10 of the best* feminist historical romances

10 of the best* feminist historical romances

*According to me
*As of today

Here are ten of my favourite historical romance novels. All of which appeal to me for their various feminist statements or attributes.

Compiling this blog was difficult. I lost sleep debating placings with myself — and I don’t mind telling you, I made some pretty compelling cases every which way. Bottom line is, it was foolish to try and pick ten favorites from a genre in which I’ve easily accumulated fifty favorites in a two year window.

BUT I DID IT.

Disclaimers:

a) ARCs/DRCs will be disclosed, and the Amazon links are affiliate, so if you buy a book through these links, I’ll make a small amount from the sale. It won’t add anything to the cost of your book, or take from author royalties, I’m just skimming pennies from Jeff.

b) My content warnings are by no means comprehensive, but I’ve tried. They’re written in white text, so if you want to read them just highlight the line. [If you’re on a phone, you’ll have to highlight and copy paste]

c) All lists (ever) are subjective. This is no exception.

Buckle in, babes.

1. Unclaimed by Courtney Milan

Cover 📚: Unclaimed by Courtney Milan

Pub: 2011, HQN Books
Series: Turner series book 2
Historical era: Victorian, London

Handsome, wealthy, and respected, Sir Mark Turner has made a name for himself as an upright moralist. But behind his virtuous reputation lies a hidden passion, one that he keeps in careful check. Jessica is a courtesan, and when Mark’s enemies ask her to seduce him and destroy his good name, she agrees. But along the road to seduction, the worst happens: Jessica falls in love. The only way to win the freedom she needs is to destroy the most honorable man she’s ever met…

Abridged publisher synopsis

This is my all time favourite historical romance. Hands down. I’ve read this like six times and it only gets better. The banter is tiiight, the feelings are raw and the plot is divinely sculpted. Mark is the ultimate book boyfriend, and Jessica is my hero.

Unclaimed is sexy, poignant, and you will not regret time spent reading this. If you only ever read one rec from me, make it this one.

Why so feminist? There are a hundred reasons, but at the heart of the book runs the theme that it’s fundamentally wrong that men are lauded for their sexual promiscuity, free to root and scoot as much as they please; while women are shamed, vilified, and constantly at the mercy of men’s benevolence. Both Mark and Jessica say fuck that.

CW (highlight to read): slut shaming, miscarriage

My full review is on Instagram. It’s one of my older reviews, so beware I was all about using as much internet slang as I could. Sorry in advance.

2. The Prince of Broadway by Joanna Shupe

Cover 📚: The Devil of Downtown by Joanna Shupe

Pub: 2019, Avon
Series: Uptown Girls book 2
Historical era: Gilded Age, NYC

As the owner of the city’s most exclusive casino, Clayton Madden holds the fortunes of prominent families in the palms of his hands every night. There is one particular family he burns to ruin, however … Florence Greene is no one’s fool. She knows Clayton Madden is using her to ruin her prestigious family… and she’s using him right back. She plans to learn all she can from the mysterious casino owner—then open a casino of her own just for women.

Abridged publisher synopsis

Clay is a fearsome legend and Florence is a princess — beautiful but smart, independent and ambitious … aka quicksand for stupid men. Luckily, Clay isn’t stupid.

Why so feminist? Again, many reasons, but in particular was Florence’s determination to kick to her own goalposts. This is one of the few historic romances I have ever read where the Fem Protag doesn’t get a “traditional feminine trappings of happiness” ending/epilogue and I loved that. I wish I could talk more about this but it would be a spoiler. Let me just say, I dislike the epilogues in 90% of the historical romances I read, even the super feminist ones, because too many subscribe to the line of thinking that if you shirk ‘womanly’ trappings, then you’re abnormal. The epilogue of The Devil of Downtown is the antidote I was searching for.

My full review is here, but I don’t think I could hype for this book any better than its patron saint, Beth at @b.andherbooks could. #FuckYeahFlorence indeed.

(I had a DRC of this from Edelweiss).

