This week’s Sapphic Reading Challenge post features sapphic historical fiction, including but not limited to historical romance novels. For the purpose of this reading challenge, “historical fiction” means any sapphic novel that takes place at least 25 years in the past.
Yes, that includes the early 1990s. And yes, that makes me feel old.
Read up on the rules of the Sapphic Reading Challenge
If you are only discovering the Sapphic Reading Challenge now, the good news is you can still join! It’s a year-long challenge, so it runs until December 31, 2021. Read up on the rules of the Sapphic Reading Challenge and download your PDF so you can keep track of the books you read this year.
15 sapphic historical fiction novels
I put together a list of 15 sapphic historical fiction novels. They are listed in chronological order, starting with one that is set in Imperial Rome to one that is set in the 1980s.
Sword of the Gladiatrix by Faith L Justice (60 CE/AD)
An action-packed tale that exposes the brutal underside of Imperial Rome, Sword of the Gladiatrix brings to life unforgettable characters and exotic settings.
From the far edges of the Empire, two women come to battle on the hot sands of the arena in Nero’s Rome: Afra, scout and beast master to the Queen of Kush; and Cinnia, warrior-bard and companion to Queen Boudica of the British Iceni. Enslaved, forced to fight for their lives and the Romans’ pleasure; they seek to replace lost friendship, love, and family in each other’s arms.
But the Roman arena offers only two futures: the Gate of Life for the victors or the Gate of Death for the losers.
Hild by Nicola Griffith (seventh century)
‘You are a prophet and seer with the brightest mind in an age. Your blood is that of the man who should have been king …That’s what the king and his lords see. And they will kill you, one day’
In seventh century Britain, a new religion is coming ashore while small kingdoms are merging, frequently and violently. Hild is the king’s youngest niece, with a glittering mind and natural authority,
She is destined to become one of the pivotal figures of the early Middle Ages: Saint Hilda of Whitby. But for now she has only the powerful curiosity of a child and the precarious advantage of a plotting uncle, Edwin of Northumbria, who will stop at nothing to beome king of the Angles.
Hild establishes herself at her uncle’s side as the king’s seer, and becomes indispensable – as long as all goes well for Edwin. The stakes are high – life and death – for Hild, her family and for all those who seek the protection of this strange girl who seems to see the future.
The Queen’s Companion by Maggi Petton (16th century)
A fanatical religious group is trying to assist the Church in ridding itself of heretics. They terrorize the small kingdom of Montalcino. Catherine, its queen, is returning from Rome where she sought the pope’s help. She and her soldiers discover a woman being tortured. They rescue Lady Isabella. During her convalescence the women fall in love.
The sexual tension creates spiritual struggle for Catherine, who believes that their feelings doom them for eternity. The more she tries to deny her feelings, the more power they have over her. Eventually, Catherine gives into her love for Isabella. She marries to cover the relationship, but this only intensifies the danger because her Bishop is determined to expose her. His own life a web of secrecy, he seduces Catherine’s naïve daughter, Sofia, into friendship. Sofia plays out the Bishop’s intentions, propelling everyone toward disaster.
Set against the backdrop of one of the most wretched times in human history, The Queen’s Companion is an epic tale of lives torn apart by ambition, greed and betrayal. More, it is a story of how love can transform broken souls.
Merchants of Milan by Edale Lane (16th century)
Love blooms between Florentina and Maddie, but Florentina’s role as the vigilante Night Flyer could lead to her death and Maddie’s broken heart.
Florentina, set on revenge for her father’s murder, creates an alter-ego known as the Night Flyer. Madelena, whose husband was also murdered, hires Florentina as a tutor for her children and love blossoms between them. However, Florentina’s vendetta is fraught with danger, and surprising developments threaten both women’s lives.
A Little Light Mischief by Cat Sebastian (1810s)
Lady’s maid Molly Wilkins is done with thieving—and cheating and stabbing and all the rest of it. She’s determined to keep her hands to herself, so she really shouldn’t be tempted to seduce her employer’s prim and proper companion, Alice. But how can she resist when Alice can’t seem to keep her eyes off Molly?
