Today is International Women’s Day, and as women’s history is a passion of mine, and one of the main focuses of Just History Posts’ blog posts, I usually do a piece in celebration of this. In the past I’ve written about female highway robbers or done a retrospective look at some of the blog posts about women that I’ve written about in the past. This year, however, I thought I should look forward instead of backward, and celebrate some of the amazing female historians who are writing history today. I am constantly amazed by the fantastic scholarship that is being produced right now, and so much of it is being written by women. So, I have gathered a group of women who are writing both fiction and non-fiction history and I asked them about what they are working on, how they got to where they are today, and why they are passionate about their topics. There were so many great responses, that this post is a two-parter. The second part will be published next week, so make sure to check back!
I’m Joanna Courtney and I’ve loved history from the moment I saw the (retouched) bloodstain on the floorboards of Holyrood palace where Lord Darnley murdered David Rizzio and became aware of the past as a tangible reality. These days I try to create that with my novels and am especially keen to bring women back into their rightful places as more than just observers of their husband’s great deeds and strokers of their even greater egos! I was horrified, when investigating 1066, to realise that whilst most people can tell you a little about King Harold, Duke William and Harald Hardrada, no one – myself included at the time – could even name their wives. My Queens of the Conquest trilogy set out to rectify that, introducing readers to Edyth of Mercia, Princess Elizaveta of Kiev and Duchess Mathilda. It also led me to Lady Macbeth who, it emerges, was a Queen regnant of Scotland, alongside her husband, for fifteen highly prosperous and settled years. My interest was piqued anew and I started working on my Shakespeare’s Queens series which, I hope, releases Lady Macbeth from the reductionist stereotype of ‘sexy murderess’, Ophelia, a Danish shield-maiden, from ‘wet girlfriend’. and Cordelia, part of a Celtic matriarchy, from ‘obedient daughter’. Women are so much more than bit parts in history and I hope my novels restore them to the centre of their own stories.
I was born in Exeter, brought up in Kent and am a graduate of the University of York, from which I hold a BA and D. Phil in History. In a varied career, I have lived in Paris and New York, worked as a university lecturer and spent over twenty years in the corporate world. I’ve written five books, all published to critical acclaim. The latest, ‘Mistresses, sex and scandal at the court of Charles II’, is out in paperback in April 2021. My specialization is the 16th-18th centuries, with particular emphasis on the Tudors, the Stuarts and the French Revolution. I am a regular reviewer for the Literary Review and BBC History Magazine and have spoken at many literary festivals. My next book, a biography of Margaret Tudor, will be published in 2024.
My name is Michelle Birkby and I write the Mrs Hudson and Mary Watson Investigations, starting with The House at Baker Street. I’ve always loved history, and I studied it at school. However, I began to notice it all focused on the men, and what they did and said, and I asked – what about her, over there? What did she do? There weren’t many history books written about women then. When I decided to write crime, I wanted to write about historical women. There was a perception that women before the twentieth century stayed in the background and did nothing and the men ran everything. I did my research in newspapers and court cases and found women who ran businesses, who got involved with politics, who changed laws, who had jobs, who not only committed crimes but investigated them. I wanted to write about them, and let people know these women existed. I decided to use two women who had always been in the background of the story of a man – Sherlock Holmes. There were hints in the stories that they did more – so I shone the light on them, to highlight all the invisible historical women.
Sharon Bennett Connolly
I have been fascinated by history my whole life, ever since getting a Kings and Queens of Britain book one Christmas when I was about 8 or 9. Now a member of the Royal Historical Society, I regularly give talks on women’s history; I have written features for All About History magazine and my TV work includes Australian Television’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?‘. I have studied history academically and just for fun. I even worked as a volunteer tour guide at Conisbrough Castle – climbing the keep 3 times a day was a great way to stay fit. I write the popular history blog, History The Interesting Bits, which has been going for 6 years. I mainly write on women’s medieval history as these stories have rarely been told and women’s lives were much more interesting than the chronicles would have you believe. So far, I have published 3 best-selling non-fiction history books: Heroines of the Medieval World; Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest and Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England. My next book, Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey, is due to be released on 31 May 2021. It tells the story of the Warenne earls of Surrey over 300 years and 8 generations; a family devoted to royal service, more or less.