3. A Hope Divided by Alyssa Cole

Cover 📚: A Hope Divided by Alyssa Cole

Pub: 2017, Kensington books
Series: The Loyal League book 2
Historical era: Civil War, North Carolina

For all of the War Between the States, Marlie Lynch has helped the cause in peace. Her formerly enslaved mother’s traditions and the name of a white father she never knew have protected her—until the vicious Confederate Home Guard claims Marlie’s home for their new base of operations in the guerilla war against Southern resistors of the Rebel cause. Unbeknowst to those under her roof, escaped prisoner Ewan McCall is sheltering in her laboratory. When the revelation of a stunning family secret places Marlie’s freedom on the line,  she and Ewan have to run for their lives into the hostile Carolina night. They find themselves caught up in a vicious battle that could dash their hopes of love—and freedom—before they ever cross state lines.

Abridged publisher synopsis

In twenty years, Loyal League is the series that we’ll still be talking about. A Hope Divided is swoony and sexy and tense and meaningful and so fucking powerful. It lingers with you. The forest scene! The forest scene!!!

Why so feminist? Marlie reminded me that while sometimes it seems like all the world’s airspace is dominated by idiotic, bigoted men; history is full of magnificent women, in particular, magnificent Black women, who are brave, brilliant and pushing for change. History focuses way too much on men, and feminism focuses too much on white women — this book is a nope to both.

CW (highlight to read): white violence, slavery, threats of sexual assault

For more, check out this run down on Black Girl Nerds or this Smart Bitches review.

4. The Rakess by Scarlett Peckham

Cover 📚: The Rakess by Scarlett Peckham

Pub: 2020, Avon
Series: Society of Sirens book 1
Historical era: Regency, England

Seraphina Arden’s passions include equality, amorous affairs, and wild, wine-soaked nights. To raise funds for her cause, she’s set to publish explosive memoirs exposing the powerful man who ruined her. Adam Anderson is a wholesome, handsome, widowed Scottish architect, with two young children, a business to protect, and an aversion to scandal. He could never, ever afford to fall for Seraphina. But her indecent proposal—one month, no strings, no future—proves too tempting for a man who strains to keep his passions buried with the losses of his past.

Abridged publisher synopsis

I wasn’t really ready to have my soul eviscerated when I started reading this book, but that’s exactly what happened.

I know this list is starting to look like I have a real kink for angst and I swear I don’t, but I like books that have something to say. The Rakess says very loudly and clearly: what’s sauce for the gander better be sauce for me too bitch. And I loved it.

Why so feminist? The Rakess stars a Female Protagonist struggling with an actual, bad-news vice. I don’t think I realized until I read this just how accustomed I’ve become to heroines with ‘job interview’ type character flaws — like pride or ambition or loving too much. These are qualities that might get a character in trouble when they reach their peak, but they tend to manifest prettily in romance novels. I find it exhausting to constantly consume female characters whose vices are somehow still cloaked in a layer of feminine delicacy or temperance. Whelp, not Seraphina! Her flaws are as real and ugly as yours or mine. This book deftly makes the point that we love men with real flaws all the time, why not women? ~Equality, bitch~

CW (highlight to read): Alcoholism, miscarriage, m>f coercion (not by the hero), bad things happen to birds, off page asylum torture

My full review is here, but better yet, in episode 51 of Shelf Love Andrea and Hannah from @hannahheartsromance do a deep dive of this book and it’s sublime.

(I had a DRC of this from Edelweiss)

5. The Earl I Ruined by Scarlett Peckham

Cover 📚: The Earl I Ruined

Pub: 2018, NYLA
Series: Secrets of Charlotte Street book 2
Historical era: Georgian, England

When Lady Constance Stonewell accidentally ruins the Earl of Apthorp’s entire future with her gossip column, she does what any honorable young lady must: offer her hand in marriage. Never mind that it means spending a month with the dullest man in England. Or that he disapproves of everything she holds dear. Julian Haywood, the Earl of Apthorp, is on the cusp of finally proving himself to be the man he’s always wanted to be when his future is destroyed in a single afternoon. When the woman he’s secretly in love with confesses she’s at fault, it isn’t just his life that is shattered: it’s his heart.