For the first time in her life, Alice Stapleton has absolutely nothing to do. The only thing that seems to occupy her thoughts is a lady’s maid with a sharp tongue and a beautiful mouth. Her determination to know Molly’s secrets has her behaving in ways she never imagined as she begins to fall for the impertinent woman.
When an unwelcome specter from Alice’s past shows up unexpectedly at a house party, Molly volunteers to help the only way she knows how: with a little bit of mischief.
A Lady’s Desire by Lily Maxton (1810s)
Lady Sarah Lark has never had much interest in any of the suitors that surround her. She’s decided that, instead of choosing a husband, she’ll save her pin money and travel like she’s always wanted to. However, her plans are interrupted when her family invites her cousin’s widow, Winifred Wakefield, to stay with them.
Winifred and Sarah used to be best friends, but after Win married Sarah’s cousin and moved to London, their friendship fell apart. Neither Win nor Sarah are happy about being underneath the same roof, but after settling her late husband’s debts and being left with almost nothing, Win doesn’t have much choice other than to play nicely with the Lark family.
Though the memories of their friendship hurt them both, they’re too strong to ignore, and the more time they spend in each other’s company, the more they wonder if friendship is all they feel. Still, even if they admit their feelings, to each other and to themselves, Lady Sarah’s parents are determined to see both young women married to suitable gentlemen. Win and Sarah’s newfound love might be over before it even begins.
Lucas by Elna Holst (1810s)
I thought ease would come, here, tucked away in the safe uneventfulness of Hunsford. It would seem I was mistaken.
In 1813, upon her marriage to Mr Collins, the rector of Hunsford Parsonage, Charlotte Collins née Lucas left her childhood home in Hertfordshire for Kent, where she is set to live out her life as the parson’s wife, in an endless procession of dinners at Rosings Park, household chores, correspondence, and minding her poultry. But Mrs Collins carries with her a secret, a peculiar preference, which is destined to turn all her carefully laid plans on their head.
That Could Be Enough by Alyssa Cole (1820s)
Mercy Alston knows the best thing to do with pesky feelings like “love” and “hope”: avoid them at all cost. Serving as a maid to Eliza Hamilton, and an assistant in the woman’s stubborn desire to preserve her late husband’s legacy, has driven that point home for Mercy—as have her own previous heartbreaks.
When Andromeda Stiel shows up at Hamilton Grange for an interview in her grandfather’s stead, Mercy’s resolution to live a quiet, pain-free life is tested by the beautiful, flirtatious, and entirely overwhelming dressmaker.
Andromeda has staid Mercy reconsidering her worldview, but neither is prepared for love—or for what happens when it’s not enough.
Two Wings to Fly Away by Penny Mickelbury (1850s)
In 1856 Philadelphia, runaway slave Genie Oliver uses her dress shop as a front for her work with the Underground Railroad; and reluctant heiress Abby Read runs a rooming house not just because she hates the life of the idle rich society woman, but because she has no intention of ever marrying a man.
When the daughter of Abby’s free black servant is grabbed by rogue slave catchers, an unlikely group of people come together, first out of necessity, and then, gradually, in friendship. And in the case of Abby and Genie, something much more.
Backwards to Oregon by Jae (1850s)
“Luke” Hamilton has always been sure that she’d never marry. She accepted that she would spend her life alone when she chose to live her life disguised as a man.
After working in a brothel for three years, Nora Macauley has lost all illusions about love. She no longer hopes for a man who will sweep her off her feet and take her away to begin a new, respectable life.
But now they find themselves married and on the way to Oregon in a covered wagon, with two thousand miles ahead of them.
The Price of Payback (Sarah Sawyer Series Book 2) by S.W. Andersen (1900s)
One year has passed since Sarah Sawyer avenged the death of her parents in a quest that nearly cost her life.
Now the gunslinger is living a life she never imagined. No longer roaming the trails alone, she and Jo Porter, the woman she loves, live in relative peace, working a thriving farm of their own.
But payback comes with a price.
