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Q&A : Novels that Illuminate Women of the Past

By Kathryn Pritchett
March 18, 2022

Since so many women have been left out of the history books, it’s fortunate we can turn to fiction for illuminating tales of by-gone women. To celebrate Women’s History Month, we asked several of the Paper Lantern Writers to recommend novels that introduced them to a fascinating woman from the past.

Rebecca D’Harlingue discovered a 17th century woman artist while doing research for her WIP.

“My work in progress is about a young woman in 1660 Amsterdam who is a map colorist. In my research about women artists, I learned that Judith Leyster was one of very few women ever to be admitted as an artist to the St. Luke’s Guild. Although Leyster lived about thirty years before my character, I was excited to find a novel about her life, A Light of Her Own, by Carrie Callaghan.

“Callaghan shows how Leyster followed the traditional path of an apprenticeship with a St. Luke’s Guild master for several years, followed by presenting her “master work” to the guild for admittance. It is believed that the work was Self-Portrait, which shows her in a casual but dynamic pose at her easel. 

“Leyster seems to have struggled financially in her early days, as did many artists just starting out. At one point, she sued Frans Hals for accepting an apprentice who had left her workshop without the guild’s permission. She won only a small settlement, but her paintings gained more recognition after the judgment. 

“As happens so frequently, Leyster was largely forgotten after her death. Her paintings were attributed to others, some to her husband, Jan Miense Molenaer, and some even to Frans Hals. It was not until 1893 that she was rediscovered, when a painting attributed to Hals was found to be hers.”

C.V. Lee doesn’t know exactly when she first began reading historical fiction, but it was at a fairly young age.

“I remember going to the library and reading books about Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton. Then I was introduced to the historical romances by Kathleen Woodiwiss that were all the rage at the time. For some reason, I have always been more intrigued by settings from the past, mainly because I felt like I learn something about history that I wouldn’t have known otherwise. And while novels with fictional characters are wonderful, my preference remains to read books based on the lives of real women.

“The book that cemented me as a histfic fan was Désirée by Annemarie Selinko. During my college years, I was intrigued by everything about the French Revolution and Napoleonic Eras. I’d read plenty about Napoleon Bonaparte’s wives, Josephine de Beauharnais (a fascinating women in her own right) and Marie Louise of Austria, but I’d never heard about Désirée Clary, who at one time had been engaged to Napoleon but had been jilted in favor of Josephine.

“This book took me on an amazing journey through the Napoleonic years from a very different perspective. I was quite intrigued by this daughter of silk merchant with a front row seat to history, eventually marrying an aid to Napoleon and later becoming the Queen of Sweden. While the names of men throughout history are often more well-known, this was when I realized there are also many fascinating women from days long gone by with stories that deserve to be preserved and told.”

“How about a book about four women?” asks Ana.

“One of the benefits of a brick-and-mortar bookstore is that you’ll come across books that you’ll never hear about from friends, or read about in the newspaper, or come across in the library. That’s how I found The Red Rose Girls: An Uncommon Story of Art and Love.

“So picture this scene, as outlined in the dust jacket: ‘In turn-of-the-century Philadelphia, three talented female artists take over the Red Rose Inn, a picturesque estate on the city’s venerable Main Line, and set up an unconventional household. Joined by a fourth friend, the women forge an intense emotional bond and made a pact to live together forever.

‘Together they pursue their artistic goals, enjoy public recognition and success, and enrich their professional lives with a fluid exchange of ideas.’

“How could I not fall in love with these women?

“But wait! There’s drama ahead, because (as the dust jacket continues) ‘it was an idyllic, romantic life—until one woman left the fold to marry, a breach from which the tightly intertwined group never fully recovered.’

The story of Jessie Willcox Smith, Elizabeth Shippen Green, Violet Oakley, and Henriette Cozens—The Red Rose Girls—perfectly fits the zeitgeist of the early Twentieth Century, when women explored their talents and committed to bold decisions.

I recently read Kate Forsyth’s Beauty in Thorns which brought to life the women portrayed in the 19th century Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Each of them was as distinctive as the men who painted them.

Lizzie Siddal charmed Dante Gabriel Rosetti but struggled with her own demons, including a frustrated desire to become an artist. Painter and engraver Georgie McDonald also put aside her own artistic dreams to support her husband, Ned Burne-Jones. Janey Burden rose from impoverished circumstances to inspire both Burne-Jones and William Morris but caused a rift between these friends who vied for her love. 

As is often the case in reading about women of the past, one is struck by the limitations of the era. Though theirs was considered a bohemian circle, these women were not encouraged to pursue their own dreams but instead were shackled by the men and the expectations of the time. Nevertheless, Forsyth’s novel shows that they were much more than auburn-haired fairy-tale princesses.

I loved learning about the women behind and often in front of the Pre-Raphaelite painters.

Kathryn Pritchett
Written by Kathryn Pritchett

Kathryn Pritchett writes about strong women forged in the American West. To interact with her and the other Paper Lantern Writers, join us in our Facebook group SHINE, on Instagram, and Twitter.

View Kathryn’s PLW Profile

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