Eight Strong Female Characters from Historical Fiction

Published on: 15 March 2023

Author Annelise Gray recommends her favourite historical novels with interesting female characters.

Christina Parsons, from Flambards by KM Peyton

Set in the early twentieth century, Flambards is a beautifully written coming-of-age story about orphaned teenage heiress Christina, who goes to live with her tyrannical uncle in a dilapidated house. Christina is a well-meaning but flawed character, which I find much more interesting than the standard-issue feisty heroine who can do no wrong, and the series as a whole is informed by a historical backdrop of social change for women.

Liesel Meminger, from The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Liesel is the young ‘book thief’ of the title, whose tale, set in 1930s Germany, is told by the omnipresent narrator, Death. Liesel’s passion for words – inspired by her father Hans, who has taught her to read and write – prompts her to steal books which her town’s Nazi leaders would otherwise destroy. A haunting story with a heartbreakingly brave and moral main character.

Agatha Lambent, from The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

Agatha Lambent isn’t the main protagonist of this brilliantly spooky fantasy tale, the plot of which is entangled with debates pitting science against religion in Victorian England. But she’s the character who stayed with me the longest. Strong women don’t have to be saints and Agatha proves that – she is far more interesting and complicated than she may at first appear.

Feo, from The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell

‘Once upon a time, a hundred years ago, there was a dark and stormy girl.’ I read this book by the magnificent Katherine Rundell when I was drafting Circus Maximus and trying, as a newcomer, to feel my way into the world of middle-grade fiction. Feo – the ‘wolf wilder’ forced to go on the run through snowy forests in pre-revolutionary Russia – was one of my inspirations for Dido. I wanted to try and conjure up some of the same connection that Feo has with her wolves as Dido does with the horses she loves.

Clarry Penrose, from The Skylarks’ War by Hilary McKay

The Skylarks’ War is the book I have gifted or recommended to others more than any other in recent years, and Clarry – one of its central characters – is a wonderful creation. Her strength comes from her intelligence and her kind and loving heart, which never falters even as she confronts the ominous shadow of the oncoming war, and the reality that there are barriers placed in the way of girls that aren’t there for boys.

Florence Campbell, from The Valley of Lost Secrets by Lesley Parr

Lesley Parr’s debut was one of my favourite reads of 2021. It tells the story of a group of children evacuated to Wales during WWII. Florence Campbell is a supporting character but a memorable one who seizes the opportunity of her new circumstances to reinvent herself. The scene where she delivers an unexpected come-uppance to a bully had me cheering.

Noor, from Never Forget You by Jamila Gavin

I loved this novel about the abiding friendship between four girls who meet at boarding school and later move in and out of each other’s lives as war tests their allegiances and relationships. The empathetic, peace-loving character of Noor, an Indian princess who ends up joining the resistance effort against the Nazis, is inspired by Noor Inayat Khan, who became a British agent in France during World War II.

Dido, from my own Circus Maximus series

In the opening lines of the first Circus Maximus title, Race to the Death, a boy asks Dido if she’s ready to compete against him, and her response is to spit into the earth. That’s the essence of who she is. She never doubts her own talent, even if sometimes her hunger to win is tested over the course of the series. In imagining her into being, I was guided in part by my love of Enid Bagnold’s classic National Velvet, the story of another horse-mad girl who understands fear but ultimately believes in herself and her ability to be the best.

Circus Maximus: Rider of the Storm by Annelise Gray is out now.


Topics: Historical, Features


Bookbuzz is a reading programme from BookTrust that aims to help schools inspire a love of reading in 11 to 13-year-olds. Participating schools give their students the opportunity to choose their own book to take home and keep from a list of 16 titles.

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