5 Real-Life Sisters Who Inspired Historical Fiction Novels

5 Real-Life Sisters Who Inspired Historical Fiction Novels

by Elise Hooper

The renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead reportedly said, “Sister is probably the most competitive relationship within the family, but once the sisters are grown, it becomes the strongest relationship.”

The novel Little Women portrays the lives of four of the most well-known sisters in American literature, and I read it with fascination in my girlhood. Were the real Alcott sisters just like Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy—the dutiful daughter, the tomboy, the angel, and the spoiled baby? I set off to learn more about the Alcott women and in doing so, my fascination with sisterhood and all of its tensions and contradictions deepened.

While the world knows Louisa May Alcott as the best-selling author of more than fifteen books, including Little Women, far less is known about her youngest sister, May, the same woman Louisa based Amy March upon. In real life, May became a professional painter despite many challenges. In mid-19th century America, women were mostly barred from art schools, museums were few and far between, and hiring a nude model could be cause for shame—and possibly arrest. Intrigued, I began writing The Other Alcott, a novel about May, the sister whose story is largely overlooked in favor of her sisters.

What other real-life sisters have inspired recent historical fiction? Here are some of my favorites:


Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar

Before they became known to the world as Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, they were the Stephen sisters, one a writer, the other a painter. They lived in avant-garde Bloomsbury with their smart and charming friends E.M. Forster, John Maynard Keynes and Lytton Strachey, all young and still relatively unknown. When insecure, moody, but brilliant Virginia initiates romance toward Vanessa’s husband, this circle of brilliant thinkers will be threatened by the betrayal. Told through entries from Vanessa’s diary, letters, postcards, and even telegrams (all created by Parmar), this clever story digs into what makes sisterhood a powerful and sometimes painful bond.

Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart

When sisters Constance, Norma, and Fleurette Kopp’s buggy is hit by motorcar on the busy streets of Paterson, NJ, in 1914, the sisters demand compensation for their troubles. The accident—and the sisters’ refusal to back down to the threats of the vehicle’s driver, a shady factory owner—sets off a chain of trouble and violence that leads to a climactic standoff. The witty dialog between the sisters and intriguing family backstory provide depth, while Constance’s path to becoming the nation’s first deputy sheriff makes this a page turner. Amy Stewart’s third novel about the Kopp sister comes out on September 5, 2017.

Margot by Jillian Cantor

What if Anne Franks’s older sister, Margot, had not died in Bergen-Belsen but fled to the United States after the war? In Jillian Cantor’s novel, Margot Frank erases all connection to Anne and her parents by transforming herself into Margie Franklin, a secretary living a quiet life in Philadelphia though she guards a secret about her past that could destroy her carefully constructed anonymity. When Anne becomes a symbol of hope and bravery as a film based on her famous published diary is released, Margie’s life begins to fall apart. This alternate history asks us to consider what it would be like to have your life revealed for all the world to read about.

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

In the 1830s, Sarah Grimke receives a slave girl, Handful, for her eleventh birthday. This “gift” marks the beginning of Sarah’s awakening to the cruelty of the world. Dislocated by the rigid standards of being a dutiful daughter, she struggles to find her place in Charleston’s society, all while forging an uneasy relationship with Handful, who longs for her freedom. When fiery Angelina, the younger Grimke daughter, urges Sarah to leave the South with her, the two go on to become pioneers in the abolitionist movement. All three women come face to face with the limitations placed upon them and need each other to find purpose and redemption. The distinctive voices and perspectives of Sarah and Handful create a story that will stick with you long after you finish it.

The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

While many people recognize Edgar Degas’ sculpture “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen,” the girl who posed for it remains largely unknown. In Belle Epoque Paris, Marie van Goethem and her older sister Antoinette are on the verge of being evicted. When Marie secures a place in the dance school of the Paris Opera, she also attracts the interest of Edgar Degas. Meanwhile, Antoinette falls in with a bad lot despite her efforts to keep the family afloat. The situation becomes increasingly precarious as all that the van Goethem sisters have worked for is jeopardized by their connection with a pair of brothers accused of murder. Prepare to stay up late glued to this one.

Although a New Englander by birth (and at heart), Elise Hooper lives with her husband and two young daughters in Seattle, where she teaches history and literature. Her debut novel, The Other Alcott, releases from William Morrow on Sept. 4, 2017. Visit her website and follow @elisehooper on Twitter and Instagram.

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