faces white and style their hair attractively, hoping to lure in the One Above All with their beauty. Some present him with fantastic gifts, such as jade pendants and scrolls of calligraphy, while others rely on their knowledge of seduction to draw his interest. Young Mei knows nothing of these womanly arts, yet she will give the Emperor a gift he can never forget.

Mei’s intelligence and curiosity, the same traits that make her an outcast among the other concubines, impress the Emperor. But just as she is in a position to seduce the most powerful man in China, divided loyalties split the palace in two, culminating in a perilous battle that Mei can only hope to survive.

In the breakthrough first volume in the Empress of Bright Moon duology, Weina Dai Randel paints a vibrant portrait of ancient China — where love, ambition, and loyalty can spell life or death — and the woman who came to rule it all.

 

The Traitor’s Wife by Allison Pataki

The Traitor's Wife by Allison Pataki

A riveting historical novel about Peggy Shippen Arnold, the cunning wife of Benedict Arnold and mastermind behind America’s most infamous act of treason…

Everyone knows Benedict Arnold — the Revolutionary War general who betrayed America and fled to the British — as history’s most notorious turncoat. Many know Arnold’s co-conspirator, Major John André, who was apprehended with Arnold’s documents in his boots and hanged at the orders of General George Washington. But few know of the integral third character in the plot: A charming young woman who not only contributed to the betrayal but orchestrated it.

Socialite Peggy Shippen is half Benedict Arnold’s age when she seduces the war hero during his stint as military commander of Philadelphia. Blinded by his young bride’s beauty and wit, Arnold does not realize that she harbors a secret: Loyalty to the British. Nor does he know that she hides a past romance with the handsome British spy John André. Peggy watches as her husband, crippled from battle wounds and in debt from years of service to the colonies, grows ever more disillusioned with his hero, Washington, and the American cause. Together with her former love and her disaffected husband, Peggy hatches the plot to deliver West Point to the British and, in exchange, win fame and fortune for herself and Arnold.

Told from the perspective of Peggy’s maid, whose faith in the new nation inspires her to intervene in her mistress’s affairs even when it could cost her everything, The Traitor’s Wife brings these infamous figures to life, illuminating the sordid details and the love triangle that nearly destroyed the American fight for freedom.

 

The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. by Sandra Gulland

The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. by Sandra Gulland

In this first of three books inspired by the life of Josephine Bonaparte, Sandra Gulland has created a novel of immense and magical proportions. We meet Josephine in the exotic and lush Martinico, where an old island woman predicts that one day she will be queen. The journey from the remote village of her birth to the height of European elegance is long, but Josephine’s fortune proves to be true. By way of fictionalized diary entries, we traverse her early years as she marries her one true love, bears his children, and is left betrayed, widowed, and penniless. It is Josephine’s extraordinary charm, cunning, and will to survive that catapults her to the heart of society, where she meets Napoleon, whose destiny will prove to be irrevocably intertwined with hers.

 

Loving Eleanor by Susan Wittig Albert

Loving Eleanor by Susan Wittig Albert

When AP political reporter Lorena Hickok — Hick — is assigned to cover Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1932 campaign, the two women become deeply involved. Their relationship begins with mutual romantic passion, matures through stormy periods of enforced separation and competing interests, and warms into an enduring, encompassing friendship documented by 3300 letters.

Set during the chaotic years of the Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Second World War, Loving Eleanor reveals Eleanor Roosevelt as a complex, contradictory, and entirely human woman who is pulled in many directions by her obligations to her husband and family and her role as the nation’s First Lady. Hick is revealed as an accomplished journalist, who, at the pinnacle of her career, gives it all up for the woman she loves. Then, as Eleanor is transformed into Eleanor Everywhere, First Lady of the World, Hick must create her own independent, productive life. Loving Eleanor is a profoundly moving novel that illuminates a relationship we are seldom privileged to see, celebrating the depth and durability of women’s love.