— Abridged publisher’s synopsis

This is a m-a-s-t-e-r-c-l-a-s-s in romance tropes. It’s got everything good delivered in new and exciting ways.

Why so feminist? Who among us can’t relate to Jane Austen’s Emma? No, really. Which bookish, intelligent, bish doesn’t see themselves in Emma? This is an homage to that classic narrative. Constance is brighter than her circumstances and time allowed for, and people mistake her fluff as feminine frippery; completely failing to notice her razor intelligence and people management skills. It also covers how quick we are to slut shame.

CW (highlight to read): sex work, slut shaming

Pretty sure everyone I’ve ever discussed this book with loves it, but the reaction that sticks in my mind is Jite at @now_booking‘s enthusiastic review.

(I had a DRC of this from the author).

6. Indigo by Beverly Jenkins

Cover 📚: Indigo by Beverly Jenkins

Pub: 1996
Series: Stand alone
Historical era: Civil War, USA

As a child Hester Wyatt escaped slavery, but now the dark skinned beauty is a dedicated member of Michigan’s Underground railroad. When one of her fellow conductors brings her an injured man to hide, Hester doesn’t hesitate…even after she is told about the price on his head. The man in question is the great conductor known as the “Black Daniel” a vital member of the North’s Underground railroad network. But Hester finds him so rude and arrogant, she begins to question her vow to hide him. As a member of one of the wealthiest free Black families in New Orleans, Galen has turned his back on the lavish living he is accustomed to in order to provide freedom to those enslaved in the South. However, as he heals he cannot turn his back on Hester Wyatt.

— Abridged publisher’s synopsis

This is the mother of all feminist romance novels. Indigo has set the scene for every great romance that’s come after. It’s sweeping, heartfelt, sexy, tense— all the things in all the ways. Ms Bev is a queen for a reason.

Why so feminist? Because it’s the best. That’s it, that’s the tweet. Autonomy, bravery, beauty, this book has it all. I’ve read this three times (I’m a re-reader) and every time it lays me down anew. Hester’s vulnerability, incredible bravery, and huge heart will grab your stomach and squeeze.

CW (highlight to read): slavery, white violence

Funmi from @when_funmi_met_romance is the head of the Indigo fan club. She’s blogged for Literally Black about Indigo, and bookstagrammed too. And last year for #JenkinsJuly, Funmi wrote a really beautiful love letter to Ms Bev.

7. Unmasked by the Marquess by Cat Sebastian

Cover 📚: Unmasked by the Marquess by Cat Sebastian

Pub: 2018 Avon Impulse
Series: Regency Imposters book 1
Historical era: Regency, London

Robert Selby is determined to see his sister make an advantageous match. But he has two problems: the Selbys have no connections or money and Robert is really a housemaid named Charity Church. She’s enjoyed every minute of her masquerade over the past six years, but she knows her pretense is nearing an end. Alistair, Marquess of Pembroke, has spent years repairing the estate ruined by his wastrel father, and nothing is more important than protecting his fortune and name. He shouldn’t be so beguiled by the charming young man who shows up on his doorstep asking for favors. And he certainly shouldn’t be thinking of all the disreputable things he’d like to do to the impertinent scamp.

— Abridged publisher’s synopsis

UbtM centers non binary and fluid identities, but that’s not the reason cis people should read this, don’t do obligatory reading — read this because it’s phenomenal book. Gorgeously written and so sexy. I think I’ve read the couch scene about 8 times, it’s always what I go back to when I want heart-in-my-mouth, will they/won’t they romantic tension.

Why so feminist? This book punches archaic gender binaries in the face and I’m here for that.

