11 Historical Novels Depicting Women’s Condition in the 20th Century

list of historical novels that depict women in the 20th century
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Sneha Pathak shares a recommended list of historical novels depicting women’s condition in the 20th century for your TBR.

The 20th century was a time of great upheaval and power shifts in the world. World wars were fought, colonisation lost its grip, newly independent countries emerged, and scientific development reached new heights. Amongst these changes, the question of women and their rights also gained prominence and things began to change, albeit far more slowly than anticipated.

The lives of women in the 20th century, especially the first half, have attracted a lot of attention and many writers have written books that shed light on their situation during this time. Here is a list of eleven historical novels that will give you a glimpse of what it meant to be a woman in the past.

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Historical Novels Depicting Women’s Condition in the 20th Century

Independence by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

First on our list of historical novels is this brilliant read.

Independence is set in the year 1946, at the height of India’s independence movement. It is the story of that tumultuous time seen through the eyes of three sisters – Priya, Jamini, and Deepa as they navigate through life during this tough time. The personal becomes entangled with the political as relationships between the sisters become frayed because of familial responsibilities and social pressures the young women are forced to operate within. 

Daughters of Jorasanko by Aruna Chakravarti

Next on our list of historical novels is this amazing title.

Sequel to Jorasanko, Daughters of Jorasanko is set in the early twentieth century and focuses on the lives of the second generation of women in the Tagore family. As we become privy to their lives, routines, dreams, and aspirations, we get a glimpse of the well-known men of the family as well, but this time from a new perspective.

Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

Also published under the title A Murder on Malabar Hill, Massey’s first book in the series featuring Perveen Mistry is a blend of mystery and depiction of women’s lives. Perveen is India’s first woman lawyer who is not allowed to practice in court.

When her father’s firm is appointed to execute the will of the rich mill owner, Perveen becomes curious about provisions in the mill that can take everything away from the mill owner’s wives who have lived their entire life in purdah and have no idea of how the world works. Contrasting Perveen’s world with the widows along with a mystery at its core, the book makes for an unputdownable read.

Requiem in Raga Janki by Neelam Saran Gaur

Next on our list of historical novels is this amazing title.

Based on the life of singer Janki Bai Illahabadi, Requiem in Raga Janki tells the story of this feisty woman who survived a vicious attack in her youth and enthrals everyone with her voice. Rich in historical details and full of the glamour of the durbars along with the sordidness of nautch houses, Requiem is a delight for history lovers.

Historical Novels

Breaking Free by Vaasanthi

Translated from Tamil, Breaking Free is an inter-generational saga of three generations of women trying to make peace with their past. The bulk of the story takes place in the past when India’s war for independence is at its peak and takes its readers into the lives of Kasturi and Lakshmi, both born into the Devadasi clan. While Kasturi has accepted her fate, Lakshmi wants – and manages – to break free from its shackles. Full of secrets, family dynamics, and strong women characters, Breaking Free shows a mirror to a new chapter in the history of women.

Mari by Easterine Kire

Set in 1944 during the Japanese invasion of Nagaland, the novel is the story of seventeen-year-old Mari who is turned into a refugee overnight and has to leave home and somehow survive till things calm down. Based on a true story, Mari is an homage to the courage and spirit of resilience of a young girl.

Girl Made of Gold by Gitanjali Kolanad

Next on our list of historical novels is this amazing title.

Set in the 1920s in Tamil Nadu, Girl Made of Gold is the story of a young devadasi who goes missing and a gold image that appears around the same time. A historical novel that evokes the past era and the condition of women, the novel also has elements of suspense that will keep the reader hooked to the story.

The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese

A sprawling saga that covers the era from 1900 to 1977 and runs into more than six hundred pages, The Covenant of Water is the story of the life of Big Ammachi and her family. We witness her life from the time when she is twelve years old and as she grows into the matriarch of a bustling family, we witness the ups and downs in her clan as the intergenerational saga moves on. With memorable women characters populating its pages, The Covenant of Water is a worthy addition to your TBR list.

The Bangalore Detectives Club by Harini Nagendra

Next on our list of historical novels is this amazing title.

Set in pre-independence era Bangalore, Nagendra’s book is the story of the spunky young bride Kaveri who has recently moved to her husband’s house and is trying hard to fit into the role of a good wife and daughter-in-law. But when a party turns into a murder scene, Kaveri knows she has to help the woman who’s being accused and with the help of her husband Ramu and a few friends, decides to go sleuthing. The Bangalore Detectives Club combines a delightful heroine with the city of more than a hundred years ago, satisfying both mystery and history enthusiasts.

The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi

Alka Joshi’s The Henna Artist invites its readers into Jaipur of the 1950s as we witness seventeen-year-old Lakshmi come to the city leaving the scars of her past behind. As she becomes a renowned henna artist and climbs ladders of success, her past crosses her path once again in the form of her husband whom she had left behind. His entry into her life along with someone she has never met before changes its trajectory and the plot moves in a direction that makes readers fall in love with the book.

What the Body Remembers by Shauna Singh Baldwin

Next on our list of historical novels is this amazing title.

Set in undivided Punjab in the 1940s, What the Body Remembers is the story of a young Roop who is married to a man who already has a first, childless wife. Even as she tries to make peace with the first wife, Roop finds life difficult. The book is as much the story of Satya as it is of Roop and through its evocative writing and historical details, makes for an immersive read.

Have you read any of these Historical Novels Depicting Women’s Condition? What do you think of it? Drop a comment below and let us know!

Sneha Pathak

Sneha Pathak

Sneha Pathak loves reading over everything else and has a degree in English Literature. She loves discovering new authors and new books. Her favourite genre is mystery/detective fiction, but she reads all genres with equal gusto and enjoys writing about them. When not reading, she can be found book-browsing.

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