Following on from this brilliant post from Kathryn Warner, I thought I’d weigh in with my two cents. Firstly, I agree with everything she says. Secondly, I’m not an historian. I have never studied history formally. I have a degree and am working on my Masters, but these are linguistics and writing quals respectively. I’m as much as amateur as anyone out there. I’m not preaching this from any lofty heights or from the perspective of someone who understands or uses any kind of academic method. But I conduct my research as diligently as I can. Sometimes I’m challenged and that’s fine – so long as the challenger can back up what they say with sources – preferably primary, secondary will do but oh, please! not a novel.
Which is what I’m writing and my intention is to stick to the history – what’s been recorded. There are huge gaps to fill, relationships to build, conversations to have, lives to be lived. Some of that can be gleaned from sources or background information, but a good deal of it has to come from me. I need to make sure I do that with respect for my characters, who aren’t really characters at all, but real people who lived real lives, felt real emotions and suffered real deaths. Too many novelists seem to forget that. Sadly, so do too many readers.
I skimmed a review of Philippa Gregory’s Lady of the Rivers the other day. (Disclaimer: I really don’t rate Gregory’s work much.) The reviewer lamented the book’s lack of a ‘plucky heroine’. Which brings me to the subject of this blog: female first person narrators in historical novels set in the Middle Ages. Seems to be some kind of fad at the moment, the shortcomings of the style ignored, the women in question turned into thinly disguised 21st century grrlz. If they’re not hiding in cupboards they’re disguised as boys, or riding, unescorted, to the scene of the next big bit of action. The thing is, by and large, they weren’t witnesses to these big events. Their husbands, fathers and brothers might have been, but they weren’t. So why play fast and loose not only with facts but with the very nature of these women themselves by pretending they were? Worse still are the times when the writer needs to resort to a long report from a breathless rider, fresh from the battlefield, or execution, or whatever the event was. That kind of thing can have its place, but why not include a male voice in the story? The voice, maybe, of one of the men who was actually involved in what was going on.
And this ‘plucky heroine’ is always, somehow, the only one in the whole book who does such things. In order to get her to stand out, all other women must be seen as either barking mad with power; helpless swooning damsels or terrified of everything that’s going on around them. A classic example of this kind of heroine is the Isobel Ingoldisthorpe we meet in Lady of the Roses. She does it all! The whole shebang. And her mother-in-law, the indomitable Alice Montacute Countess of Salisbury, is turned into a helpless wailing nancy just so that Isobel can be shown all the braver, all the more reourceful. My heart hurt for the Countess when I read that book. Sadly, it isn’t an isolated example. Neither is Philippa Gregory’s magic-powers-having Elizabeth Wydeville in The White Queen. (Someone who, btw, seems to have stepped straight out of the pages of Hawley Jarman’s much better book, The King’s Grey Mare.)
So here’s my plea to all historical novelists everywhere. Please do include women’s stories and women’s voices, but do it intelligently and in a way that doesn’t make at least this reader want to throw the book at the wall in disgust. Here are some suggestions:
1. Give your female character the courtesy – and respect – of finding out about her life. Search primary sources, court documents and the like, for any mention of her. If she’s mentioned in a footnoted article, hunt that article down. Contact historians who’ve written about her – they can be quite generous. Secondary sources can be useful, but don’t stop there. ‘Women’s lives weren’t recorded’ is a poor excuse. If they owned property, and most noblewomen did, they’re in the record somewhere, it’s just a matter of finding them
2. Tell the real story of her life, not one you’ve mostly made up. if you think you can tell a better story than the real one, then tell it. Change the names, the setting, the time and write the story you think should be written. Don’t change the events of her life to better fit what you think ought to have happened. You might have the most splendid idea that she and her fourth husband were secret childhood sweethearts, but if he was five years older than her, or grew up at the other end of the country, you might have to throw the idea out. Let the history guide the story, not the other way round. You’d be surprised at the number of readers of HF who want to learn history from novels. If you change the life of your main character, that’s the last thing they’re going to be doing.
3. Don’t make a woman be responsible for telling the whole story unless you want the lives of her menfolk to be only ever experienced second or third hand. Let them tell their bits of it. Noblewomen in the Middle Ages didn’t have dull, boring, stultifying lives – or not all of them. When their husbands were away from home, they took charge of their estates, including the defence of their homes if necessary. But they also didn’t charge around the countryside on horseback unescorted, looking for the next battle to witness, or the next brawl to insert themselves into. Sure, some of them were there or thereabouts for important events, and you might find reference to that in a source somewhere. But if they weren’t there, don’t put them there!
