As March is Women’s History Month here in the UK, I thought I would do a quick round up of my favourite historical biographies about women from history. In terms of book genres, biographies has to be up there as one of my faves.
A well-crafted biography can leave you feeling like you truly know a person, despite having never met them. And historical biographies provide a window to the thoughts and motivations of long-dead people who shaped the world we live in today.
These are reads I come back to time and time again, and are amongst some of my top history books ever. So grab a cup of tea and settle down with one of these…
Probably my fave historical biography EVER, Georgiana by Amanda Foreman spawned a radio play starring the legend that is Dame Judi Dench, and an Oscar-winning feature film The Duchess staring Keira Knightley. It also won the 1998 Whitbread Prize (now known as the Costa Prize) for Best Biography. Bottom line – IT. IS. GOOD.
But who was Georgiana? The wife of the 5th Duke of Devonshire, she was an English socialite, political organizer, style icon, author, and activist – the original It Girl and one of the most famous females in 18th Century England. But there was also a lot of sadness in her life, including an unhappy marriage (you can see why her story made a good film). I love this lady so much I have a picture of her on my office wall.
Author Paula Byrne is a prolific biography writer so readers may recognise the name. She has written biographies about many fascinating females from history, including Dido Belle, Kick Kennedy, Jane Austen and Barbara Pym.
Paula’s first top ten bestseller was Perdita: The Life of Mary Robinson, which was nominated for numerous prizes. The book tells the extraordinary story of the eighteenth-century actress, poet, novelist, feminist, celebrity and royal mistress Mary ‘Perdita’ Robinson.
Mary is often reduced by writers to the mistress of the future George IV, but Byrne thoroughly explores all aspects of her life and reveals she was so much more. That’s why I love this book so much.
There are loads of great historical biographies about royal Tudor women, to the point that one may get a bit tired of them. My fave Tudor biography is actually about a woman that wasn’t royal at all, but used her wits, shrewd business acumen and a series of marriages to become the wealthiest woman in England after Elizabeth I – Bess of Hardwick.
Like the other ladies in this list, Bess led a life too extraordinary to be condensed into a single paragraph for a blog post. I’ve always thought she’s one of those historical figures whose story deserves telling on the big screen. This biography by Mary S Lovell is well-researched and rooted in fact, and is a must-read for any Tudor history lover this Women’s History Month.
Nicola Tallis is one of my favourite historians and writers full stop. She has a natural ability to recount narrative history in a way that leaves you hooked. She’s a born storyteller as well as a great historian.
It was a hard choice between this book and her biography about Lettice Knollys, but Uncrowned Queen was the first comprehensive biography about Margaret Beaufort, mother of the Tudor dynasty, in three decades. Plus, it totally flipped the long-held narrative of Margaret as a two-dimensional character, reduced to her ambition and piety. This biography was sensitive and well-rounded, and deserves all the praise.
If you’re looking for a more in-depth review of Uncrowned Queen check out this post from my blog.
Of course, there are many more wonderful biographies about women from history out there, and as the much-needed spotlight continues to shine on overlooked figures, I predict this is one area of the book market that is only going to grow in popularity beyond Women’s History Month.
What is your favourite biography about a woman from history? Let me know in the comments below.
P.S. Liked this post? Then check out my post about the best period drama films to watch for International Women’s Day.