Do you ever wish you could’ve been a fly on the wall during a famous historical event? That you could’ve danced the Charleston at a 1920s speakeasy? Snuck onto a film set during Hollywood’s golden era? Been one of the first to pilot an airplane and explore uncharted territory? Biographical fiction allows you to live out your fantasies through the first person narrative of a real individual—often a famous one that you may have always wanted to know more about, but your high school history class left you with more questions than answers.
These novels give you the opportunity to read between the lines, and while they are fictional, that doesn’t mean they aren’t well-researched. Authors often spend years poring over diary entries, letters, photographs, and whatever else they can find to fully immerse themselves in the world of their famous characters. In fact, it’s not uncommon for real letters or photographs to be included, with the author filling in the blanks with all the “what-ifs” that historians have been discussing for decades, but never fully confirmed. The resulting books are like the extensively plotted historical fan theories you never knew you needed.
Biographical fiction is a sub-genre of historical fiction. What sets it apart is the unique perspective that the reader takes as she steps into the shoes of the novel’s hero or heroine and explores every detail and emotion going through a historical figure’s head during an event that may be passed over in a sentence or two in the standard textbook or nonfiction biography. Sure, those emotions might be the product of the author’s imagination, but they will leave you with a better understanding of history’s famous women than you ever had before.
Interested yet? Here are five examples to get you started:
1. Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler: Zelda was the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, most famous as the author of The Great Gatsby. Zelda was a talented woman in her own right, and much has been speculated about the extent of her contribution to her husband’s work and the tumultuous romance they shared. You don’t have to know a lot about F. Scott Fitzgerald to enjoy this book. Even if your knowledge of Gatsby is limited, you’ll still find yourself sucked into the world of glittering nightclubs, famous writers, and a woman with doubts and insecurities that many have used to label her as “unstable” or even “crazy.” History may not have been kind to Zelda, but Z gives her the opportunity to explain her world views and dreams. Make sure you read this one soon! Amazon Prime has recently picked up an original TV series based on the book. Season 1 is still in production, but the pilot episode, starring Christina Ricci as Zelda, is already available for Prime subscribers. It looks like a hit, so you’ll want to get a copy of the book and be ahead of the curve.
2. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain: An excellent companion to Z, The Paris Wife is the story of Hadley Richardson, the first wife of writer Ernest Hemingway, a close friend and contemporary of the Fitzgeralds. In fact, there is quite a bit of overlap in the events and characters of these two books, although the resulting plot is very different. Again, you don’t need any knowledge of Hemingway before reading this novel about his wife—in fact the less you know the better, as it will allow you to experience his vulnerabilities along with his bravado and sympathize with the woman who fell in love with both.
3. The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin: Are you feeling the whole “woman behind the man” theme yet? Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of Charles Lindbergh, was one of the first female pilots in history, but history often forgets her in order to talk about her husband, the first pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Charles taught Anne how to fly so she could serve as copilot on many of his more dangerous flights, and it is because of Anne, who became a famous writer and poet, that we have such detailed written accounts of their explorations. However, like all great romances, theirs was a rocky one, and the kidnapping and murder investigation of their only child not only changed them as individuals, but also how people remember the Lindberghs for the rest of history.
4. Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin: Whether you are a long-term Lewis Carroll fan or just eagerly anticipating the new Alice Through the Looking Glass movie, Alice I Have Been is definitely the book for you. Much has been written about Lewis Carroll, his life, his work, and his writing process, but much less is known about the girl who inspired his most famous book and the woman she became. Alice Liddell Hargreaves met Lewis Carroll when she was still a very young girl, but their relationship would forever color the rest of her life. Benjamin would not be the first to speculate about the exact nature of the bond between the author and the child, but she does it with a delicacy that causes readers to examine the mental stability of Carol more than the innocence of Alice, who grew to live an eventful life, including a romance with a Prince of England.
5. A Touch of Stardust by Kate Alcott: Stardust offers a behind the scenes glimpse into the making of Gone with the Wind through the eyes of Julie Crawford, the personal assistant of Carole Lombard. Julie is actually a fictional character, so this book is not truly biographical fiction as the other four are. Nevertheless, it uses a first person narrative to shed light on one of Hollywood’s most famous actresses, Carole Lombard. Lombard was the girlfriend of Clark Gable (aka Rhett Butler), which caused quite a scandal around the studio lot considering that Gable was technically still married to another woman during the filming of Gone with the Wind. If swooning southern belles aren’t your thing, don’t worry, there aren’t any to be found here. Much like Scarlett O’Hara, Lombard and her assistant Julie are strong-willed women with minds of their own and nothing but defiance for any men who get in their way.
Have you read one of the books on this list? Do you have another favorite biographical fiction book to recommend? Tweet us @litdarling, and let us know!