This is a guest post by historical novelist Greer Macallister. Her latest book, Girl in Disguise, has been called a “superb story” (Publishers Weekly, starred review) and “a rip-roaring, fast-paced treat to read” (Booklist).
As a historical novelist whose work is inspired by stories of real-life women from the past, I’m definitely interested in books about historical female role models. My latest novel is about Kate Warne, who not only broke barriers as the first female detective in the US, but also saved Abraham Lincoln’s life en route to his inauguration — solid good-girl stuff. But I’m also deeply intrigued by the historical women who did, or were accused of doing, very bad things. Fiction helps us explore who they were, what they did or might have done, and the delicious possibilities of why. Here are seven great books about badly behaved women.
See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
Is any woman’s name more immediately associated with violence and murder than Lizzie Borden’s? Schmidt digs deep into the circumstances of the famed ax murder of Lizzie Borden’s father and stepmother from a rotating set of perspectives, including Lizzie, her sister Emma, their maid, and a drifter named Benjamin. This dark debut pulses with secrets, contradictions, and mysteries, keeping you on the edge of your seat.
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
The notorious position that Lizzie Borden occupies in the American imagination is claimed in Canadian history by Grace Marks. She was convicted in 1843 of the murder of her employer and his housekeeper — who was also his mistress, adding an extra fillip of scandal to the crime and the ensuing trial. Her initial sentence of death by hanging was commuted to life in prison, where Atwood picks up the story with a fictional young doctor determined to discover the truth of Grace’s guilt or innocence. Read it before the TV adaptation lands on Netflix later this year.
Becoming Bonnie by Jenni L. Walsh
One half of the dangerous duo Bonnie and Clyde, Parker started out as a church-going girl whose life was changed forever by her association with Clyde Barrow. Beginning the story in 1927, Walsh imagines how this deadly partnership came to be — developing a complex young woman struggling to reconcile her wholesome upbringing with her yearning desires in Becoming Bonnie. The sequel, Bonnie, will complete Parker’s tragic story next year.
The Vatican Princess by C. W. Gortner
Over the years, the prominent Borgia family of the 15th century has become associated with blood, incest, crime, and dark whispers. Gortner’s novel, recently released in paperback, weaves fact and fiction together to tell the scandalous story of young, beautiful Lucrezia Borgia, illegitimate daughter of a pope. Was she an innocent pawn, a skilled seductress, or something in between? You’ll keep turning the pages to find out.
Frog Music by Emma Donoghue
The definition of “bad behavior” changes over time, but in 1876 San Francisco, a woman dressing as a man — as the historical Jenny Bonnet did — definitely qualified. Based on a true unsolved murder of the time, this novel investigates Jenny’s death through the eyes of her friend Blanche, a burlesque dancer whose investigations put her own life in danger. Jenny dies in the first chapter, but Donoghue sends us zinging back and forth in time to get to know her and Blanche. Both women are worth following through the dangerous fringes of the still-young city.
The Wardrobe Mistress by Meghan Masterson
The glamorous and doomed Marie Antoinette was known for her oblivious excess, including her extensive, expensive wardrobe. Masterson smartly brings us into her court at Versailles through the eyes of 16-year-old Giselle, hired as an “undertirewoman,” or wardrobe assistant, to the notorious queen. As the revolution approaches, Giselle finds her loyalties torn between her employer, her family, and a handsome revolutionary — and conflict boils over into bloodshed.
The Traitor’s Wife by Allison Pataki
History has forever branded Benedict Arnold as a traitor, but what role did his wife Peggy Shippen play in his betrayal of American military secrets to the British? After all, Arnold’s British spy contact Major John Andre was her former beau. Pataki gives us a front-row seat in British-occupied Philadelphia from Peggy’s perspective, and explores how a young woman of the time might have seen the Revolutionary War — and what she might have done to make her own mark.
What are your favorite historical novels about unconventional ladies? Tell us in the comments below!