Stereotype-Busting Women In Historical Fiction

04/16/2015 08:58 am ET | Updated Jun 16, 2015

The Fair Fight was inspired by the real-life bare-knuckle boxer, Elizabeth Stokes, who lived and fought in London in the early 1700s. When I found out that she'd existed I knew I wanted to write about the low, blood-spattered world she lived in. I had a very vivid picture of her, sitting and soaking her knuckles in brine to harden the skin, feeling her bruises and loose teeth, while elsewhere other women were worrying about what to wear to the next ball. It's that juxtaposition, between what we expect of historical women and the often extraordinary reality of their lives, that fascinates me. Here are some of my favourite female characters from other novels, all of whom defy expectation.

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier Based on a true story, Mary Anning was the daughter of a poor cabinet maker. Aged just twelve, she discovered the first skeleton of an ichthyosaurus, buried in the cliffs near her home. She went on to find all kinds of other dinosaur fossils, many of which had never been seen. Not only were the 'monsters' she found remarkable, but so was Mary herself. She had such an instinct for finding fossils that she was visited by a host of eminent scientists, and guided them around the cliffs. Many of them took full credit for her discoveries; she was poor, young and female, and easy to sideline. But Mary was sparky and independent, and was eventually recognised by the scientific community, although not as much as she deserved.
Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters Set in London in the 1890s, Nancy is the daughter of a Whitstable oyster-seller who falls in love with Kitty Butler, a young woman who makes her living as a male impersonator in the music halls. Nancy becomes Kitty's assistant and follows her to London, a brave and unusual choice in Victorian England. When it all goes wrong, too proud to go home, Nancy is thrown on her wits and must learn to survive on her own. Nancy is a fascinating protagonist, because her journey of self-discovery rings true with a contemporary reader. She changes as the narrative unfolds and she begins to decide what kind of person she is and what life she most wants to lead.
Property by Valerie Martin Property is an extraordinary novel. Set in Louisiana in 1828, and told from the point of view of Manon, the unhappy wife of a brutal plantation owner, it is uncomfortable but compelling reading. A beautiful young woman of mixed race, Sarah is Manon's house-slave. Absolutely trapped by her marriage, Manon's misery mirrors Sarah's. Both women are dominated by Mr Gaudet, and both despise him. Manon's voice is absolutely believable, and the reader swings between empathy and disgust with her. It is Sarah who shines as a remarkable character, though -- she ends up going after her own freedom in a brilliant and courageous twist I won't reveal, as it would be the ultimate spoiler. Watching her through the filter of Manon's eyes only makes the reader root for Sarah the harder, as Manon underestimates her slave's intelligence again and again.
Small Island by Angela Levy 1948, London, and Queenie Bligh's husband hasn't returned from the war. She has to assume she'll never see him again, and find a way to support herself. Queenie lets out rooms in her house to Jamaican boarders, which scandalizes the neighborhood and will change the course of her own life. Queenie is a great character who makes her own decisions about right and wrong, regardless of the institutional racism of the time. The novel's other female protagonist, Hortense, makes a surprising bargain with a man she barely knows and travels to Britain from Jamaica to make a new life. Hortense dreams of a comfortable, respectable home, and life in post-war London for Jamaican immigrants comes as a disappointment and a struggle. She's always keeping a brave face, while the reader sees what the characters don't: her fear and confusion. Both women are tough survivors, and their different paths mirror each other. Some moments of great victory and surprising tenderness in this book.
The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte by Ruth Hull Chatlien Another novel based on a true story, The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte follows the life of Betsy Patterson in the early 1800s. Born in Baltimore, intelligent and flamboyant, Betsy marries the man of her dreams, the dashing but unreliable Jerome Bonaparte. It seems as though Betsy has everything she'd hoped for, until Jerome's brother Napoleon refuses to recognize that the marriage is valid and forces them apart. Unable to be with her husband and later, separated from her son, the story is a heart-wrenching high drama. Betsy is a rebellious, quick-witted heroine who refuses to accept the restrictions placed on her by others.
My Name Is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliviera Set in the early 1860s, during the American Civil War, Mary Sutter is a determined, strong-willed young midwife from Albany, New York. She runs away from home to pursue her dream of becoming a surgeon and save the lives of Union soldiers, at a time when women weren't even allowed into medical school. As well as a gritty, visceral picture of the Civil War, this is a moving story of unrequited love and stubborn ambition. Mary is a brilliant character; gutsy but vulnerable, brave and empathetic.