The “feisty female” in historical fiction

I have been reading Susanne Alleyn’s excellent book about writing historical fiction. Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders (2015) recently; though I find it helpful, interesting, and often quite humorous, there is one idea I would like to push back on just a bit–the feisty female.  Alleyn writes that too often authors give their historical characters modern attitudes, and this is true.  She quotes Hilary Mantel’s line, “Women in former eras were downtrodden and frequently assented to it.” While there is virtually no one who would argue against the first half of that sentence, I think the idea of assent should be examined more closely. Who assents to being downtrodden?  

US Department of Defense,

According to James C. Scott’s Domination and the Arts of Resistance (1990), part of the difficulty in dealing with the history of a subordinate group is that there is a public transcript of events and a hidden transcript, which the dominant group neither knows about nor may access.   Further, the hidden transcript is not necessarily a part of the written record, or if it is written, it may exist in sources outside the norm, such as rumors, gossip, songs, rituals, euphemisms, or jokes.  Actions may also be a part of the hidden transcript.   A quotation from page 14 bears exact reproduction:

Tactical prudence ensures that subordinate groups rarely blurt out their hidden transcripts directly.  But, taking advantage of the anonymity of a crowd or of an ambiguous accident, they manage in a thousand artful ways to imply that they are grudging conscripts to the performance.

The performance he refers to here is the dominant group’s version of reality.  Add to this the now accepted view that history is written by the victors and the astute writer of historical fiction will see room for heroines who neither assent nor conform inwardly to the dominant group’s (i.e. men’s) conception of reality. They may even occasionally find ways to express their non-assent, as many real historical women–who had the means and opportunity–did. (See Christine De Pizan, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Heloise, etc.) If you are wondering why the short and by no means exhaustive list includes only well-known women of a certain class–they are the ones who had the opportunity.  They are the ones that history records, and remember who is writing the history. 

This is not to say that your feisty female doesn’t face limitations, of course she does.  But, it would be ridiculous to assume that women were satisfied with the status quo and never sought to upend it, even if their resistance was in small acts.  In her 1989 article, “The Return of the Repressed in Women’s Narrative,” Susan Stanford Friedman argues that women’s writing may be read as a form of disguised record of the forbidden. That women’s public writing had to disguise what they wanted to say more than their private writing.  Women were protesting or “writing against the grain” from the beginning, and if they were writing against the grain, what else might they have done? In “History to the Defeated: Women Writers and the Historical Novel in the Thirties,” Diana Wallace points out that one of the many factors contributing to a boom in female authored and centered historical fiction in the 1930s was the renewed interest and demand for information about the lives of women in history.   In addition, a surfeit of women who graduated from University after studying History, but who were denied entrance to other occupations, took up writing historical fiction.   All of this brings to mind Catherine Morland, who observes somewhat dryly, 

I read it [history] a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all—it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention.

Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey accessed via Project Gutenberg, chapter 14.

Indeed, if women are not part of the public transcript, with the exception of outliers, what might the hidden transcript reveal about them, if only we had it complete?  So, write your feisty female characters, keeping things as historically accurate as you can, without assenting to being downtrodden–no one assents to that. 

Published by Robin Henry

Independent Scholar and Book Coach specializing in Historical Fiction and Literary Fan Fiction.