The lingering fear of unsettled debts haunts them both, threatening their newfound peace. When ghosts from the past come to collect, Sarah risks losing herself to the darkness she’d fought so hard to escape.
Can she pull herself back from the depths or will the harsh world of the old west finally break her?
Occasions of Sin by Elena Graf (1930s)
For seven centuries, the German convent of Obberoth has been hiding the nuns’ secrets—forbidden passions, scandalous manuscripts locked away, a ruined medical career, perhaps even a murder.
In 1931, Margarethe von Stahle, an aristocratic physician, arrives at the convent to interview Sister Augustine, a candidate for head nurse. The nun’s past is shrouded in mystery. She abandoned a medical career, and her final vows were delayed for an unspeakable reason. Determined to lift the veil of secrecy, Margarethe finds herself embroiled in a murder mystery, a complicated romance, and a domestic drama that threatens her orderly life.
At once a mystery and a love story, Occasions of Sin is part of the Passing Rites series, which follows the aristocratic Stahle family through the 20th Century. This novel, set in the twilight years of the Weimar Republic, touches on issues the Nazis would later address in frightening ways—the role of women, homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia, and the rights of the individual versus duty to the group.
Secrets Well Kept by Lynn Ames (1940s)
It’s March, 1943. World War II rages across the globe, and twenty-five-year-old Nora Lindstrom is about to take a huge leap of faith. One of the few women in the male-dominated field of physics, she travels to an undisclosed destination to undertake a vital, top-secret project that the government insists could help the Allies win the war.
At eighteen, Mary Trask is ready to put high school and the boy who wants to marry her in her rearview mirror. But what alternative could the future hold for the dyslexic daughter of a train conductor? When a cousin in Tennessee provides Mary with a cryptic job opportunity, she jumps at the chance to rewrite her life.
Nora and Mary are drawn together under impossible circumstances. As the fate of the world hangs in the balance, they find solace in their love for each other. But in a place where secrecy is paramount, their relationship is forever changed by the consequences of secrets well kept.
Penny on Parade by Penny Taylor and Gill McKnight (1970s)
In 1971, teenager Penny Taylor ran away from home and straight into the British Army at Guildford, the training camp for women who wanted to be soldiers.
Homosexuality had only just been decriminalized in England in 1967, and the first British gay pride rally was held in London in 1972, a year after Taylor joined the military. The UK’s feminist movement still battled for reproductive rights, equal pay, and employment protections. This was the climate in which Taylor decided she was not like the other women she knew.
Confused by her feelings for her female best friend, unhappy with her family life, and frustrated by the restrictive expectations of women, she sought a different path. For Penny Taylor, army life wasn’t easy, but she found not only herself, she also found family, friends, and a future.
This is her story. Based on real events in her life, it is a coming-of-age and a coming-out story, set against the backdrop of the British military and the turbulent social climate of the 1970s.
Clio Rising by Paula Martinac (1980s)
In 1983, Livvie Bliss leaves western North Carolina for New York City, armed with a degree in English and a small cushion of cash from a favorite aunt. Her goal is to launch a career in publishing, but more important, to live openly as a lesbian. A rough start makes Livvie think she should give up and head home, but then a new friend helps her land a job at a literary agency run by the formidable Bea Winston.
Bea hopes Livvie’s Southern charm and “boyish” good looks will help her bond with one of the agency’s most illustrious clients—the cranky Modernist writer Clio Hartt, a closeted octogenarian lesbian of the Paris Lost Generation who has rarely left her Greenwich Village apartment in four decades. When Livvie becomes Clio’s gofer and companion, the plan looks like it’s working: The two connect around their shared Carolina heritage, and their rapport gives Clio support and inspiration to think about publishing again.
But something isn’t quite right with Clio’s writing. And as Livvie learns more about Clio’s relationship with playwright Flora Haynes, uncomfortable parallels emerge between Livvie’s own circle of friends and the drama-filled world of expatriate artists in the 1920s.
In Clio’s final days, the writer shares a secret that could upend Livvie’s life—and the literary establishment.
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