In all my reading of historical fiction, something I particularly look out for is great representation. I love books that explore people and places, times and events that aren’t as often the center of conversation. It’s why I love making post on topics like queer historical romance and highlighting a wide array of books in Book Riot’s historical fiction newsletter, Past Tense. Which brings me to today’s topic: sapphic historical fiction. I don’t think it’s any great secret (or at least it shouldn’t be) that queer people have existed as long as humans have. Even the term “sapphic” can be traced back to an Ancient Greek poet, Sappho of Lesbos. She’s the source behind the etymology of both “sapphic” and “lesbian.”
But sapphic fiction isn’t constrained to just lesbian fiction; it encompasses all women who love women, regardless of their identity. Within the pages of these sapphic historical fiction novels you’ll find lesbians, yes, but also bisexual women, queer women, and many women who don’t label themselves at all. The one thing that unites them is their love for women. So be sure to add these 20 great sapphic historical fiction books to your must-reads list. You won’t regret it.
Mademoiselle Revolution by Zoe Sivak
This gorgeous historical fiction novel was among my favorite reads of 2022, and it’s easy enough to see why. When a biracial heiress flees the Haitian Revolution only to find herself enmeshed in another burgeoning revolution in France, her understanding of race and class begin to shift. But it’s her relationship with a rising leader in the movement, Robespierre, and his mistress, Cornélie Duplay, that will force her to choose exactly where her loyalties — and convictions — lie.
The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue
During the 1918 Flu Pandemic, an Irish nurse at an understaffed hospital is placed in charge of the maternity ward for expectant mothers who’ve contracted the deadly flu. But the arrival of two new women to the hospital changes Julia Power’s life in the course of three dark and frenetic days: a new female doctor rumored to be a rebel on the run from the police and an inexperienced young assistant who brightens the life of everyone in the ward. This may be a story without a happy ending, but it is a powerful one nonetheless.
The Dance Tree by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
The author of The Mercies takes on another tale of historical hardship and comeraderie among women in The Dance Tree. When the bees that they keep are threatened by a greedy church official, Lisbet is left alone with her harsh mother-in-law and a sister-in-law, recently returned from serving penance for an unknown crime, as her husband sets off to appeal their fate. Lisbet fears for her unborn child after years of miscarriages, and growing concerns over a dancing plague sweeping through the city center of Strasbourg have everyone on edge. And it’s only by coming together that these women will be able to weather the storm that is coming their way.
Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo
A young Chinese American girl fears for her family’s place in San Francisco’s Chinatown as the wave of McCarthyism and anti-Chinese sentiment threatens her father’s hard-won citizenship. It’s not an easy time to be different in America. But it isn’t only the racism surrounding her that threatens Lily’s happy life, it’s also her growing feelings for a fellow classmate, Kathleen Miller. As the two explore San Francisco’s lesbian nightlife, a whole new world opens up to Lily. But is it worth risking her family’s place here — and Lily’s place in her family?
The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins
Confined to a prison cell, Frannie Langton is prepared to give her last confession. But will anyone believe her? As a servant and former slave accused of murdering her employers, Frannie doubts it — especially since she claims not to remember what happened on that fateful night, when she was found covered in blood. But the story Frannie does have to tell, of a horrifying childhood on a Jamaican plantation and being brought to London under false circumstances, might just indict everyone around her — even if it fails to save herself.
She Rises by Kate Worsley
When Louise Fletcher is offered work as a lady’s maid in the port town of Harwich, she leaps at the chance despite always being warned away from the sea that stole the lives of both her father and brother. But her haughty young mistress, Rebecca, is unlike anyone Louise has met before. Soon, they’re both being changed by the other in ways they never could’ve expected.
Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta
Inspired by both folklore and war, Under the Udala Tree tells the story of a woman coming of age alongside her nation. Ijeoma is born before independence; she’s only 11 when civil war breaks out in Nigeria. Sent away for her protection, Ijeoma meets another young refugee and falls in love. But not only are they from different ethnic communities, they’re both girls. And when their feelings are discovered, Ijeoma learns that there are parts of herself that will never be accepted and that you can never truly be at peace when forced to live a lie.
Cantoras by Carolina de Robertis
Five wildly different women find each other in the midst of a Uruguayan military dictatorship that crushes dissent in the 1970s where homosexuality is a crime to be punished. But Romina, Flaca, Anita, Paz, and Malena find each other nonetheless, the five cantoras discovering a reprieve from the harsh realities of life on a nearby uninhibited cape. At Cabo Polonio, the women can be themselves. And over the next 35 years they will return, together and alone, in pairs and with lovers in tow, to this one place where they can finally stop pretending.
Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin, Translated by Bonnie Huie
This cult classic follows a group of queer misfits who find love and friendship in post–martial law 1980s Taipei. An anonymous lesbian narrator tells their story as they come together while hardly studying at Taiwan’s most prestigious university. Told through a series of diaries, vignettes, and notes, Notes of a Crocodile is an optimistic masterpiece full of the romance and idealism of a changing society.
