10 Historical Romance Heroines Who Don't Need Saving

Posted by Sharon on March 23, 2020
Regular readers of romance know that the genre is currently chock-full of fresh plotlines and heroines who save themselves (and sometimes the hero, too). Historical romances are no exception, with releases in recent years emphasizing characters with professions and attitudes that challenge or change the social conventions of their times.

In other words, today's historical heroines aren't just heiresses or debutantes waiting to marry the perfect duke. They're more like the real women who've been living, and making, history all along.

For Women's History Month, we rounded up ten recent-ish historical romances that showcase just how cool the genre's leading ladies are. With a variety of actually period-accurate jobs, these heroines are far more likely to swear or spy than swoon in corsets. Don't forget to add any titles that catch your eye to your Want to Read shelf!


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Who is she? Violet Waterfield—widowed countess by day, secret scientist by night

You should read this book if you like: Friends-to-lovers, slow-burn romance, plant genetics, female researchers getting the credit they're due
 


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Who is she? Elle Burns—undercover spy for the Union Army during the American Civil War

You should read this book if you like: Suspenseful situations, disguises, spies, oppressed people rising up against their oppressors, complex interracial romance
 


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Who is she? Annabelle Archer—one of the first female students admitted to Oxford in the 1870s, determined suffragette

You should read this book if you like: Women's rights, women's education, Parliamental politics, haughty dukes getting humbled by love


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Who is she? Garrett Gibson, MD—Victorian England's only female physician

You should read this book if you like: Scotland Yard detectives, women breaking professional barriers, heroines who save the heroes


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Who is she? Lucy Muchelney—aspiring astronomer and French translator

You should read this book if you like: Regency romances, women loving women, constellations, the politics of translation 


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Who is she? Valinda Lacey—teacher of freedmen in Reconstruction New Orleans

You should read this book if you like: Women who dare to do great things, men who talk about their feelings, feeding white supremacists to alligators


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Who is she? Emilia Cruz—pseudonymous author of scandalous serial romances

You should read this book if you like: Enemies-to-lovers, dueling authors, the Spanish Caribbean, romance novels about romance novels


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Who is she? Li Feng—sword dancer

You should read this book if you like: Tang dynasty–era China; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; opposites attracting; rooftop chase scenes


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Who is she? Mamie Greene—humanitarian

You should read this book if you like: The Gilded Age, New York City, robbing the rich to give to the poor, self-made men


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Who is she? Lady Georgiana—incognito owner of the most notorious gambling den in London

You should read this book if you like: Women disguising themselves as men, women running businesses, women taking big chances on love


Who are your favorite historical romance heroines with interesting jobs? Let's talk books in the comments!

Check out more recent articles, including:
The Most Anticipated Romances of March
Lisa Kleypas Talks Changing Trends in Romance
Meet Today's Rising Stars of Romance

Comments Showing 1-50 of 64 (64 new)


message 1: by Acmeseals (new)

Acmeseals seals Nice


message 2: by TMR (new)

TMR Love the selection.


message 3: by Roel ✿ (new)

Roel ✿ @Amber Malo literally nobody cares


message 4: by Preeti (new)

Preeti Roel ✿ wrote: "@Amber Malo literally nobody cares"

Hi. That is a spam account whose only activity has been copying this same message on all the boards of the books listed here. I have already flagged it.


Psychowellnesscenter I have not been a huge fan of Romance but the list above attracted me. "Hello Stranger" is definitely on my list for 2020. Thanks for sharing this great list. I'll share it with my friends too.


message 6: by Katsuro (last edited Mar 23, 2020 10:02AM) (new)

Katsuro Ricksand Is it just me, or do articles about modern romance novels with strong, independent heroines sometimes seem to be *ashamed* of the old stereotypical romance novels? (Not necessarily talking about this particular article.) What I mean is, there seems to be some sort of "Not like other gir-- Uh, romance novels" spirit.

A while back, there was an interview on Goodreads with a novelist who was ashamed that her early romance novels had dominant men as the love interest, and she was happy to say that her new novels had more equal relationships.
And in the comments, several readers said that they actually preferred dominant men as love interests.
The kind of romance novel that the writer was more happy with from a feminist PoV wasn't what these readers actually enjoyed reading.

