May 9 2012 10:45am

Author Hope Tarr on Real-life Historical Heroines Who Busted Balls and Broke Outta the Box

Tempting by Hope TarrWho doesn’t love a kick-ass heroine? Today, author Hope Tarr joins us to relate some tales of real-life kick-ass historical heroines, some of whom could have served as models for Hope’s heroines. Hope’s delicious book Tempting is now available at a low price for your e-reader. Thanks for joining us, Hope!

Authors writing historical romance today are frequently called to task for sacrificing historical accuracy to modern sensibilities, authenticity to character-building and plot. There’s even a term for it, coined by Jane Litte of Dear Author: the “mistorical”—shorthand for mistaken historical. Starting in 2011, the popular review site uses “mistorical” as a tag to designate “all manner of historically inauthentic and inaccurate books on the blog—a catchall term that can be used for books of any time period or any type of mistaken, misused, mythologized, missing, or otherwise inaccurately portrayed historicism.”

I like the “mistorical” designation. I like it a lot. It also brings up a question. Are historical romance authors who write strong, dare I say ballsy, heroines fudging facts—and writing mistoricals—in the service of pandering to the popular taste?

For sure, our fictional historical heroines often fire pistols and masquerade as men and generally do a great many things that would have been verboten for our sampler-stitching foremothers—or would they?

Of course there have always been strong women, from landed ladies to humble peasant stock to every social stratum in between. Eleanor of Aquitaine, Joan of Arc, Susan B. Anthony, and Sojourner Truth are just a few of the many prominent female leaders of history and to a woman they had spines of steel. With the exception of the ambitious Eleanor, they also list toward the saintly. Yet in the midst of our singing their well-deserved praises, the subtext implication rings loud and clear: these women were not only exceptions to their respective eras but anomalies, genetically gifted freaks of nature.

Strong women are not necessarily blessed with beauty, brains, and/or super-sized moral compasses. They are not necessarily on the right side of the law.

In my first book, A Rogue’s Pleasure, a Regency-set romance reissued with Carina Press, the genteelly impoverished heroine receives a ransom letter on behalf of her kidnapped brother and, after exhausting all other avenues of acquiring the funds, assumes the persona of a notorious highwayman, One-Eyed Jack, and takes to robbing private coaches on the country roads. She and the hero meet at pistol point—hers. Pretty farfetched—or is it?

The historical record holds accounts of several real-life Robin—or rather Robyn—Hoods. Two prominent lady rogues of the road from the 17th century are Mary Frith and Lady Caroline Ferrers. The daughter of a London shoemaker, Frith became infamous at an early age for drinking in taverns, carrying a sword, smoking a clay pipe—and dressing in men’s clothes. Her modus operandi was to use an accomplice to distract would-be victims long enough for her to slice through their purse strings, earning her the sobriquet “Moll Cutpurse.” It wasn’t until the age of sixty that she extended her criminal concerns from purse snatching and fencing stolen articles to highway robbery. An ardent Royalist in England’s Civil War, she took particular pleasure and pride in relieving Roundheads of their purses. Despite multiple arrests and brandings for thievery, Mary AKA Moll lived into her seventies and died of natural causes.

Less lucky was Lady Caroline Ferrers. Unlike Frith, Ferrers was a lady born. Married to Lord Ferrers at the age of sixteen, she spent the next six years leading a double life: by day the lady of the manor, by night a highwaywoman haunting the northern road to London. A secret passageway from her bedchamber to the grounds served as the portal between the two spheres. Her reasons for carrying out her nefarious nighttime activities are unclear. History portrays her as a bored rich girl, the 17th century equivalent of a thrill junkie, but I like to leave room for imagining a noble cause to which she might have given her ill-gotten gains. What we do know is that her felonious escapades ended one night in 1684 when she was shot during a coach hold-up and managed to make her way home where she bled to death. She was twenty-two.

Are strong heroines in historical romance really such a stretch? Does letting an historical romance heroine too far out of the box amount to bad history and/or wonky world building?


To enter for a chance to win a TEMPTING tote bag full of goodies from Hope Tarr (including a Tempting audiobook and signed copies of her other titles!), make sure you’re a registered member of the site, and then simply leave a comment about the post below.

NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN. A purchase does not improve your chances of winning. Sweepstakes open to legal residents of fifty (50) United States and the District of Columbia, who are 18 or older. To enter, fill out entry at beginning at 10:45 a.m. Eastern Time (ET) May 9, 2012. Sweepstakes ends at 4:00 p.m. ET on May 18, 2012 (the “Promotion Period”). Void outside of the 50 US and DC and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules at Sponsor: Macmillan, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.


Hope Tarr is the author of fifteen historical and contemporary romance novels including Tempting, now available as an e-book for 99 cents and as an audio book from Dark Desires. She is also a co-founder and current principal of Lady Jane’s Salon (, New York City’s first—and only—monthly romance fiction reading series, now in its fourth year with three satellite salons nationwide. Visit Hope online at and find her on Twitter (@HopeTarr) and Facebook.

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
1. Ivyd
I love the Uppity Women series that shows strong women throughout history. I'm sure there were a lot of strong women who managed through socially acceptable or unacceptable ways. I really don't care for whiners or victims. Do something, even if it's wrong....that's usually more fun anyway.
Megan Frampton
2. MFrampton
I know there are some things that make me cringe in mistoricals, but strong women ain't one of them. I love the idea that women have battled the odds, no matter what time they live in.
3. MsGodiva1
So cool to read about daring women in history. Definitely need to remember women like them during these anti-women times.
Jeanne Miro
4. jeannemiro
Hope - Thanks for you including the strong brave women in your stories. Like so many "real" women in history many of whom we will never hear about many women have gone outside the "norm" expected to profoundly influence history as it evolved whether in real life or being featured as characters in history and lore. I'm confident that in the future our daughters and granddaughters will be reading stories about the real female heros of today who have conquered space, fought in our wars and lead countries throughout the world. I can remember in my younger years hearing about Madame Curie and it influencing the way I viewed women and the things they could fight for and achieve and to not be held back by the current restraints of the society I was living in. Thank you for writing stories that portrays what a woman can achieve if they open up their expectations to live the life they want instead of what society dictates!
Lise Horton
5. Lisekim
Terrific argument for our fictional heroines to follow in the footsteps of real life ladies, Hope. And may I add a few more historical wildcats who stepped off their pedastals, like pirates Anne Bonny & Mary Read, and one of my favorite rabble rousers, Queen Boudica. And there are tons more as you read through history, like the subjects of a favorite of mine, Warrior Queens, by Antonia Fraser. Throughout history there have been those hardy women who bucked the system, like the American women who dressed as men to fight in the Civil War, nurses like Clara Barton who flew in the face of female conventions during the same conflagration and as recently as women like the operatives of the OSS and SOE who were ferocious and courageous spies, including the scourge of the Nazis, Nancy Wake. Love these stories and just have to say, never underestimate a woman - no matter what era she lived in!
6. Hope Tarr
Those are all wonderful examples, Lise. The two women I reference aren't particularly laudable but then again strong men aren't held to sainthood as a standard, so why should women be?

Folks, for a daily online celebration of female strength--the good and bad, the bold and beautiful & yes, the ultimate ugly--throughout history, check out my buddy, Elizabeth Mahon's award-winning blog, Scandalous Women.

Herstory has never been more informative and fun!
7. Hope Tarr
Thanks, Jeanne. I hope so! Women's history is one of enormous, amazing, sometimes stupendous accomplishments, all or certainly most of which were squeezed in between providing food, clean clothing and emotional comfort to others.
8. Hope Tarr
Huzzah, Ivy and Megan! Indeed, pooh or get off the proverbial pot but pul-ease don't sit there and mewl about it. :)
Marian DeVol
9. ladyengineer
One of the seven (documented) Revolutionary War patriots who qualify me for DAR membership was a woman. As I haven't done the research, I'm not sure what she did in the war for independence. It may have been as simple as loading/reloading a cannon during a battle. I don't THINK she was a spy, but you never know.... I should try and track it down - her life is bound to be interesting!

There have been strong women in every generation. The personal and societal challenges each faced were likely different and dependent upon the times she lived in.
Christopher Morgan
10. cmorgan
With the Marquis de Lafayette being one of my all time favorite generals, I think his Wife, Adrienne de La Fayette deserves mention.

For the most part, Lafayette was an idea guy. He said "I want to go to America and fight for their Liberty" and then Adrienne would say "I'll find the money". She kept him afloat and made sure his estates and affiars remained in order so that he could keep being who he was. Without her he was just a young French noble that no one wanted to take seriously. Similar can be said for Abigail Adams...