4. You want to make the main female focus of your story a strong woman – that’s fine, she probably was. Don’t overdo it. And don’t throw all the other women into the shadows in order to achieve that. Using the Countess of Salisbury as an example (again), she was attainted for treason in 1459, probably for raising troops for her husband. She shared the Duke of York’s exile in Ireland because of that, either making her own way there or accompanying him when he left Ludlow. After the murder of her husband, she was in the process of bringing a wrongful death suit against several men she held responsible. She must have found life difficult from time to time and she may even have sat down in a quiet corner to have a bit of a cry when it all got too much, but she kept going. The vast majority of women in her situation did. They didn’t take to their beds and wait for death to release them from their lives of misery. In your research, look for the strengths and weaknesses in all your women and write to that. Don’t make them either weaker or stronger than they were. Treat them with respect.
5. ‘Plucky heroines’ belong in books about boarding schools, not grown women in the Middle Ages. Brave in the face of danger, stoic under difficulties, prepared to step outside their usual roles from time to time when the need arose – yes, all these things. But not dressed in their brother’s clothes charging around the countryside on their own, carrying secret messages, heroically saving their husbands’ lives, throwing themselves at the feet of the queen to beg some favour or other. If it happened, it might be mentioned somewhere. If it didn’t, why make it up?
6. Rape, or the threat of it, can be powerful. Overused, as it often is, it becomes just another cliche. In order to make your villain more villainy, or your heroine more heroiney, maybe you think that he should rape, or threaten to rape, her. Women can identify with that, can’t they? Your heroine will win all their sympathy. Won’t she? Maybe, if it’s pivotal to the plor. Or if it actually happened. But gratuitous rape is just that. Gratuitous and tacky. Give the poor girl a break! And him. Give him a break as well. A charge of rape is a serious matter, even five hundred years after the fact. Just don’t do it!
7. Forebodings, presentiments and foreshadowing… Now you know what’s going to happen in the end. (I hope you do. Or why are you writing this in the first place?) But your characters don’t. You know she’s going to be a widow before she’s 30. Or for the third time. Or be childless all her life. Or lose three brothers to the headsman. Or die in childbirth. Or a whole number of things. She doesn’t. She can’t possibly know. Don’t give her nightmares that foretell the future, or visions, or cold shivers or anything like that. Let her wave her husband cheerfully goodbye the last times she sees him. Or maybe, let her be still not over the argument they had the night before. Let his awful death be the shock it should be, not I knew something terrible was going to happen. She didn’t.
8. She married who her father chose for her, not some bloke she met one night at a party and fell deeply in love with. And she will marry her father’s choice without complaint. That doesn’t maker her a pawn or him heartless. If he’s a good father, he’ll do his best for her. But if it doesn’t work out the way everyone hoped, she’ll have to learn to live with it. And so will her husband. (Unless she’s the Duchess of Exeter, in which case all bets are off.) If they haven’t come to some kind of understanding, that might just be because they’re not hugely compatible. It’s probably not because he’s a brute who beats her for the hell of it. Make something of the marriage. Don’t just pile the misery onto her, making her a victim. People generally didn’t marry for love (unless they’re Edward IV, in which case all bets are off). Most hoped that love, or at least a feeling of shared purpose, would come. Yes, there were miserable marriages, but ‘arranged’ marriage should not be treated as a synonym.
9. Please please please don’t make her a 21st century Mary Sue! That’s a crime against history, in my books. Maybe she’s not beautiful, or a particularly good dancer. Perhaps she stumbles when she reads or never quite got the hang of French. Maybe not every man she meets falls in love with her (and tries to rape her). Maybe she has enemies, other women who just don’t like her, even though she’s a perfectly decent person. And, oh please!, don’t make the villain do a face turn just as he’s facing death, begging her forgiveness and confessing his deep undying love. That’s not the reason he’s been her husband’s bitter enemy for twenty years. Other things have been going on. Your heroine is not the centre of the universe.
10. And if you must make your heroine share Naked Fun Time with another woman, please leave the honey in the larder.