I recently read a lovely book, ‘The Story Collector’ by Evie Gaughan, (review to follow soon) in which the historical female protagonist is that rare thing – a woman in historical fiction who actually behaves within the constraints and confines of her time. It reminded me of this post that I wrote a while ago, and, as the problem of ‘feisty’, unrealistic historical heroines is still one that I come across with depressing regularity, I thought I would post it again, in honour of International Women’s Day.
My recent post about the portrayal of women of a certain age in fiction certainly seemed to strike a chord with many of you. So I thought I’d have another bit of a rant – this time about the way women are portrayed in historical fiction.
Now, I’m not talking about historical romance here, because to be honest it’s not a genre I read and I know that the female characters don’t really have to be historically accurate (and I don’t mean that to sound demeaning).
In the historical fiction that I enjoy, there will be strong, likeable, intelligent female characters. These characters will often be inspiring and admirable. There are enough real historical women who have acted bravely and out of the bounds of convention after all. But, without exception, all of these women would have found it tough, and would have met resistance and hostility and often real danger.
So what really gets on my nerves in historical fiction is women who act rashly, or who are rebellious, or adventurous and who do these things without any consequences whatsoever. Women of upper class families who go out on their own, for example, without permission. And this is acceptable because after all, she’s a feisty one (god how I hate that word) and it’s all just a bit of a giggle.
And women who show no fear. Who stand up to adversity and discrimination and their fear, their anger, their frustration isn’t portrayed. I’m willing to bet everything I have that every single woman who stood on the gallows, accused of witchcraft was utterly, completely terrified. That every single woman who fell under suspicion and was arrested and tortured felt helpless. That every single woman who wanted more for herself than to be a wife or a mother felt totally frustrated and angry.
In too many books and films these women stand up for themselves and are defiant. Would they really have been? Or would they have crumbled, and cried and begged for mercy? And wouldn’t you? I think we do a disservice to these women when we write their feelings out of our fiction. These women were often completely, utterly, helpless and alone and would have had no agency at all. There would have been no one, absolutely no one to help them. It would have done no good for to be feisty. They just had to bear it and they just had to suffer.
I began reading a book the other week that was a best seller. The author is well-respected and very, very successful. I’ll admit I had my reservations before I began. The book is set in France, in the occupation. In the opening scenes, a local woman, very young, very clever, very outspoken, is put into a very difficult and scary situation that could end with her being killed. But she’s fine, because she’s strong, and brave and clever and beautiful and feisty. She stands up to the nasty Gestapo officer. And all is fine.
How utterly insulting to all those women who were left to deal with the occupation and who did whatever they could to keep themselves sand their children safe. What a judgement on those who weren’t feisty enough or pretty enough or brave enough. I wouldn’t be brave in that situation. I doubt that I’d stand up for myself.
I know fiction is make-believe. I know that people can act differently in fictional worlds to how they act in the real world. But I also feel so strongly that we owe it to the millions and millions of women that have suffered, that have been tortured and murdered and abused and vilified and subjugated, to portray them honestly. A woman that confessed under torture to things she hadn’t done, a woman that betrayed someone because she was scared for her children, a woman that didn’t do all the things she was capable of because she COULDN’T. Because not everyone was bloody Florence Nightingale (although she certainly had her struggles too). These women are part of female history too. And if you’re writing historical fiction, please show these women how they would have been. And please do remember – there weren’t many happy endings.