I see that again and again--romance fans and writers going "I used to read/write a lot of romance with dominant men as the love interest, but now I know those books are bad and we're not supposed to enjoy them." It's like it's only okay to admit that you like that kind of romance if you're sufficiently apologetic about it.

Millions of romance novels with dashing men saving the heroine from danger (and--yes--being dominant) have been sold and read over the decades. The reason for this is because that fantasy--the fantasy of somebody being there for you when you need help--appeals to lots of people (AS A FANTASY). This *doesn't* mean that they think a woman's only role is to be meek and helpless, or that they'd like the stuff in the novel to happen to them for real.

Personally, I see more shaming of traditional romance novels among *fans* of the romance genre than I do among literature snobs or anybody else. It's like there are these unwritten rules about what kind of romance novels you're *supposed* to like.

It's like, you're a romance fan? Cool, as long as you're appropriately ashamed of what the genre's been like for most of its existence. (Disclaimer: Yes, I know there's always been romance with very strong and independent heroines, but it's definitely more common now.)

It's like, can't we embrace mango ice cream without acting like we should be ashamed of ever liking orange ice cream?

Other romance fans, am I right, or am I completely off-base? Would love to hear your opinions, even if said opinions all are that I couldn't possibly be more wrong.


message 7: by Jay (new)

Jay DiNitto RESPECT WAMEN


message 8: by Norma (last edited Mar 24, 2020 06:11AM) (new)

Norma Smith The books listed are a very interesting group to pick from.


message 9: by R (new)

R Katsuro wrote: "Is it just me, or do articles about modern romance novels with strong, independent heroines sometimes seem to be *ashamed* of the old stereotypical romance novels? (Not necessarily talking about th..."

I second this. All of this.


message 10: by Tris (new)

Tris why cant there be more romance novel where the woman saves the man? it always seems like the man saves the woman..and personaly i dont like that...its sortof sexist


message 11: by Bara (new)

Bara It's a bit dissapointing that the who is she? section only features one half of the F/F couple...I mean, c'mon.


message 12: by Donna (new)

Donna Theiss I would add all of Joanna Bourne's Spymaster series. All of the heroines are amazing.


message 13: by Leena (new)

Leena Aluru I've read Courtney Milan's Countess Conspiracy a loved it. I'm looking forward to read the others


message 14: by Leena (new)

Leena Aluru R. Katsuro I completely agree with you. Traditional romance is being looked down on. I prefer romance books where irrespective of who saves whom the plot needs to be tight knit. Its should be true to the era they are portraying. I truly hate those writers who claim Regency but the entire atmosphere/ language of the book is modern teen.


message 15: by Cheryl (new)

Cheryl Personally, I'd like more stories with both characters getting starring roles. Lots of times books that appeal to us feminists are a bit hard on the guys... but not only are women people, but men are too!

(My slogan is to oversimplify, not to leave out any non-binary or other Queer folk like me.)

That said, I did add several from this list to my lists....


message 16: by Katsuro (new)

Katsuro Ricksand Bara wrote: "It's a bit dissapointing that the who is she? section only features one half of the F/F couple...I mean, c'mon."

True that. At first I thought it was because she was the only protagonist, but I checked, and the novel's from both of their perspectives. So you're completely right; it makes no sense to only describe one of the two women.


Andreia ❤The Butterfly Lover❤ how cool 🤩❤


message 18: by Zasha (new)

Zasha Im really liking the diversity of this romance book selection.


message 19: by Sonja (new)

Sonja NIce list! I LOVED Bringing Down the Duke and Never Judge a Lady!! Very strong female characters! I also enjoyed Countess Conspiracy, though I think that whole series could be in this category!

I also thought of a few others:
A Curious Beginning
The Lady Julia Grey Bundle
Not Quite a Husband
Lady Derring Takes a Lover
The Rogue Not Taken


message 20: by Abby (new)

Abby Janik Tris, love your name!


message 21: by Regency Woman (new)

Regency Woman The Olivia Waite book doesn't have a Regency cover *sing-song voice*. Nobody would ever assume it was Regency based on those clothes.

