Female Characters in HistFic

I’ve been thinking lately about women in historical fiction. About whether there is a push (from readers? from publishers? from the PC police?) to include female characters that are independent, strong-willed and, for lack of a better word, “feisty” when these would, except in special circumstances, be completely anachronistic traits. And about whether female characters who are not any of these things, who exist in the margins, in supporting roles, are any the less interesting or compelling as a result.

Amanda Craig, in an article for Mslexia on the role of feminism in modern fiction, tackles this question briefly. She writes,

One reason why we care so much about Jane Eyre and her ilk is that we are allowed to get to know them, faults and all. Whether created by male or female novelists, they live in our imaginations because of their flaws, not despite them. Yet today it can seem as if the fictional woman isn’t allowed to be anything other than the standard strong, liberal, sensible, moderate woman of our dreams. (Given that all heroines must, if created by a woman, be confused with their creators, there is often a particularly personal edge to this.)

This dangerous tendency has extended to historical fiction as well, to embed modern sensibilities on stories set in the past. Later in the same article is this statement by novelist Sarah Dunant:

‘Over the last 40 years, historians have been asking powerful pertinent questions about the place of half of the population in the past; and that has gone a long way towards rewriting what passed for history when I was at university. So of course it has affected the historical novel, simply because our palette of human experience is much richer and more colourful than previously. However, I would add a warning. For a while it seemed that women fiction writers who wanted to rewrite this past (and by definition I think you would have to call them feminist writers) were inclined to concentrate either on the oppression or victim status of women, or go looking for – or making up – examples of times when women triumphed or stuck their heads above the parapet. While I can see why we did that, I think the truth of this ‘new’ past is more nuanced. Women were simply there: in the cracks, in the weave, in the grains of sand, that make up humanity. Even when they did not make the headlines, they wrote their own history by living it. We have to find a way to include them without inflating or misrepresenting that fact.’

Rather excitingly, Craig goes on to cite Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life as a historical novel that attempts to resolve this dilemma of writing about ordinary women, women in the cracks of history. While I haven’t read Life After Life yet, I’m happy to see that this is an issue being recognized and addressed by fiction writers.

Are there other novelists addressing this issue? I would love to read more about the lives of so-called ordinary women, not goddesses, queens or mistresses, living in the cracks, whose stories may not accord with the modern view of what women can and should be. Their stories may not be central to traditional history but they are central to themselves and their views of the world.

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