These novels feature fictional versions of real women from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries—all of them path-breakers. I swallowed them almost whole, happily immersed in their historical periods, utterly absorbed by the imagined lives of these women.
LOVE AND FURY: A Novel of Mary Wollstonecraft
by Samantha Silva
Wollstonecraft tells her life story to her newly born daughter (who, eighteen years later, will write Frankenstein). Born into a family unsupportive of her intelligence, Wollstonecraft nonetheless found her calling as an advocate for women’s self-determination, challenging the eighteenth-century view that women were not fit for education, and writing one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy. Along the way, she had passionate love affairs before meeting her soul mate, the philosopher William Godwin, who celebrated her genius. This is also a moving portrait of their marriage.
by Suzanne Woods Fisher
Cora Wilson Stewart pioneered a program to educate illiterate adults in early twentieth-century Kentucky—her “Moonlight Schools” operated in schoolhouses in the evenings, and eventually spread across the country. The heroine of this novel is Cora’s fictional cousin Lucy, who comes from Lexington to the mountain towns of Kentucky to help Cora with her project. At first dismissive of rural life, Lucy comes to admire the place and its inhabitants. When she sees how their illiteracy has made them vulnerable to exploitation from lumber companies, she’s determined to help them. A gentle and inspirational story.
by Kimberly Elkins
Laura Bridgman, born and buried here in Hanover, was once world-famous. Deaf-blind, she learned to communicate in English fifty years before Helen Keller. Charles Dickens wrote about meeting her in 1842, and girls named their dolls “Laura” after her. Her story is sad and troubling—she was abandoned by those closest to her—but also fascinating. Samuel Gridley Howe, founder of the Perkins School for the Blind and her mentor, made her his puppet, but as she developed ideas of her own, including a preference for the Baptist church over Unitarianism, he rejected her. Other historical figures came into Laura’s orbit by way of Howe, among them his long-suffering wife, the poet Julia Ward Howe (who wrote “Battle Hymn of the Republic”), Senator Charles Sumner, with whom Howe had a romantic friendship, and John Brown, whom Howe helped fund. Elkins gives a sense of these intertwined lives on the eve of the Civil War, while at the same time convincingly imagining what it was like to be Laura Bridgman, and know the world only through touch.