Also, I wish Goodreads wouldn't assume that everyone holds the same opinion they do about needing strong, overbearing heroines in historic novels. I won't be reading any of these EVER.


message 22: by Katsuro (new)

Katsuro Ricksand Regency Woman wrote: "The Olivia Waite book doesn't have a Regency cover *sing-song voice*. Nobody would ever assume it was Regency based on those clothes.

Also, I wish Goodreads wouldn't assume that everyone holds the..."

I'm curious; what's not regency about the clothes?

Concerning your other comment, all I'll say is that historical novels do sometimes show a tendency to ignore the harsh consequences that made it impossible, in practice, for many women in those days to act in a strong and independent manner.


message 23: by AG (new)

AG Reads Regency Woman wrote: "The Olivia Waite book doesn't have a Regency cover *sing-song voice*. Nobody would ever assume it was Regency based on those clothes.

Also, I wish Goodreads wouldn't assume that everyone holds the..."

I agree about the strong, overbearing heroines. It's a pretty safe bet that if a book blurb contains the words sassy, fiery, or fierce, I won't be reading it.


message 24: by K8 (new)

K8 Katsuro wrote: "Is it just me, or do articles about modern romance novels with strong, independent heroines sometimes seem to be *ashamed* of the old stereotypical romance novels? (Not necessarily talking about th..."

Don't worry. Shitty romance books with dominant men are still a dime a dozen.


message 25: by Kayla (new)

Kayla Daly Sippin that respect women juice


message 26: by kittykat (new)

kittykat K8 wrote: "Don't worry. Shitty romance books with dominant men are still a dime a dozen. "

Hear, hear! I'm certainly not interested in stereotypical rape-tastic 'historically accurate' (!), simpering damsel stories so thank goodness some more recent historicals are more appealing to my very contemporary sensibilities. So much so that I'm now dipping my toes into regency/victorian romance.


message 27: by MK (new)

MK The Countess Conspiracy is one of my favourite books ever. (Hail mature and intelligent women!) I've added a few from this article to my TBR pile. Don't know if I should be thankful for that.

As for the person who was bemoaning the lack of domineering heroes, I'm just grateful that I'm finally seeing the type of heroes I've wanted to read about. It's great to read about men who are there for their women without being asshats. But to each their own.


message 28: by Cheryl (new)

Cheryl MK wrote: " It's great to read about men who are there for their women without being asshats..."

Hear hear!


message 29: by I love R-rated YA and NA (last edited Mar 23, 2020 11:47PM) (new)

I love R-rated YA and NA The covers of Jeanne Lin books are gorgeous.


I love R-rated YA and NA Tris wrote: "why cant there be more romance novel where the woman saves the man? it always seems like the man saves the woman..and personaly i dont like that...its sortof sexist"

There are dozens of romance novels like that. You just have to know where to look.


I love R-rated YA and NA Regency Woman wrote: "Also, I wish Goodreads wouldn't assume that everyone holds the same opinion they do about needing strong, overbearing heroines in historic novels. "

Or romance in general, not just historical. Besides what it's strong for one reader can be weak for another. For me a strong heroine has to be sympathetic, kind, feminine, caring, determined, humble, but those qualities aren't present in many romances these days because many reviewers deem those traits weak. Besides I love heroines who are able to fall, cry like babies, stand up, lick their wounds and carry on with life, but romance authors are too afraid of getting bad ratings.


message 32: by JPT (new)

JPT Katsuro wrote: "Regency Woman wrote: "The Olivia Waite book doesn't have a Regency cover *sing-song voice*. Nobody would ever assume it was Regency based on those clothes.

Also, I wish Goodreads wouldn't assume t..."


I'm not the OP, but the cut of the dresses is totally wrong for the Regency period. You can Google Regency dress styles and see they are more Empire, where they are cinched right below the bust and then fall free from there. The waist is not emphasized at all. They are more reminiscent of classical (Greek/Roman) attire. The dresses on the cover are more late Victorian/Gilded Age.

(Other posters can correct me if I'm off base.)


message 33: by Denise (new)

Denise Skye O’Malley-takes over her family’s shipping company when her brother’s are unsuited.


message 34: by kittykat (new)

kittykat Parvati loves R - rated YA wrote: "... For me a strong heroine has to be sympathetic, kind, feminine, caring, determined, humble, but those qualities aren't present in many romances these days because many reviewers deem those traits weak..."

