Karen McCombie and Anneli Bray's Favourite Women from History

Karen McCombie's The Girl with her Head in the Clouds tells the story of Dolly Shepherd, a ground-breaking young woman who flew threw the skies as an aeronaut in the early 1900s. You can read my review of this lovely children's historical fiction book here.

Dolly's story is one of countless incredible tales of real women from the past just waiting to be discovered by new audiences and McCombie beautifully executes her delightful imagining of her early life. Accompanying the story are georgeous illustrations by Anneli Bray that capture Dolly's adventures both in the air and on the ground.

To celebrate International Women's Day, I was very lucky to have the chance to ask both author and illustrator about Dolly. They also shared their favourite women from history with me.

Karen, tell me about discovering Dolly Shepherd!

KM - I was captivated by Alexandra Palace as soon as we moved to our corner of north London. Despite the grand name – and the grand building – the palace never housed royalty… it was built in 1873, as a ‘palace for the people’, with its halls, theatre and grounds hosting events and entertainment for the ordinary, hardworking folk of London.

After learning about the history of Ally Pally (as it’s fondly known), I discovered that one of the entertainers of the Edwardian era was a young woman – a teenager – called Dolly Shepherd. Despite having zero experience, Dolly talked her way into a waitressing job at the palace, where she served the Wild West showman Colonel Samuel Cody and hot air balloonist Captain Auguste Gaudron. Within a short time, Dolly found herself joining Captain Gaudron’s team of parachutists, shocking crowds as she hurtled through the skies towards the earth… I found a rare copy of Dolly’s autobiography and was totally charmed by her cheerful character, and startled by her adventures and near misses. It was just too good a story not to share, and so my fictionalised account of her early life as an aeronaut turned into the children’s book ‘The Girl With Her Head In The Clouds’.

Anneli, what did you enjoy about drawing Dolly?

AB - I loved everything about drawing Dolly Shepherd. She’s completely fearless, a little bit cheeky and most of all brave. I wanted to make sure I portrayed her wonder and zest for life too. I found myself smiling whenever I drew her and laughing when I drew her long suffering Aunt! I am much more cautious myself and deeply petrified of heights (read: falling) so I am completely in awe of everything Dolly achieved (and with very little safety measures too!).

And what did you enjoy about portraying the Edwardian Era?

AB - The clothing was definitely my favourite part. Edwardian clothing is so smart and there are lots of lovely details to draw. I especially loved to draw Dolly’s uniform. Not only was it shocking for her to be an aeronaut but it would have been quite controversial at the time to see a lady wearing trousers and a jacket instead of a dress. I love how powerful and strong she looks when she wears it.

Karen, I'd love to know if there are any historical women, apart from Dolly, who particularly capture your imagination?

KM - I’d love to meet Julia Margaret Cameron. The photographic portraits that were taken by Julia Margaret Cameron were ground-breaking for the 1860s. I’d love to have sat in her studio and watched as she posed her models, from children to eminent scientists such as Charles Darwin. I’m also in awe of the fact that she raised eleven children in all, including five orphaned children of relatives as well as a young Irish girl she and her husband found begging. She also ran a salon, attended by poets and painters of the day. Oh, to stroll on the beach near her Isle of Wight home and chat with her… and ask her specifically about the young sitter in the print of hers that I have on my bedroom wall!

I’d love to write about Frances Hodgson Burnett. I recently stumbled upon a feature about the author of ‘The Secret Garden’ and ‘The Little Princess’ and had no idea that Frances Hodgson Burnett’s life was such a riches-to-rags-to-riches story. When her father died and her family emigrated from the UK to America, she sold a short story before she was eighteen, and quickly turned to writing full-time to support her mother and siblings. I’m hoping to write a fictionalised account of her early life very soon!

I’m inspired by Elizabeth Blackwell. My recent historical novel ‘Little Bird Lands’ is about a Scottish crofter’s daughter and her family who emigrate to America in the 1860s to make a new life for themselves. Snowed in at a mining town in northern Michigan, they meet a very unusual doctor – she’s female. The character of Dr Spicer was inspired by British-born Elizabeth Blackwell, who became the first ever woman to qualify as a doctor in America, in 1847, after initially being told that the only way she could study was to disguise herself as a man! She went on to campaign for women’s education, rights and social reform. Like many liberals of the era, Blackwell became interested in some ideologies that are uncomfortable to us nowadays, but her determined efforts to improve the lot of women of the time was impressive and important, especially when it came to encouraging and enabling them to enter the world of medicine.

I’m intrigued by Lizzie Siddal. As a teenager, I remember being so struck by the dazzlingly detailed and sadly beautiful portrait of Ophelia by John Everett Millais. And then I came across a book in the library about the young woman who’d posed for the painting; a shop-girl plucked from obscurity, whose life was transformed when she was spotted by an artist, quickly becoming the beloved model-of-choice of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of painters. The out-of-print book described her new life as being that of a bird in a gilded cage, and that does seem to describe her life. Tall, gawky, red-headed and poor, she became sought after and revered, but that transformation didn’t necessarily bring happiness. She quickly became an adept artist herself, but being ‘just’ a woman, her efforts were derided, and her claustrophobic, controlling relationship with the painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti wasn’t the healthiest. What could she have accomplished as an artist if she’d lived in a more modern era and been able to be independent?

And I’d like to show the modern world to Laura Ingalls Wilder. The ‘Little House on the Prairie’ series of books made an enormous impression on me as a child. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s slightly fictionalised stories of growing up in a pioneering family just sucked me into a totally different world from my own, living as I did at the time in a multi-storey block of flats in a busy city in Scotland. As an adult I stumbled on a book by her writer daughter Rose, detailing the delight that her then elderly mother took in visiting the World Fair in San Francisco in 1915. Laura Ingalls Wilder was fascinated with the wonders of science that she saw. And as a sensible and inquisitive person, I’m sure she’d be just as fascinated by – and open-minded about – the world now.

Anneli, what female historical figure are you most inspired by?

I’m most inspired by Beatrix Potter. I’d love to write and illustrate a picture book about her. Her characters and illustrations clearly show her love of the nature and this is something I also like to show in my work. Also, many people only know her for creating Peter Rabbit but she was also a mycologist, a passionate conservationist and a prize winning Herdwick sheep breeder!

Thank you both so much and congratulations on your wonderful book.

And thanks to Barrington Stoke for my review copy of The Girl with her Head in the Clouds.

Disclaimer: This page contains affiliate links to bookshop.org and will redirect you to their website. If you make a purchase I will make a very small commission at no extra cost to you and they also share their profits with independent bookshops around the UK.