Then there are the kick-ass female scientist like Marie Curie and Ada Lovelace... Ok my history nerd is coming out, back to work...
11. Hope Tarr
Cmorgan, I knew nothing about Lafayette's spousal unit but now I want to know more--everything. Just goes to show that standing squarely behind every "visionary" (or dewy-eyed daydreamer, as one prefers) is a good ops person.

Ladyengineer, I am always fascinated by those who can actually trace their roots back beyond a few generations. It sounds like there's a real life heroine's story waiting to be retold.
Anna Bowling
13. AnnaBowling
Strong women have always been around. I am an Anne Bonney and Mary Read nerd - best gift a friend ever brought me from her travels is a transcript of their trial- and can quote Anne's final words to her soon-to-be-executed lover, Jack Rackham: "If you had fought like a man, you wouldn't have to die like a dog." See, Jack and the rest of the men were belowdecks while Anne and Mary, both pregnant, were the only ones fighting against their final capture.

Deborah Sampson was the first woman to recieve a military pension and be recognized for her George Washington in the Revolutionary War. In the same war, Mary "Molly Pitcher" Hays, is reptured to have swtiched from carrying water to the troops to taking her husband's place at his cannon when he fell in battle.

Strong, capable women existed in history, exist in our current day, and I sure as heck want them in my historical romance novels.
14. Katy L
Although I can't think of any names off the top of my head, there were several soldiers in the American Civil War (on both sides) who were later discovered to be women dressed as men.

There was also Molly Pitcher in the Revolutionary War, who brought water to the soldiers, and took over her husband's job loading a cannon when he was wounded. You had to have some kind of guts to run around a battlefield in those days, regardless of gender.

There were also women who rose to be very important in the
guild system in medieval England (and other countries as well), often through inheriting their husband's business, but they usually kept the business going . Figures in Silk by Vanora Bennett is a good historical novel that features characters like this, based in part on historical figures.

The charter of the Spinster's (a woman who spins in this context) Guild in 12th century (I think - I wrote a paper on it in college, many years ago) Paris specifically refers to daughters inheriting their mother's trade.

Sorry, I've gone on too long, but I also find this a fascinating topic.
Claire Louise Thompson
15. Nefersitra
I think one of the real life earliest historical ball-busters is probably Ahhotep I; she was the wife and sister of Pharoah Seqenenre Tao II and after his death and the death of his brother/son Kamose (the records are unclear if Kamose was Seqenenre's son or brother) Ahhotep was the regent for her son Ahmose I.

Oh yes, this was at the end of the Seventeenth Dynasty when the Eqyptians were fighting a war to expel the ruling Hykos invaders. A stela was recording her achievments was created during Ahmose's reign:
"She is the one who has accomplished the rites and taken care of Egypt... She has looked after her soldiers, she has guarded her, she has brought back her fugitives and collected together her deserters, she has pacified Upper Egypt and expelled her rebels."

Ahhotep's daughter was Ahmose-Nefertari, one of the few historical Egyptians who were deified and worshiped after their deaths - so quite kick-ass in her own right too! Pharoah Hatshepsut was Ahhotep's great-granddaughter
16. Hope Tarr
This is all so fascinating! I learn something, actually several somethings, everytime I check in. I especially loved Katy's snippet about the role of women in Medieval guilds. Years ago I joined the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC not long after it opened. The membership publication was a treasure trove for a history geek like me. I particularly recall a fascinating article (in conjunction with the museum exhibit) on female silversmiths in the UK and The States. Some men who married into the family biz actually took their wives' surname and a fair number of widows carried on their husband's legacy as well. The history of American silver is as much the story of American women as it is men. We think of Paul Revere -- Revereware -- but there may have been almost as many "Paulines" in the trade.
barbara studer
17. 56babs
Historical romance is my favorite . Always feel like I learn something. Thanks for the draw:)
18. undecided
Love, love historical romances! Strong female characters going after what they want never fails to make me smile--even if highway robbery is involved!
Maya Amis
19. mayat7
There have been strong women throughout history. One of the problems, though, is that we don't hear of them as much during periods where society decried strength and praised gentle passivity. It's not that they didn't exist, but that they were sidelined or ignored. Those whom we do hear about must have been particularly powerful - and are often those who came to a sticky end, so that they could be held up as a bad example.
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