New Historical Fiction to Read This Summer

Having witnessed the dark side of marriage as a child in rural 19th-century Massachusetts, Lucy Stone was determined to go her own way and be dominated by no man. A staunch activist in the fight for women’s rights who got her start among New England’s abolitionists, she has been overshadowed in the historical record by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, formerly her close colleagues, who cut their ties when Stone insisted on campaigning for universal suffrage, “regardless of race or sex.”

Katherine A. Sherbrooke’s LEAVING COY’S HILL (Pegasus, 340 pp., $25.95) aims to revive interest in Stone by dramatizing her dogged attempts to support herself and her causes on the lecture circuit — and her equally dogged attempts to reconcile her professional career with motherhood and a “marriage of equals” (to the brother of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman in America to obtain a medical degree). “What kind of world were we sculpting,” Stone asks, “if family was to be the enemy of work? Was there no way to have both?”

Mary Wollstonecraft, the late-18th-century British feminist, also had an up-from-poverty, convention-defying background. Wrenching herself from a shabby-genteel family “always clinging to the edge of ruin,” she found employment as a ladies’ companion and governess, as an educator and, finally, as a writer keeping company with some of literary London’s fieriest intellectuals and reporting from the dangerous heart of the French Revolution. Two disastrous love affairs and the birth of an illegitimate daughter were followed by the unexpected discovery of a kindred spirit in the philosopher William Godwin. And so she found herself, equally unexpectedly, in a happy marriage.

In LOVE AND FURY (Flatiron, 275 pp., $26.99), Samantha Silva lets Wollstonecraft tell her own story as a legacy to her second daughter even as a parallel narrative reveals that the room where Wollstonecraft has just given birth will soon be the scene of her death, from “childbed fever.” “Sorrow,” she tells the infant, “will bring you to your knees, time and again, but so will beauty, so too love, enough to rise again, to try again, to live as all beings wish to live: free.”

The implications of the word “free” — and of so many others — come to preoccupy Esme Nicoll, the heroine of Pip Williams’s THE DICTIONARY OF LOST WORDS (Ballantine, 376 pp., $28), a captivating and slyly subversive fictional paean to the real women whose work on the Oxford English Dictionary went largely unheralded. The daughter of a widower who toils with a team of scholars in a glorified garden shed that members of the project call the Scriptorium, Esme begins her story in 1887 when the piles of much-debated filing cards spilling off desktops and crammed into cubbyholes are mainly playthings to a 6-year-old child. But as she grows up and is given tasks of her own at the Scriptorium, Esme comes to question some of the logic behind the activities of her so-called superiors.

‘I’m sure there are plenty of wonderful words flying around that have never been written on a slip of paper.’

As her father explains, certain words “may be commonly spoken, but if they are not commonly written they will not be included” in the vast dictionary project. Where does that leave the lively conversations Esme overhears among the women at the local market stalls when she goes shopping with Lizzie, an illiterate kitchen maid who has become a kind of surrogate mother? Soon Esme is amassing her own collection of words, an activity that will have her jotting down contributions, often quite salty, wherever she can find them. “I’m sure there are plenty of wonderful words flying around that have never been written on a slip of paper,” she explains to the semi-horrified Lizzie. “I think sometimes the proper words mustn’t be quite right, and so people make new words up, or use old words differently.”

“Women’s Words and Their Meanings,” edited by Esme Nicoll, may have an exceedingly limited print run, but that’s enough to guarantee her efforts won’t be in vain. And it allows Williams’s readers to be treated to a wealth of delightful banter, including some naughty verses about a certain bit of female anatomy and a wry observation, apropos of a profanity that dates back to the 16th century: “I can’t think of many words more versatile.”

Alida Becker is a former editor at the Book Review.

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