Historical Fiction

“I have been standing on the side of life, watching it float by. I want to swim in the river. I want to feel the current.”

-Mamah Borthwick from Loving Frank by Nancy Horan


Ever since I read the novel, Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan, I have both loved Historical fiction. I picked it up by chance, and spent two days over Christmas break hiding from everybody, unable to put it down. Since then, I’ve have both read The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, and are now reading Z:A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler.

These three novels share many similar features, most notably that they each tell the story of a woman who took the road less traveled by attaching themselves to a famous or what was to become a famous man (Frank Lloyd Wright, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, respectively).

The elements that make this type of storytelling so engaging are:

  1. There is a strong female protagonist
  2. There is a strong male counterpart
  3. The female must make a sacrifice
  4. The question that arises at the end is often, “Did she make the right choice?”

Strong Female Protagonist

In each of these novels, there is an opinionated, fearless, forward-thinking, independent woman who feels the need to break out of the mould that is her current situation. She often sees the world differently than those around her, and often wants more out of life than what is expected of her to achieve.

Take the following quote that Mamah Borthwick from Loving Franks says, “I have been standing on the side of life, watching it float by. I want to swim in the river. I want to feel the current.” This is clearly a woman who is hungry for life and doesn’t want it to pass her by. This is what makes the females in these Historical novels so compelling–these women want different lives–they want to experience life, not just be a bystander as it goes on around them.

Strong Male Counterpart

A strong woman yearning for adventure will naturally be attracted to a strong man who promises this. In these novels there is the story of Frank Lloyd Wright who was an architect, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, both writers. Just like the women in these stories, these men were forward-thinking, ambitious, unable to be contained and their art was their way of standing out.

Even though all of these men achieved great success in their lives, the stories begin when they aren’t yet successful, presenting them as tortured artists–being misunderstood by those around them, except their romantic partners. These women understand these men perhaps more than anyone else, and they are important to their live.  They also believe in them, in their talent.

This full on faith in their partner and his abilities, while romantic, is problematic, often when he casts too big of a shadow in her direction and in her life. The question of whether she should allow his needs to override hers becomes an important one.

The Sacrifice

We’ve both always been fascinated with stories where the protagonist has to make a difficult life decision, particularly if it is between choosing a safe, predictable life versus messy and unpredictable.

In their own way, each novel looks at the unique choice the female protagonist makes of abandoning their normal, predetermined life, and risking it for something new which they get by being with the men they become involved with. And what these women have to lose is far greater than what the men have to lose–often it’s the women who have to leave their place in society, thus abandoning all they’ve worked for in terms of relationships and career prospects and usually in opposition of their families’ wishes. These women make major sacrifices because they fell in love and even though those around them don’t understand it, they themselves are so immersed in it, so ready to jump into life–a different life than the one that they know of–that they take the plunge.

Did She Make the Right Choice?

Without giving away the endings to any of these novels, it’s important to ask whether these women made the right choice in the end? Was it a good risk? Would they have had a happier life if they had married someone else? Would they have been better off taking the safe route?

Image for Loving Frank from Random House


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