I’ve spent most of my life hating history. In my high school and college, history classes were all about the power of men. They filled every page, from “our founding fathers” in the U.S., to celebrated military generals, to brilliant scientists and inventors throughout the world. Women, meanwhile, were placed here and there in their bonnets and plain dresses, sewing flags, tending children, nursing soldiers, or standing behind their male counterparts.
So how does a post-Gloria-Steinem teenage girl relate? Years passed before I discovered history wasn’t all about men or only about women who were off (or seated quietly upon) their rockers. It wasn’t even entirely taught in school. I simply needed to look to different sources. The best source for me, and the most interesting by far, is historical fiction. I know these novels are rarely the most popular books out there. And I know, at first, it doesn’t sound like people can learn much history through fiction. Surely the truth has been sensationalized, amended, or stretched too far? And anyway, do I even want to learn when I’m reading for fun?
While it is true that some stories are not well-researched and that fiction readers mainly want to be entertained, not schooled, I stand by my creed that more people should read and write historical fiction – especially more women, specifically ABOUT women. Historical fiction books have done a great job overall in accentuating women’s roles in history as powerful and important. I actually read it for fun, but there’s more to it than that. When I read something, even a novel, I want it to make me think. All I could do while reading academic history was wonder how many talented women in the past could have “made history” if given the opportunity. The answer to that is something we can only guess. A better answer is: we should guess.
“Well behaved women rarely make history.” I used to see this bumper sticker everywhere. Maybe it’s just me, but the notion that women had to misbehave to get noticed is not empowering. It’s not that there weren’t many successful women in the past. They were there, and not always clad in skirts below their ankles straightening men’s ties and raising perfect children. I learned in school about a few women who were outstanding female leaders like Cleopatra and Joan of Arc, activists like Harriet Tubman and Mother Theresa, outlaws like Calamity Jane, outspoken first ladies like Mary Todd Lincoln, and various other women writers and artists. But did you, like me, ever get the feeling these women were depicted as unusual rule-breakers who were probably a little crazy?
“We can do it.” Now there’s a slogan I can get behind! We can, in a way, go back and give women the opportunities – possibly even just a spotlight – they didn’t have or haven’t yet been given. As women who read and/or write it, we can give ourselves more to believe in. What makes us think our history books are full of accurate, unbiased truth anyway?
I love to create a powerful female protagonist, so I gain more benefit from writing historical fiction than reading it. I have found no end to inspiration for creating her world from an already-existing cast of memorable historical characters (or character-types), mind-blowing challenges real people faced (not just women), and fascinating events that actually shaped our society. Through hours upon hours of ravenous study, I’ve also become somewhat of an expert in my research area of the Victorian and Spiritualist Eras. Well, if I’m not an expert, then at least friends tell me I’m a lot more fun at social gatherings and way more helpful on trivia night at the bar.
Prehistory. The love of historical fiction can start with something simple. For me, it started with books I didn’t even think of as historical fiction: namely The Clan of the Cavebear, by Jean M. Auel. This series is an excellent example, set in an era the author somehow researched exhaustively, despite its occurrence before recorded history. I loved Ayla, the heroine, who was depicted not only as influential and admirable but also as the inventor of some serious game-changers, from holistic medicine to domesticated animals to the use of soap for personal hygiene. No one really knows for sure where such ideas were first implemented, but doesn’t it just make sense that it would be a woman?
Art History. Another highly inspiring, similarly fictional character for me was Griet, otherwise known as The Girl With the Pearl Earring.Before I read Tracy Chevalier’s book, I didn’t even know I needed a different perspective on the male-dominated world of art history. No offense to former teachers, but my high school and college classes tended to celebrate visual art with very little attention to the often debatable accuracy of its social context. For example, if I had known Vermeer was probably kind of an ass, I’m certain I would have admired his work less. When I realized that some famous male artists may have had a talented woman like Griet assisting them, possibly even doing work for which they got all the credit, I was really depressed.
What got me over it was discovering the chance I had at rewriting history. Sort of. Okay, if not rewriting it, then at least reading what someone has written about our previous notions of what “really” happened, looking at some additional sources, and writing an alternative that could be just as believable. It is fun to read a fast-paced political thriller based on nothing in particular, or a romance or adventure that takes us to places we don’t get to be in daily life. But historical fiction can encompass all of those things, and add instant, real-world knowledge.
And the rest is . . . For me, reading historical fiction has been life-changing. Ultimately it’s because of the inspiration I’ve felt to write, but it’s also life-changing because I feel like I’ve gained a backstage pass to the roles and lives of women throughout history in events that have caused this world, and my life, truly to be changed for the better. If you’re like me, you just might like yourself and the world more if you choose a fun little read with a bit more research and unlimited inspiration from your very own, very real world. You, too, could shout out more answers during Jeopardy. You, too, might have more to write about than you ever had before. You, too, can make history.
Lisa Borja is a writer with a background in psychology that extends to parapsychology and exploration of psychic phenomena. A new historian of Victorian America and Spiritualism, member of the Society for Psychical Research, and explorer of the development of psychic ability, Borja recently left her own Midwestern roots and followed the many signs pointing her in the direction of the Pacific Northwest. She lives in Oregon with her husband, dogs, and 25-pound cat, and can be found writing on TheSpiritWritings.com.
If you have any questions/comments for Lisa, please leave them in the comments below and she will respond.
I’ve always loved historical fiction, particularly pre medieval. As a fantasy fan, I’m bored now if it doesn’t have a genuine historical link. Anyone can make up their own fantasy world, but to be able to slot it into our history, to base it around historical, or mythological figures and existing legends, and make it work, thats what excites me. I read it for fun and pleasure, but love that I can learn from it too. Who says learning cant be fun, or fiction based?
Ali, I couldn’t have said it better myself. I’m going to make sure Lisa knows you commented in case she wants to chime in.
I agree – I’ve even started being more interested in biographies, just because I know they’re tied into history – & they’re sometimes written more exciting than your average page-turner!