I was interviewed last week for a podcast and one of the points that came up was the importance of historical accuracy when portraying women in history. Then a few days ago, I came across this interview with historical fiction author Hilary Mantel where she urges novelists to stop re-writing history to falsely empower women.
I could not agree more. It DRIVES ME CRAZY when I see so-called “costume drama” where women are in period dress but everything they do or say is modern feminist. It happens in all sub-genres of historical fiction, but I’ve seen it most often in historical romance (I’m not picking on that sub-genre; just expressing my experience). So many of those women would at the very least have had the snot beat out of them if they really acted that way in their time, if not be jailed or killed for it. It’s only been in the last 40-50 years or that a woman dared speak against her husband in public in the US; in some parts of the world, a woman still doesn’t dare contradict her father, husband, brother, etc. You have to think about the norms of the day when planning action and reaction in historical fiction.
Yes, it bothers me when I read a historical fiction novel where the men are being all “God created man first and he was perfect. You were just pulled from his side, and therefore are inferior” but that was one of the real justifications for men to behave how they wanted for a long stretch of history (at least in the Judaeo-Christian world). I’ve been known to mutter, “you bastard,” when I read such attitudes, but I also appreciate the writer’s faithfulness to the views of the time. The same goes for books that show women being physically, emotionally and sexually abused and then turning around and defending the perpetrator, but I understand why they would and did. For so long women were totally dependent on the men in their lives that even if society wouldn’t have shunned them for fighting back or speaking out (and that’s a BIG “if”), they had no jobs, no shelter, no money without their father/husband/king, so they were stuck. It is at times like this when seeing the mental and emotional fortitude of a woman is more powerful than all the swords or sharp words about independence she could wield.
One of the main responsibilities of a historical fiction writer (I would argue third only to 1. telling a good story and 2. doing their research) is to accurately portray the worldview of the time. If women were expected to cover their heads and be subservient, that is the way you must portray them. You might show the subtle ways in which women were known to fight back, but make sure they are documented. For example, in some time periods and societies, learning to read or write was an act of rebellion that would have been done in utmost secrecy and at great risk to both teacher and student. That woman would not get up the following Sunday and lector in a church, nor was she likely to read her child a bedtime story. She would have to be hyper-vigilant that she never even hinted at having the ability to read, lest she accidentally betray herself. This is when the quiet courage comes in, when we might see people doing extraordinary things in spite of the restrictions of society, but not necessarily in an overt manner.
There are, of course, exceptions to every rule, and telling those stories is great fun. In every time and place there are queens, noblewomen, leaders of religious orders, even everyday women who bucked the trend and spoke up for the myriad women in their societies who could not and their stories should be told. But it is important that the reader understand them for the anomalies that they were; I would argue that their uniqueness is part of the appeal of their stories. When you can find a historically strong woman, go for it – show her in all her outrageous glory! This is what I’ve been doing so far. Victoria Woodhull really was an outspoken, ankle-bearing, sometimes cross-dressing suffragist. There is another woman who was Victoria’s contemporary who demanded equality within her marriage and received it, even publicly (I may write about her in the future). Celtic women had the most rights of any culture in the ancient world, and so my Guinevere is very strong. However, if I was writing about a Roman or Greek woman, I would not have portrayed her in the same way, as those women were considered property of their nearest male relatives and had very little outward power.
Reaction to these outstanding women must be accurate. Just because it is en vogue now to be open about your views, that doesn’t mean it holds true in history. For example, not everyone liked it when Victoria gave her speeches. There was a fair amount of threat, protest and danger. She was lambasted in the papers and lost her reputation quickly, being called “Mrs. Satan,” among other colorful things. She certainly was not widely embraced, not by men or even other women in the suffrage movement. Think about the first women in medicine or science. Do you think men welcomed them into schools, hospitals and laboratories? Not so much. They were routinely harassed, abused, discredited and had their accomplishments usurped by men. It may be hard to read about but that doesn’t make it any less accurate.
As historical fiction writers we owe to everyone – the subjects of the past we’re writing about, our present readers, and future generations who may read us to learn – to portray history as it happened. As Mantel said, we shouldn’t rewrite history to make the victims the victors just because we want to write about strong women. But we can and should dig deep and find those untold stories where women dared to be different. For women constrained by their time/culture, we can peel back the layers and find the less obvious sources of mental, emotional and spiritual strength. I don’t know about you, but my grandmother had steel in her bones and ice in her veins when she needed to. That is the kind of strong woman who lived in every time period, no mater what her society dictated, and that is the woman whose story needs to be more often told.
What are your thoughts on how women are portrayed in historical fiction? What have you read that you’ve liked or disagreed with?