I really like what you have said here other than I'm unsure what you mean by feminine? I find that those traits (although not all at once) are often included in many of the books I read, because of some of my choices. I, unlike many romance readers, really appreciate much more realistic characters (am not keen on the overabundance of billionaires/CEOs etc for that reason) and sometimes seeing a character also have 'weaker' moments makes them more relatable, but then I often find like you say, that other people's reviews of those books are not so great because of those things.



Parvati loves R - rated YA wrote: "... Besides I love heroines who are able to fall, cry like babies, stand up, lick their wounds and carry on with life, ..."

Again, same here, and I also like sometimes if they are not able to shrug everything off, again because of real-life relatability. The difference for me is that I particularly like reading male characters like that too because they are just as human as females are and they don't have to be Rambo and/or raging assholes to be interesting and worthy of love. And at various times give me a 'bossy' female, in real life many women are the alphas in the relationship but not in an asshole-ish way, it's just who they are.



Parvati loves R - rated YA wrote: "...but romance authors are too afraid of getting bad ratings."

aaaand this goes back to what you say about reviewers...


message 35: by Beatrice (new)

Beatrice Katsuro wrote: "Is it just me, or do articles about modern romance novels with strong, independent heroines sometimes seem to be *ashamed* of the old stereotypical romance novels? (Not necessarily talking about th..."

Katsuro wrote: "Is it just me, or do articles about modern romance novels with strong, independent heroines sometimes seem to be *ashamed* of the old stereotypical romance novels? (Not necessarily talking about th..."<

So true



message 36: by I love R-rated YA and NA (last edited Mar 23, 2020 11:43PM) (new)

I love R-rated YA and NA kittykat wrote: " I, unlike many romance readers, really appreciate much more realistic characters."
I see your point and sorry, I disagree. Strongly. In my humble opinion, romance authors say they're portraying men "realistically" to justify using the same tired tropes just because they don't put effort in their world-building and for sure they don't spend time developing their characters. Not all men are cheaters, not all women are sexually innocent, not everyone wants children, I for sure don't want to have kids ever. A good romance author should be able to portray the most unrealistic scenario and make the reader believe it. Twilight is the most unrealistic romance I've ever read in its portrayal of the male psyche, and despite its flaws, for many people of my generation became the book that started our love for romance.

kittykat wrote: "I really like what you have said here other than I'm unsure what you mean by feminine?."
It's not easy to put into words. A trait that you'd commonly find in a woman, not so much in a man? But of course, men can be humble, "maternal" sympathetic, kind, caring, sensitive. It's just that "feminine" traits are something that our current society frows upon when found in men.

To give you a good example of flawed heroines I adore because they're feminine, smart, determined, sensitive and strong all at once you'd have to read my favourite books. Many read to find book boyfriends, I only care for the hero is the heroine is someone I can admire because she's as capable of love as she is of standing up for what she believes.
The Winter King (Weathermages of Mystral, #1) by C.L. Wilson Rhapsodic (The Bargainer, #1) by Laura Thalassa The Bird and the Sword (The Bird and the Sword Chronicles, #1) by Amy Harmon The V Girl A Coming of Age Story by Mya Robarts Kiss an Angel by Susan Elizabeth Phillips A Promise of Fire (Kingmaker Chronicles, #1) by Amanda Bouchet
Give my recommendations a try, you won't regret it.


message 37: by kittykat (new)

kittykat I love R-rated YA and NA wrote: "kittykat wrote: " I, unlike many romance readers, really appreciate much more realistic characters."
I see your point and sorry, I disagree. Strongly. In my humble opinion, romance authors say they..."


Ok, so this is really interesting.

First, you are more than welcome to 'disagree', although I'm not sure what with. My opinion?, which is based on my lived personal taste, knowledge and experience? Also, you don't appear to understand my meaning of 'more realistic'' characters and are arguing my same point back to me. Oh, and BTW, whilst I have seen the movies, I've never read or have any intention of reading Twilight and the fact that you say 'your generation' began their love of romance with that... well there's a huge red flag, one that some in romancelandia have recognised and debated about for years.

