Oh, Bridgerton! Let us cheer to Netflix’s smash-hit regency romp, which whisked us away from the dreariness of a pandemic winter and into a riotous frolic of steamy romance, gossipy intrigue and an alternate history in which England’s queen is a Black woman and society is gloriously diverse – and divertingly scandalous. If you haven’t yet sampled its pleasures, it’s the television equivalent of a box of Turkish delight. And if you have? You’ve probably got a gaping hole in your life, just begging to be filled with something equally transportive (heaving bosoms and dashing dukes optional).
Enter this delectation of the best of this winter’s historical fiction – some with the light step of Bridgerton, others with a heavier tread – guaranteed to take you to another time and place.
The Heiress, Molly Greeley (HarperCollins)
This is the untold story of Anne de Bourgh, a name that may be familiar to Pride and Prejudice fans. Anne is the sickly daughter of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, the snobby, dynasty-obsessed aunt of Mr. Darcy who thought that her daughter and her nephew had been promised to each other since birth. In this spirited telling, Greeley (who gave voice to another Austen bit player, Charlotte Lucas, in her first book, The Clergyman’s Wife) imagines what happens to Anne after Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth ride off into the sunset and she decides to stop taking “the medicine” she’s been prescribed her entire life.
The Mitford Trial, Jessica Fellowes (St. Martin’s Publishing Group)
If you like your historical capers served with a side of murder, consider the sleuthing adventures of Louisa Cannon, occasional amateur detective and erstwhile servant to the Mitfords, real-life aristocratic siblings – Nancy, Diana, Unity, Pamela, Decca, Debbo – who all made their mark upon the 20th century. This third novel in a series focuses on one of the darker parts of their history – some of the sisters’ involvement with Nazism, most notably Diana, who was married to the leader of Britain’s fascist fringe. It’s because of this involvement that Louisa – newly married and trying to make a life away from the family – is recruited by Britain’s secret service to shadow the family on a trip to Germany in the early 1930s. That a murder occurs on board their cruise ship is just a coincidence … right? It’s up to Louisa to find out in this sparkly tale by – fun fact – the niece of Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes.
A Thousand Ships, Natalie Haynes (HarperCollins)
In a game of word association, “a thousand ships” will invariably lead to “Helen of Troy.” But in the original myth, we hear little from the perspective of the woman whose face is said to have ignited the conflict – and practically nothing from the other females (mortal and goddess alike) whose lives were upended by Troy’s fall. This immersive novel, nominated for Britain’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, focuses on their stories for an epic tale of a passion, betrayal and power Homer wishes he’d written.
The Last Garden In England, Julia Kelly (Gallery Books)
Is there any setting more romantic than a garden? Well, perhaps a garden on the grounds of a great estate, cultivated with no expense spared and designed by one of Edwardian society’s pioneering lady horticulturalists. In this era-jumping read, Kelly weaves together five women’s relationships with the gardens of Highbury House across three different decades, uniting their fascination with the place by a secret of equally enticing juiciness. Gentle and gorgeously evocative, this story is as sweet as the roses that perfume its pages.
The Arctic Fury, Greer Macallister (Sourcebooks)
Calling all armchair explorers: Bundle up for a tale of derring-do (and no little suspense) as we journey to the Arctic, where, circa 1850, a group of women have secretly mounted an expedition to the North Pole – and one doesn’t return. At its centre is adventuress Virginia Reeve, the group’s leader and the main suspect in the case. Will she exonerate herself before it’s too late? It would be unsporting of us to spoil this zippy, rather clever courtroom drama.
Yellow Wife, Sadeqa Johnson (Simon & Schuster)
Ever since she was a child, Pheby’s mother had told her, “You may be in slavery now, but when you turn 18, the Master has promised me he’ll set you free.” There was even talk of sending Pheby – born of a relationship between the plantation owner and an enslaved woman doing what she had to survive – to finishing school in the North. This hope is snatched from Pheby, however, when her mother dies and her father is gravely injured, and she is left to the mercy of his wife, a cruel and evil woman, operating within an equally cruel and evil system. Separated from the man she loves and thrown into unimaginable suffering, Pheby must fight for her life – and her freedom.
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