Forget Little Women; Embrace Real Heroines

Did you know that Stella Gibbons, author of Cold Comfort Farm - not to mention twenty-four other novels, three volumes of short stories, four volumes of poetry and copious journalism - was forced to move to “a dark little den” at the back of offices of weekly women’s magazine The Lady for distracting other members of staff by making them laugh so much? Or that Gertrude Stein, the brilliant experimental writer and Left Bank doyenne, popularised the use of ‘gay’ as a term for homosexuality (including her own), and cultivated a taste for cannabis-infused ‘haschich fudge’?

Intimate details about extraordinary lives always make for compulsive reading, and Sandi Toksvig’s latest book Heroines and Harridans: A Fanfare of Fabulous Females presents twenty-two pithy stories of brilliant, eccentric and disobedient women, complete with beautiful illustrations from Sandy Nightingale. From twelfth-century Japanese samurai warrior Tomoe Gozen to nineteenth-century African-American-Indian aviatrix Bessie Colman, the book features women who helped shape the world they lived in but who sunk into obscurity or ignominy thanks to personalities that didn’t fit easily into the conventions of the day.

Written with Toksvig’s signature wit, it’s a light-hearted pleasure, but it has a serious and admirable mission at its heart, and it got me thinking about other great books I’ve read that have put real, wayward women on the page.

In the non-fiction category, Alison Weir, the highest-selling female historian in the UK, is the undisputed queen of, well, queens. She is probably most famous for her works on Henry VIII’s wives, mistresses and daughters but she has also tackled Eleanor of Aquitaine, She-wolf Isabella, and the less famous but no less fascinating Katherine Swynford, fourteenth-century Duchess of Lancaster. Weir’s hallmark is impeccable research teamed with passionate, vivacious prose that makes complex lives both thrilling and relatable, and she should be compulsory reading for every bored girl who spends history lessons playing with her iPhone. For fans of Weir, Helen Castor’s She Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth (also a BBC4 series) is less academically rigorous but also written with equal clarity and verve.

Looking to other eras and continents, Robert Massie’s recent portrait of feisty Russian ruler Catherine the Great, manages to turn a ball-busting icon into a nuanced, vulnerable human being. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Shiff’s exploration of the enigmatic icon Cleopatra is full of sharp surprises and vivid details which evoke a very different woman – Greek, hook-nosed, intellectual and multilingual - to the Shakespearian diva we think we know. In The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth, Frances Wilson unveils an important influence on our literary canon, rescuing Dorothy from her traditional role as William’s doting sister to portray a wild, intense woman who was a brilliant writer in her own right. And journalist Peter Popham’s The Lady and The Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi, which draws from the diary of Aung San Suu Kyi’s turncoat confidante Ma Thanegi, gives moving and timely insight into this private, enigmatic and divisive political heroine.

When it comes to novels, Philippa Gregory has to take the crown for popular bodice-lit. But although her riffs on Anne Boleyn, Katherine of Aragon and co are tasty pieces of tense, high-stakes storytelling, it’s all too easy to stay within her medieval-and-Tudor-Europe domain. Why not travel back 2600 years and meet the bisexual ancient Greek poet Sappho? Although she has scant historical fact to work with, Erica Jong’s Sappho’s Leap offers an exuberant and unashamedly empowering take on the adventures of one of our oldest recorded female rebels. I’d also recommend The Difference Engine, a glorious steampunk thriller by cybergods William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, which takes us inside the imagined head of Ada Lovelace, the real female inventor of the internet. Finally, I rate Richard Skinner’s The Red Dancer, a taut and impressionistic recreation of the life of wartime spy and erotic dancer Mata Hari. Told through the imagined accounts of those who knew her and spanning the Netherlands, Indonesia and fin de siècle Paris, it is a study in the collision of female legend, reputation and reality.

Powerful and provocative women have all too often been recorded through the lens – and pens - of hostile and conservative men. Writing them back into reality is not only important but a hell of a lot of fun. What reinventions would you recommend?

This article originally appeared on Bookdiva