 

The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin

The Aviator's Wife by Melanie Benjamin

When Anne Morrow, a shy college senior with hidden literary aspirations, travels to Mexico City to spend Christmas with her family, she meets Colonel Charles Lindbergh, fresh off his celebrated 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic. Enthralled by Charles’s assurance and fame, Anne is certain the aviator has scarcely noticed her. But she is wrong. Charles sees in Anne a kindred spirit, a fellow adventurer, and her world will be changed forever. The two marry in a headline-making wedding. In the years that follow, Anne becomes the first licensed female glider pilot in the United States. But despite this and other major achievements, she is viewed merely as the aviator’s wife. The fairy-tale life she once longed for will bring heartbreak and hardships, ultimately pushing her to reconcile her need for love and her desire for independence, and to embrace, at last, life’s infinite possibilities for change and happiness.

 

Loving Frank by Nancy Horan

Loving Frank by Nancy Horan

I have been standing on the side of life, watching it float by. I want to swim in the river. I want to feel the current.

So writes Mamah Borthwick Cheney in her diary as she struggles to justify her clandestine love affair with Frank Lloyd Wright. Four years earlier, in 1903, Mamah and her husband, Edwin, had commissioned the renowned architect to design a new home for them. During the construction of the house, a powerful attraction developed between Mamah and Frank, and in time the lovers, each married with children, embarked on a course that would shock Chicago society and forever change their lives.

In this ambitious debut novel, fact and fiction blend together brilliantly. While scholars have largely relegated Mamah to a footnote in the life of America’s greatest architect, author Nancy Horan gives full weight to their dramatic love story and illuminates Cheney’s profound influence on Wright.

Drawing on years of research, Horan weaves little-known facts into a compelling narrative, vividly portraying the conflicts and struggles of a woman forced to choose between the roles of mother, wife, lover, and intellectual. Horan’s Mamah is a woman seeking to find her own place, her own creative calling in the world. Mamah’s is an unforgettable journey marked by choices that reshape her notions of love and responsibility, leading inexorably ultimately lead to this novel’s stunning conclusion.

Elegantly written and remarkably rich in detail, Loving Frank is a fitting tribute to a courageous woman, a national icon, and their timeless love story.

 

The Sisters of Versailles by Sally Christie

The Sister's of Versailles by Sally Christie

Goodness, but sisters are a thing to fear.

Court intriguers are beginning to sense that young King Louis XV, after seven years of marriage, is tiring of his Polish wife. The race is on to find a mistress for the royal bed as various factions put their best feet — and women — forward. The King’s scheming ministers push sweet, naïve Louise, the eldest of the aristocratic Nesle sisters, into the arms of the King. Over the following decade, she and three of her younger sisters — ambitious Pauline; complacent Diane, and cunning Marie Anne — will conspire, betray, suffer, and triumph in a desperate fight for both love and power as each becomes the king’s favorite for a time.

In the tradition of The Other Boleyn GirlThe Sisters of Versailles is a clever, intelligent, and absorbing novel that historical fiction fans will devour. Based on meticulous research on a group of women never before written about in English, Sally Christie’s stunning debut is a complex exploration of power and sisterhood — of the admiration, competition, and even hatred that can coexist within a family when the stakes are high enough.

 

Above All Things by Tanis Rideout

Above All Things by Tanis Rideout

1924. George Mallory is arguably the last great British explorer, having twice tried — and failed — to conquer Mount Everest. The mountain has haunted him, but his attempts have captivated the hearts of a nation desperate to restore its former glory after World War I. Yet George has sworn to his wife, Ruth, that he will not mount a third attempt. He will remain with her and their three children instead of again challenging the unreachable peak.

Then, one afternoon, Ruth reads a telegram addressed to George: “Glad to have you aboard again.” And with this one sentence, the lives of the Mallorys, and the face of the nation, are irrevocably changed.

A beautifully rendered story about the need for redemption and the quest for glory, Above All Things is a captivating blend of historical fact and imaginative fiction. It is a heartbreaking tale of obsession, sacrifice, and what we do for love and honor.

 

The Conqueror’s Wife by Stephanie Thornton

The Conqueror's Wife by Stephanie Thornton

330s, B.C.E., Greece: Alexander, a handsome young warrior of Macedon, begins his quest to conquer the ancient world. But he cannot ascend to power, and keep it, without the women who help to shape his destiny.