Content warning: It’s all very well for me to say I loved the NB rep in this book, but I’m a cis person, so I defer to non-binary reviewers. In particular I want to share this review from the late and great Corey Alexander, who did not enjoy the identity representation in UbtM, and has yet again made me think anew, particularly about cis-extended pressure on Robin. They also linked to other non-binary reviewers who did enjoy this rep to illustrate that there is no universal non-binary experience. So if this book could be triggering for you in any way, these expert takes may be helpful navigating this read.

8. The Raven Prince by Elizabeth Hoyt

Cover 📚: The Raven Prince by Elizabeth Hoyt

Pub: 2006, Warner Forever
Series: The Princess Series book 1
Historical era: Georgian, England

When widowed Anna Wren becomes the Earl of Swartingham’s secretary, it would seem that both their problems are solved. Then she discovers he plans to visit the most notorious brothel in London for his “manly” needs. Anna sees red—and decides to assuage her “womanly” desires with the earl [while she’s in disguise].

— Abridged publisher’s synopsis

This is Elizabeth Hoyt’s first ever romance! Can you believe it?! This is before all of Maiden Lane! The Raven Prince is classic-romance perfection and Elizabeth is a gift to the genre. I’m eagerly awaiting When a Rogue Meets His Match (scheduled for Dec 1).

Why so feminist? Anna is fierce and the whole novel is an homage to working women. In NZ prostitution is decriminalized, and it’s BS that this isn’t the case everywhere. (Have we learnt nothing since Georgian England!? Sex work is work! Sex workers deserve protection! Also, while I’m at it, Bella Thorne can fuck off. Anyway). The sex scenes in Raven Prince are … hot damn. There’s a whole *watermelon sugar* moment you should definitely bookmark.

This is only 2006 (younger than Indigo!) but parts of this do feel very ‘old school’ so proceed with a little caution — Edward is quite boorish.

CW (highlight to read): sex work, infidelity, m>f assault being recounted by a secondary character, Edward being a c*nt

I reviewed this book a couple years ago, and also recently posted a kind of fever dream about it.

9. Regarding the Duke by Grace Calloway

Cover 📚: Regarding the Duke

Pub: 2019, self-pub
Series: Game of Dukes, book 3
Historical era: Victorian, England

For the eight years of their marriage, sweet, innocent Gabriella Garrity has adored her powerful and darkly handsome husband Adam, whose moneylending empire has earned him the moniker of Duke of the City. Her domestic bliss is shattered when Adam suffers a traumatic accident that results in amnesia. Gabby dedicates herself to nursing him back to health…until devastating revelations destroy her illusions about their marriage. One by one, dark secrets emerge from Adam’s past as well as Gabby’s.

Abridged publisher synopsis

This might be the pick that surprises you. I’ve rec’d this before and had people tell me, gently but kindly, this wasn’t what they expected from me. BUT LISTEN.

Gabby is a plus size introvert (btw, you know how I feel about thin models on the cover of books about plus characters, but I think this one just skates by, plus it’s self pub, so it’s limited by stocks — unlike when Avon do this). Gabby struggles with anxiety and overwhelm and is drawn to Adam’s magnetism and dominance.

Why so feminist: Is the answer to a lack of trust in your decision-making a man to make decisions for you? No. Is the solve for living in a fatphobic world a man who thinks you’re smoking hot and wants to bone lots? Yes and also no. There’s a power in being able to relax with a man you trust, and letting your guard down to be cared for and/or coaxed to personal sexual lib. And someone who makes you feel hot when the world wants you to think you’re not is very affecting also. Feminist rhetoric of ye olde kind of did women a dirty in thinking the only way to be feminist was to be a powerful bad bish 24/7, because no one can, that’s impossible. We all need orgasms and we all need love, and we all need to be the little spoon sometimes. In this case, I think Gabby finds her feet with support from Adam, not because of Adam.

CW (highlight to read): anxiety, weight/body image, blackmail, amnesia

But to level with you, one of the reasons I love Regarding the Duke so much is a mid-point sex scene that set my Kindle aflame. My book twin Eliza coined it #regencyrimming in her review for @babesinromanceland, and it’s possibly my all time favourite historical sex scene.

