Our occasional series about history’s most interesting people who have been overlooked by Hollywood. See also our articles about artists, Renaissance women, Medieval women, 18th-century women, and pirate women who need movies made about them. We’ve also also nominated Rose Bertin and several of Henry VIII’s wives for specific screen treatment.
I’ve talked about overlooked books that would make great historical costume movies or TV series, but what about authors? Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Mary Shelley (always teamed with Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron), Oscar Wilde, and the Bronte Sisters have all gotten multiple biopics. But there are scads more writers who led fascinating lives that would be good fodder for frock flicks.
Margery Kempe (1373? – 1438?)
This 15th-century Christian mystic dictated what is often considered to be the first autobiography in the English language, The Book of Margery Kempe. Completed in the 1430s, this book describes her marriage, a difficult pregnancy, sexual temptations, and her trials with running domestic business of brewing and grain. She tried to understand these ordinary aspects of life in context of her religious faith, which, in this era, was as all-consuming and omnipresent as the internet is today. Kempe described dramatic visions of demons and makes pilgrimages to the Holy Land and sites around Europe, in a life that was unique for a medieval woman and strangely relatable today. A film about her life could take the obvious Christian route, but a symbolic view could be just as interesting — rather like The Messenger (1999) questioned whether Joan of Arc’s visions were religious or mental illness or a person trying to understand something bigger than herself or a combination of all of these. Kempe’s story offers fertile ground for film storytelling.
Aphra Behn (1640? – 1689)
Playwright, poet, spy for Charles II — Aphra Behn is a fabulous Restoration-era frock flick just dying to happen! She’s said to be the first woman to earn a living by her pen, and it’s no doubt that she is an important 17th-century dramatist. Her plays, such as The Rover, are still in popular rotation, probably because many addressed gender, race, and class issues, so they’re relevant though the ages. Also, she was quite a wit and indulged in sex-romp comedies that the Restoration stage became known for. But Behn had another side to her, that of political spy. She traveled to Antwerp in 1666 to gain information on English exiles plotting against the king, but Charles II was slow to pay for her time and expenses. Other than her writing work and spy activities, little is known about her actual life — she doesn’t show up often in records and left no letters. That leaves some tantalizingly juicy gaps for a movie to fill.
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797)
Best known for writing the feminist manifesto, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792, she also wrote a novel based on her youthful dream of a female utopian community. Wollstonecraft and a friend, Fanny Blood, plus Wollstonecraft’s sisters, Everina and Eliza, kept house together and set up a school for a short time in the 1780s. This didn’t succeed, and Blood sickened and died, which devastated Wollstonecraft. She moved to London to write, had an affair with a married artist, tried to make it polyamorous but that didn’t work out, and moved to Paris during the French Revolution. There, she fell in love with an American businessman and got pregnant. Of course, the guy ditched her, and she returned to London with the baby. Mary was still writing this whole time, but she was distraught and tried to commit suicide twice. Eventually, she met William Godwin, got pregnant again, they married, and Mary Shelley was born. But Wollstonecraft died of septicaemia shortly after the birth. If that doesn’t make for a wildly dramatic film or miniseries, I don’t know what does!
George Eliot (1819 – 1880)
Mary Ann Evans took the pen name of George Eliot so her writing wouldn’t be pre-judged — because, y’know, misogyny (it’s still a thing, btw). The author actually came out as a women after her first book, Adam Bede, was a huge success, but she continued to use the name Eliot until her final novel Daniel Deronda. Her father had been an estate manager and allowed Evans a decent education for a girl of the era, plus she had access to the estate’s library. However, this did cause family strife when she began to question her parents’ religion, and her father threatened to throw her out of the house. Eventually, she moved to London and secured a job editing a left-wing magazine, where she socialized with a liberal, intellectual crowd. That was how she hooked up with philosopher George Henry Lewes, and they decided to live together. He was married to another woman, had three children, and for complicated reasons, was unable to divorce her so they had an open relationship. Eliot began calling herself “Mary Ann Evans Lewes” or “Marian Evans Lewes,” which was kind of shocking for the era. She published her great novels between 1859-76, and then in 1878 Lewes died. Two years later, Eliot married a man 20 years younger than her, John Cross, who randomly attempted suicide during their honeymoon in Venice. He survived, but she died later that year at home. So much great movie material here!
Louisa May Alcott (1832 – 1888)
Behind Little Women and Little Men is a fiercely independent feminist and abolitionist who never married, and she worked and wrote to support herself, her sisters, and her parents. Alcott’s parents were transcendentalists, and the family lived in a utopian community for a time. Later, their house was part of the Underground Railroad, and they housed at least one fugitive slave. The real Alcott family was even poorer than the Marches in Little Women, so the four daughters and the mother were always scrimping to make ends meet. They took work as seamstresses, governesses, and domestic help, and Alcott briefly served as a nurse during the Civil War. At one point, when jobs were scarce, Alcott contemplated suicide, but reportedly she was inspired to go on by reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Bronte. Before the novels we’re familiar with, Alcott wrote fast and furiously, everything from potboiler novels, sweet children’s books, and realistic magazine articles, often under pseudonyms. Once she hit the big time, Alcott bought her family houses and cared for her parents until they died. There are parallels between her books and her life, but the differences are just as interesting.
What writers do you want to see a historical costume movie or TV series made about?