His spirited younger half-sister, Thessalonike, yearns to join her brother and see the world. Instead, it is Alexander’s boyhood companion who rides with him into war while Thessalonike remains behind. Far away, crafty princess Drypetis will not stand idly by as Alexander topples her father from Persia’s throne. And after Alexander conquers her tiny kingdom, Roxana, the beautiful and cunning daughter of a minor noble, wins Alexander’s heart… and will commit any crime to secure her place at his side.

Within a few short years, Alexander controls an empire more vast than the civilized world has ever known. But his victories are tarnished by losses on the battlefield and treachery among his inner circle. And long after Alexander is gone, the women who are his champions, wives, and enemies will fight to claim his legacy…

 

The Secret Memoirs of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis by Ruth Francisco

The Secret Memoirs of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis by Ruth Francisco

Who was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis? She was a wife, mother, artist, editor, and world traveler. A bright young woman who rose to unparalleled celebrity. One of the world’s most inspiring and influential women of her day, she has become arguably the most important female icon of all time. Yet she also was a woman of passion and deep emotions, who wanted to experience all that life had to give. How did she feel about it all? She never told.

Jackie said quite famously, “I want to live my life, not record it.” Jackie remains elusive, her interior life hidden, her soul masked behind sunglasses and an enigmatic smile. For the first time, these fictional memoirs tell Jackie’s story in Jackie’s voice — with all her joy and wit, grief and bitterness, gentleness and fortitude.

Ruth Francisco boldly plunges into the subtext of Jackie’s public life, psychology, and sexuality, beyond her dazzling mythic exterior, reimagining Jackie’s feelings and thoughts between the lines of recorded history. In this riveting epic tale, we follow Jackie’s journey from her privileged yet wrenching youth, through the exaltation and suffering of her marriage to John F. Kennedy, to the shattering despair of her losses, exile, and loneliness. As she learns to forgive her jealous rival, Maria Callas, and her abusive second husband, Aristotle Onassis, Jackie begins to find redemption, ultimately discovering peace through her children and her work.

Powerful, poignant, and inspiring, The Secret Memoirs of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis is a sweeping novel, a mythic fable of the trials and tribulations of the female soul.

 

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

On what might become one of the most significant days in her husband’s presidency, Alice Blackwell considers the strange and unlikely path that has led her to the White House — and the repercussions of a life lived, as she puts it, “almost in opposition to itself.”

A kind, bookish only child born in the 1940s, Alice learned the virtues of politeness early on from her stolid parents and small Wisconsin hometown. But a tragic accident when she was seventeen shattered her identity and made her understand the fragility of life and the tenuousness of luck. So more than a decade later, when she met boisterous, charismatic Charlie Blackwell, she hardly gave him a second look: She was serious and thoughtful, and he would rather crack a joke than offer a real insight; he was the wealthy son of a bastion family of the Republican party, and she was a school librarian and registered Democrat. Comfortable in her quiet and unassuming life, she felt inured to his charms. And then, much to her surprise, Alice fell for Charlie.

As Alice learns to make her way amid the clannish energy and smug confidence of the Blackwell family, navigating the strange rituals of their country club and summer estate, she remains uneasy with her newfound good fortune. And when Charlie eventually becomes President, Alice is thrust into a position she did not seek–one of power and influence, privilege and responsibility. As Charlie’s tumultuous and controversial second term in the White House wears on, Alice must face contradictions years in the making: How can she both love and fundamentally disagree with her husband? How complicit has she been in the trajectory of her own life? What should she do when her private beliefs run against her public persona?

In Alice Blackwell, New York Times bestselling author Curtis Sittenfeld has created her most dynamic and complex heroine yet. American Wife is a gorgeously written novel that weaves class, wealth, race, and the exigencies of fate into a brilliant tapestry — a novel in which the unexpected becomes inevitable, and the pleasures and pain of intimacy and love are laid bare.

 

 

Which of these have you read? Let us know in the comments!

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