As a reader, I always find it interesting when I find myself delving into a rather specific sub-genre. While I read across all genres, I’ve found that in recent years I often gravitate to biographies of powerful, influential women in history. Even if I already know their story, I’m a fan of immersing myself in a historical moment, learning about the political, economic, and cultural aspects of a time period, and how a certain fascinating female fit into the picture. Reading about these women is intriguing to me, especially since many of them faced rampant, systemic sexism and were still able to make an impact. I’m not so concerned about whether they were “good” women or “bad” women…I’m just looking for interesting lives! The best examples are fair, benefit from great research, and read like a novel.
In this way, I’ve been able to keep some excellent company. A hands-down favorite is Stacy Schiffs’ in-depth biography, “Cleopatra: A Life”, which is an exceptionally well-researched and balanced biography of a female figure we all think we know a lot about, but about whom many misconceptions exist. Robert Massies’ “Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman” took me into the heart of Russian intrigue and I witnessed the rise of a minor German princess into a formidable Russian Empress. I’ve read several biographies of Eleanor of Aquitaine (she’s one of my all-time favorite historical figures, a 12th century political player who was Queen of first France, then England), including one by Allison Weir and another by Ralph Turner. I loved comparing their takes on Eleanor with my childhood favorite historical fiction about Eleanor’s life: “A Proud Taste for Scarlet & Miniver,” written by the incomparable E.L. Konigsburg.
I do sometimes stray from long-dead royals from far-away continents. I’m half-way through the recently released “Hissing Cousins: The Untold Story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth” by Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer. It’s a great summer historical biography. Not as dense as some of the previous titles, (I actually love footnotes!), it’s still a fun ride through the late 19th and early 20th century with these two influential members of the Roosevelt clan. I’m thoroughly enjoying learning about the lives of Eleanor and Alice, including the personal and the political triumphs and struggles of both women.
Next time you’re looking to lose yourself in a rich story, don’t forget that fiction doesn’t have the corner on the market—consider a biography!