In the Shadow of the Past by J.E. Leak
In 1940s New York City, a spy falls for the wrong woman — the very woman she’s supposed to be spying on, in fact. When reporter Jenny Ryan gets a tip that pins her father’s death on a mobster, she’s determined to bring him and his empire down. She didn’t expect the mobster’s mistress to be her downfall, though. Kathryn didn’t expect Jenny, either. And she definitely didn’t expect the OSS to make this reporter with a grudge her latest dead-end mission. Love is the last thing either of them need, especially with each other, but their feelings are growing harder to deny. And even their secrets may not be enough to keep them apart.
All of You Every Single One by Beatrice Hitchman
Queer people weather love, passion, and heartbreak in this atmospheric historical novel set in the first half of the 20th century. Julia and Eve know their best chance for love and happiness lies in the more liberal Vienna, where they find community in the Jewish quarter. But Julia’s desperate longing for a child threatens the life they have built together. Rolf and Emil hide their affair despite Rolf’s determination to never fall in love. And Ada finds comfort with her cousin’s wife even as she’s sent to Dr. Freud to try to cure her mutism. It’s a portrait of life against the backdrop of oppression and community in a rapidly changing city.
The Last Nude by Ellis Avery
In 1927 Paris, a young American in desperate straits crosses paths with the Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka. Hoping to stay off the streets, Rafaela agrees to model for Tamara, soon becoming her muse. But Tamara and Rafaela are much more than artist and model — they’re lovers whose passion inspires some of Tamara’s most iconic Jazz Age imagery. But even as they relish their time together, the encroaching tide of war of in Europe threatens their future.
The Best Bad Things by Katrina Carrasco
Alma got her skills and training as a Pinkerton before she was let go for bad behavior and going undercover as a man. Now, she works for Delphine Beaumond in a west coast smuggling ring. When a shipment of opium goes missing, Alma is sent to infiltrate their Washington Territory outpost as a dockworker. She’s looking to find the opium and root out the turncoat in their midst. But one wrong move could expose her as a traitor, a spy, or — worst of all — a woman.
Coffee Will Make You Black by April Sinclair
Growing up on the Southside of Chicago during the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, Stevie longs to fit in. But after the assassination of Dr. King, she decides not to straighten her hair or bleach her skin. She’s determined to confront the prejudice she receives not only from white people but Black people as well. But her growing confusion over why she’s more attracted to the school nurse than her teenage boyfriend makes trying to stand up while fitting in seem even more complicated.
After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz
In this lush meditation on creativity and queer identity, women throughout time break from the seemingly predetermined path of their lives to forge something new in the vein of the famous Greek poet. Vignettes of the lives of Virginia Woolf, Natalie Clifford Barney, Romaine Brooks, and others take inspiration from Sappho and pursue their true selves and their true passions in these pages.
Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters
When it comes to sapphic historical fiction, you just can’t make a complete list without mentioning Sarah Waters. And in Tipping the Velvet, a male impersonator transfixes a young oyster girl in the music halls of Leicester Square in Victorian London, before bringing her on as part of a singing and dancing double act. On stage, they dazzle audiences. But behind closed doors, Nan and Kitty can openly admit their feelings for each other. And so a love affair begins.
A Million To One by Adiba Jaigirdar
Former Book Riot contributor and author Adiba Jaigirdar pens her first historical novel with this heist story set on the Titanic’s ill-fated maiden voyage. As a thief, an artist, an acrobat, and an actress, Josefa, Emilie, Hinnah, and Violet have very little in common. It’s a singular goal that has brought them together aboard the Titanic: stealing the jewel-encrusted Rubaiyat. This book might just be the ticket to solving all their problems, but old grudges, new romance, and one disastrous night on the Atlantic could ruin everything they’ve been working for.
The Parting Glass by Gina Marie Guadagnino
A lady’s maid and her high society employer from New York high society are each living a double life — but they don’t know the truth about each other yet. Mary is actually Irish exile Maire O’Farren, and she spends her night in the arms of a prostitute and drinking alongside members of a dangerous secret society. But upright Charlotte Walden has her secrets, too: she’s having an affair with a stable groom who’s actually Mary’s brother. And when their lies begin to unravel, Mary is left to face the consequences and decide between her brother and her employer, her carefully curated façade, and living the life that she truly desires.
Two Wings to Fly Away by Penny Mickelbury
Two very different women in 1856 Philadelphia come together when the daughter of Abby Read’s free Black servant is kidnapped by rogue slave catchers, bringing her into the circle of Genie Oliver, who uses her dress shop down the street as a front for her work with the Underground Railroad. First their work together is done only out of necessity, but before long Abby and Genie find that they enjoy each other’s presence even when the work is done.
Briefly, a Delicious Life by Nell Stevens
I’ve mostly avoided books with any supernatural of fantastical elements on this list, but for this last book I’m going to have to make an exception. After dying in childbirth in the15th century, Blanca has always haunted the hilltop monastery in Mallorca where she breathed her last. When the free-spirited writer George Sand arrives at the monastery with her children and lover, Frederic Chopin, in tow, Blanca is mystified. Who is this strange woman wearing men’s clothes? Blanca can’t seem to look away from her. And as their modern sensibilities shock the people of Mallorca, Blanca increasingly wonders if there is anything she can do to save George from both the locals and her own reckless instincts.