You’d be hard-pressed to find a rake, a rogue, or a scoundrel in most historical women’s fiction, but it doesn’t mean that they’re boring, fact-laden yawn fests either. Most of these tales of yesteryear, told from the female point of view, still have romance and sexy leading men.
Some of the most applauded historical novels, whether completely fictional or loosely based on actual historic figures, have been debated in romance circles for decades. The Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon is very sexy and romantic, but also deeply grounded in history and even fantasy. Jamie Fraser to this day is one of the most celebrated leading men of the genre, even in traditional romance. I’d have to agree with that. I love me some Jamie Fraser. Ha cha cha! Philippa Gregory’s tales of King Henry VIII’s court have even made it to the silver screen. I wouldn’t mind being The Other Boleyn Girl, with Eric Bana of course. Paullina Simons's epic trilogy of Tatiana and Alexander, about a couple falling in love in World War II-era Leningrad and their tale of survival up to Cold War America, is gut-wrenching and heartwarming and sexy, and I’ve re-read the series twice. The sexy parts many more times.
Popular historical women’s fiction of late tells two tales simultaneously. A present-day female lead finds something or someone in the past to investigate or revisit. Women during a time of strife looking to their own family history for answers and hope and along the way discovering juicy bits of history that Mama didn’t want anyone to find out. Murder. Adultery. Debauchery. Oh, my!
Jeanine Cummins's second novel, The Crooked Branch, is a beautiful story of family, destiny, and perseverance. Two women separated by time and distance but bound by blood and motherhood. We follow a struggling new mother in New York City and a desperate mother in famine-stricken 19th-century Ireland.
Majella is a new mom and it's not going so well. She cries all the time and thinks she's going crazy, destined to be a bad mother and an awful wife. To make matters worse, she finds the diary of a long-lost relative in her attic, a woman who claims to have been a murderer, who thinks she’s gone mad. Majella believes it is written in her DNA to fail her baby, a gnawing thought she can't abide by. Therapy and a doting husband help to ease her worries a little, along with another new single mother on the block, one who seems worse off than she is. But the more Majella reads the diary, the more unhinged she becomes. She doesn't know the whole story of the woman reaching out from the pages and sets out on a journey to find the truth of who she was and what happened.
We are told Ginny's tale along with Majella's. A mother of six in famine-ravaged Ireland. She too believes she is failing her children. She is driven to the extreme when starvation looms over their heads. A mother on the brink of losing everything, Ginny longs for news of her husband, Raymond, who went to America in hopes of finding work and a way to send money home.
Cummins brilliantly weaves both stories together. It's a triumphant testimony to the unending depths of a mother's love. With each mundane daily task, Majella encounters to each panic-stricken, guilt-laden maternal doubt; I relived the early years of being a new mother. Her husband Leo is a modern-day historical man of virtue and compassion. He too reminded me of how fragile men can be in the first months of parenthood and how gentle they can be as partners. With every life-threatening choice Ginny made for the sake of her children and their survival, I recalled the stories of my own family's plight and hard-fought journey to America. I cannot help but wonder who didn’t make it here during the famine. How many were left behind? I hug my Irish grandmother a little harder every time I see her now.
As with each of Cummins' novels, I wanted to hug it at the end until it was burrowed deep inside me. These beautifully crafted characters have etched a place in my heart and will forever stay.
Sarah Jio is no stranger to historical women’s fiction either. She has four under her belt and two more waiting in the wings. Her covers are stunning; perfectly poised flowers in a lush setting and ever central to the story’s plot. Her first novel, Violets of March, starts out in present-day NYC, transports us across the country to Bainbridge Island of the coast of Washington State, and then thrusts us back to a time of war and depression.
Emily is grieving a divorce when her great-aunt Bee calls with an invitation to visit her childhood summer getaway. Not time like the present to leave the city and her pain. We are swept up like the tide into the lives of a woman hiding from her grief and the diary of a woman who hid everything from everyone. Whose very own true identity had been withheld from the family.
Aunt Bee’s home is large and filled with as many rooms as secrets. When Bee sets Emily up in a room she was never in before, one always locked, it’s no surprise that she finds a red velvet diary. The inscription inside reads, “What Happened in a Small Island Town in 1943.” Diary or manuscript? The writer in Emily cannot help but continue to read. Names are not recognizable, but the stories could be any of those here on the island during that time. A woman named Esther is the author and she had an affair with a man named Elliott. Esther was married at the time but she and Elliott were once meant to be. Time and circumstance changed their course and Esther describes the contents of what’s to come on the pages as her undoing and ultimately her family’s as well.
I wouldn’t be able to stop reading the story either. Emily senses something familiar, something connected to her. Aunt Bee is no help revealing secrets. An elderly man named Henry, Bee’s neighbor, is as mysterious as the pages. He suffered incredible loss once and it’s something she recognizes in herself. Henry’s grandson Jack is handsome and an artist and keeping her slightly distracted from missing the ex who left her for another woman.
The pages in the diary pull her in and we are given a glimpse of “Esther,” if that’s her real name. We see the ravages of war when a secret love returns unscathed to find the other married. One who could’t wait. Esther and Elliot’s affair is heartbreaking and so real you can’t help but feel for them. The more Emily reads and we see Esther’s life we know they are somehow connected. And what connects them will change her family tree and her heart forever.
The Violets of March made me want to disappear on an offshore rainy beach island. It made me poke around into my own family history for any shocking tales. There are few, it seems. And Elliott ranks up there with Jamie Fraser and Alexander Barrington. Men of history, of virtue, and with that little something that makes our nether regions twinge and our heart sigh a bit.
Historical women’s fiction is life, family, tradition, secrets, desires, mystery, and—above all—love wrapped up into neatly typed pages. As always, they leave me with weighty sighs and many ha cha chas!