10. Suddenly You by Lisa Kleypas

Cover 📚: Suddenly You by Lisa Kleypas

Pub: 2006, AVON
Series: Stand alone
Historical era: Victorian, England

She was unmarried, [a virgin] and almost thirty, but novelist Amanda Briars wasn’t about to greet her next birthday without making love to a man. When he appeared at her door, she believed he was her gift to herself, hired for one night of passion. Jack Devlin’s determination to possess Amanda became greater when she discovered his true identity. But gently bred Amanda craved respectability more than she admitted, while Jack, the cast-off son of a nobleman and London’s most notorious businessman, refused to live by society’s rules.

–Adbridged publishers synopsis

This is the most contested spot on my list! I’ve changed my mind about which book should have the last spot like four times, and I’ll probably still be switching it right up until I hit publish.

What put this one over the line for me is that it has an older heroine (well, older by Avon historical standards) and there’s butt stuff! [highlight for the spoiler] which I love to see in mass market historicals.

Why so feminist? To be very honest, this one is on here more because I like it than for its outstanding feminist merit. That said, Amanda takes her virginity into her own hands and comes up with a plan to ensure sexual pleasure on her own terms (which was also what I loved about Brazen and the Beast). Furthermore, Jack isn’t intimidated by Amanda’s sizable creative brain, and she doesn’t f*&k around demurring her skills either.

But this is my problematic fave. There’s a few ‘hero decides he knows best’ moments, and Jack has a tendency to just want to bone all their problems away, overriding or persuading Amanda until she’s keen (Sarah from Smart Bitches wrote about this back in 2005). There are moments that I’d say are dubcon/ravishment fantasy, although because the theme of their whole relationship is Amanda handing over the sex reins to Jack and wanting him to drive all of their intimacy, I could reconcile this within a broader cone-of-consent. But other readers may feel differently.

CW (highlight to read): pregnancy, miscarriage, dubcon/sexual persuasion,

If you’re interested in a discussion of romance’s history with dubcon or noncon content, I really recommend the Whoa!mance podcast episode with Scarlett Peckham on Whitney My Love.

There we have it! My personal top 10 feminist historical romances!

Let’s do a recap, because this blog is way longer than I intended.

  1. Unclaimed by Courtney Milan
  2. The Prince of Broadway by Joanna Shupe
  3. A Hope Divided by Alyssa Cole
  4. The Rakess by Scarlett Peckham
  5. The Earl I Ruined by Scarlett Peckham
  6. Indigo by Beverly Jenkins
  7. Unmasked by the Marquess by Cat Sebastian
  8. The Raven Prince by Elizabeth Hoyt
  9. Regarding the Duke by Grace Calloway
  10. Suddenly You by Lisa Kleypas

And finally: the honorable mentions!

AKA the ones I kept making number 10, then changing my mind. I know it’s cheating a bit to include honourable mentions on a top ten list, and it’s probably painfully earnest of me to think anyone but me cares about my opinion this much; but I figure no one is really going to complain about more feminist romance novel recs, right?

Brazen and the Beast by Sarah Maclean, [Edit 8/09: I forgot about Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan bc it’s been so long since I read it, and I ought to be subjected to a Bookstagram disciplinary meeting for this omission], The Lady of Skye by Meg Cabot, One Fine Duke by Lenora Bell, An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole, Unraveled by Courtney Milan, Hello Stranger by Lisa Kleypas (with caveats), Romancing the Duke by Tessa Dare, The Lord I Left by Scarlett Peckham and The Rogue of Fifth Avenue by Joanna Shupe.

That’s a wrap!

This list ended up being really Avon heavy, which I didn’t know until I saw it all laid out. I’d though a lot more of my favourites would be self pubbed, so that’s something for me to examine.

Let me know in the comments what your fave feminist historicals are!

Also, I’m keen to know if you’d like more lists like this. I’m thinking top ten contemporaries next? Or top ten novellas? Maybe top ten indies?


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