Ladies of Letters: Women Authors of Historical Fiction

My first novel, The Slave, is set in 14th century Italy and in writing it I strove to make it as true to the times as possible. It tells the coming-of-age story of the daughter of a prosperous merchant and the greatest influences on her development are her relationships with the men in her life. When I published the novel in 2005, I intended categorising it as Historical Romance, until I discovered what a genre I had loved so much had degenerated into. I could not bear to have my carefully researched and written novel bundled in with a genre which could only be described as ‘erotica in long skirts’.

As a defence against this trend (and to promote my novel, of course) I set up a website I called The Romance of History, and together with a few like-minded contributors, we wrote about our own historical fiction as well as the books and authors who had influenced us. The name of the website derived from the title of a volume of the children’s encyclopedia that my parents bought but wouldn’t let me read for a long time. The volume I yearned most to open was called The Romance of History, but when I was finally allowed to read it, instead of pretty love stories, I found it was just about boring old history. I enjoyed the irony.

I recently dusted off the articles I wrote for The Romance of History, and present the first results here for your enjoyment. As it happens, most of my favourite authors were women.

My love of Historical Fiction began when I was a teenager and devoured everything I could get my hands on by my favourite authors: Georgette Heyer, Jean Plaidy and Mary Renault. I decided to revisit those authors for The Romance of History and out of that effort comes the two-part article, Why I love Historical Fiction. In Part One: Three Authors Who Nurtured My Romance with History I relate the lives and careers of these three authors. In Part Two: Three Novels That Left a Lasting Impression, I re-read the novels by each that I remembered the most fondly to see how they stood the test of time, though I think in doing so I learned more about myself than about the books.

Perhaps the sub-genre of Historical Romance that has suffered the most from this downward trend is Regency Romance. Once the epitome of taste and delicacy, the Regency period and its social constraints, have simply become means to make the lurid sex more titillating. I had hoped, I think, that the passage of time might have mitigated this erosion, until Bridgerton arrived on Netflix and I realised that my campaign was still necessary, and that the issues I explored in Move over Bridgerton: here come the Creators of Real Regency Romance, were still relevant.

My reading of Historical Fiction has not always been confined to the mid-twentieth century. I have been known to venture into the new millennium, as I did with two novels set in the Italian Renaissance by Sarah Dunant, with, I would say, mixed results, as related in Italy through English Eyes: Sarah Dunant’s Renaissance Italy.

The last article in this set was written for the English Historical Fiction Authors’ blog. It came out of a passing reference I came across to an author whose name was mentioned on an equal footing with Dickens and Thackeray, but which I had never heard before. As I relate in Marie Corelli: The First Best-seller, she was one of the most popular authors of the late Victorian age, yet her work has been all but forgotten. Her legacy might be a lesson to those writers who strive for best-seller status. Being a best-seller now won’t guarantee you longevity.

If you have friends who enjoy reading historical fiction, especially by women authors, please share this post with them. You can also read more of my thoughts about historical fiction, including Regency Romance, in my book reviews on Goodreads.

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