Also, how do you know your definition of 'feminine' is the same as... ah I see, you changed your screen name, you are Parvati loves R - rated YA, that makes sense. But again, you are arguing my same point back at me.

As for the recs, I already have plenty of books already on my ever expanding radar, coming from a range of different sources that fit my own tastes, but thanks anyway.


message 38: by Raymond (new)

Raymond Thompson I welcome the move towards more independent-minded heroines (female heroes?). If one prefers a more traditional relationship there are plenty of options. It's a sign of the vibrancy in the genre.

One of my recent discoveries has been Cat Sebastian's Regencies: especially A Duke in Disguise and A Delicate Deception. The females (of all ages) are a delight.

Where I do have more reservations, actually, is the figure of the hero of so many Regency romances. Despite some progress, notably towards greater respect for women (usually part of character development in the novel), he is either handsome in a darkly brooding style (Heathcliff?) or impressively muscular (more football star than Regency aristocrat). And often both.

Probably because most readers of romance are women and the marketing department knows what sells?

Still, there is room for a more interesting balance here, although it is difficult to strike in an era where the balance of power is so unequal.


message 39: by kittykat (new)

kittykat Raymond wrote: "I welcome the move towards more independent-minded heroines (female heroes?). If one prefers a more traditional relationship there are plenty of options. It's a sign of the vibrancy in the genre.

..."


How great to have input from a male reader of romance, and I take your point about the "impressively muscular" aspect to historical MMCs in particular... but even I allow some suspension of belief lol!


message 40: by Cheryl (new)

Cheryl Raymond and kittykat, thank you for recommendations, I'll certainly consider them given what you share about your preferences.


message 41: by Cheryl (new)

Cheryl Speaking of urban fantasy, I loved Emma Bull's War for the Oaks. It's got a strong, interesting romance element in it, and a strong, interesting, female, too.


message 42: by Debora (new)

Debora Davis Katsuro wrote: "Is it just me, or do articles about modern romance novels with strong, independent heroines sometimes seem to be *ashamed* of the old stereotypical romance novels? (Not necessarily talking about th..."

Agree completely.


message 43: by JEANETTE (new)

JEANETTE LORENZEN I highly recommend Highlanders Lionheart by Alisa Adams. It's four strong sisters helping each other to protect their castle, and the strong men they meet who respect their strengths and help them...it's a gorgeous romance .


Cecelia K Buckley Network Am 76. Have literally read them all. Patriot is right!


Cecelia K Buckley Katsuro is right!


message 46: by Cecilia (new)

Cecilia Having a list of books with strong female leads does not invalidate books with strong male leads. It simply helping people who want a specific type of romance novel find what they are looking for. Don't make it more than it is.


message 47: by Phyllis (new)

Phyllis Kerr Runaway Heart A Texas Romance by Phyllis Kerr
Here's another one!


message 48: by Janet (new)

Janet Savin Katsuro wrote: "Is it just me, or do articles about modern romance novels with strong, independent heroines sometimes seem to be *ashamed* of the old stereotypical romance novels? (Not necessarily talking about th..."

I’m not really even a romance fan. I like historical novels and more of an equal balance between the sexes. HOWEVER, I think your point and the way you’ve set it out are excellent. I’m self-publishing a historical novel in which there is a love triangle with a strong woman. But I like differing points of view. Would you allow me to post this on my website – crediting you, of course ? Janet Savin


message 49: by Phyllis (last edited Mar 27, 2020 10:45AM) (new)

Phyllis Kerr Katsuro,
I treasure my vintage romances. They have their own shelf in my study. When Rosemary Rogers changed forever the mass market book industry in 1974 with her blockbuster Sweet Savage Love, she opened a new world to the young women of America. Her hero, Jinny Brandon, gave women writers the permission to portray a type A female in a type B female world. She started a huge discussion. And a huge market. Sometimes you have to rip a few bodices to make a point. *Ashamed?* Not me!


message 50: by Katsuro (new)

Katsuro Ricksand Janet wrote: "Would you allow me to post this on my website – crediting you, of course ?"
Sure, go right ahead!


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