My name is Alexandra Walsh and I’m best known for writing The Marquess House Series, (The Catherine Howard Conspiracy; The Elizabeth Tudor Conspiracy; The Arbella Stuart Conspiracy.) They are dual timeline, historical mysteries that reveal a secret hidden in history which still has dangerous repercussions in the present day. Despite always wanting to write fiction, I had to earn a living and for 25 years I was a journalist, working mainly for women’s magazines. This brought me into contact with hundreds of fascinating women, whose stories I told. When I began researching The Marquess House books, one of the most important discoveries I made was the many female voices that were missing from history, voices that gave an entirely different version of well-known events. Women were at the heart of the court which was the seat of power for so many centuries. They were wives, sisters, cousins, aunts, daughters and they wielded influence, if not power, over the male players. Yet it is only recently, with the rise of so many brilliant women historians, that this side of history is finally being considered. My favourite discovery was Lady Isabel Baynton nee Leigh, the half-sister of Catherine Howard. She was at the centre of events at the Tudor court, yet, she, like so many other women, are unknown, their stories untold. Having spent the majority of my career telling the stories of contemporary women, I’m now working hard to give historical women a chance to tell their stories.
My name is Michèle Schindler. I am a 30-year-old author of a non-fiction history book, “Lovell Our Dogge: The Life of Viscount Lovell, Closest Friend of Richard III and Failed Regicide”, and I have several upcoming books as well, including one on mental health in the Middle Ages and one on Alice Chaucer. I’ve also written a small, self-published novella about Francis Lovell’s early life, called “The Autumn Baron”. In my day job, I am a language teacher. I studied at Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, reading history with a focus on mediaeval studies, and English Studies. I did not finish my Bachelor Degree due to financial issues. In addition to English and German, I speak French, and read Latin. I am from Germany and very interested in both English and German history and culture. My particular interest is mediaeval history, but in the last years, I did a lot of personal genealogy, which gave me a good grounding in modern German history and culture. Through handling a lot of old letters and sources, I also learnt how to read Sütterlin. Apart from history, I enjoy doing pilates and other sports, taking photos, and I love working and playing with animals, particularly dogs.
You can find Michèle at her Twitter account.
I am on a mission to jettison the clichés about women in the late middle ages through story. So far I’ve written 21 historical novels set in the 14th century, 19 of them crime novels and two fictional biographies, and in all I hope to show that strong women aren’t a modern phenomenon, but are there in the archives. Women took charge of manors and farms when their men went off to war, took over businesses when widowed, or when their husbands were imprisoned, away, incapacitated. Taking charge included defending those manors and businesses as well as managing them. In my Owen Archer crime series (most recent A Choir of Crows) my male sleuth is supported by wise, resourceful women, including his wife Lucie Wilton, an apothecary; his neighbor Bess Merchet, a taverner and innkeeper; and the healer Magda Digby. I took a break from the series to write about two historical figures, Alice Perrers (The King’s Mistress) and Joan of Kent (A Triple Knot). I admired them both, but in writing their stories I came to see how much more controlled women’s lives were in a royal court than among the merchant class in the towns and cities. After writing those I wrote three crime novels about a very independent widow, the merchant and hostess Kate Clifford (most recent A Murdered Peace) before returning to the Owen Archer series.
I’ve always been deeply interested in history, but my love of the pre-Conquest era was sparked during my BA(Hons) course when the eminent Medievalist Ann Williams was my tutor. My first novel was To Be A Queen, which tells the story of Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians. Whilst researching it I was staggered to discover that no one had written a novel about such a remarkable woman, a queen in all but name. I wrote two further novels, both set primarily in Mercia and, having won awards for nonfiction as well as my fiction, I began to research and write Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom (Amberley). Mercia produced many interesting characters, many of them women. I realised that these women had not been afforded their own book and, following a comment from Janina Ramirez, I decided to look at their lives in more detail, expanding my research beyond the Mercian borders. The result was Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England (Pen & Sword). I continue to write fiction/nonfiction and am pleased to say that I was the inaugural winner of the Historical Writers’ Association/Dorothy Dunnett Prize and am an elected member of the Royal Historical Society. I’ve given talks about Aethelflaed and am due to give one about King Offa, but I can’t help thinking that his wife is the more interesting – the only woman we know of from the period to have coins minted in her name. Now that’s where the stories are, and that’s the appeal for me!
A huge thank you to all of the historians who have spoken to us today! I hope you have discovered a new author today whose work interests you, and have added plenty of books to your ‘to-read’ pile! Remember to check back next week for our second part, and you can find my own book, Royal Witches in all major book stores. You can also have a look at some of the blog posts I’ve written about women’s history via the tag on my blog here.
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