By Jennifer Steil
Women through history have been more passive than active. True, or false?
That’s certainly the conventional wisdom that allowed men to scrub most of our female ancestors from the history books. Yet writers of historical fiction know better. In truth, women have done far more of the heavy lifting in every era than they’re given credit for. They served as wartime spies and saboteurs. They ruled empires. They explored new territories as pioneers. They changed the course of civilization, even as they risked their lives to give birth and protect their children–often from the men who fathered them.
The challenge for historical novelists is to honor this truth about women’s agency while simultaneously acknowledging the conventions of each era–including those patriarchal structures and societal mores that have too often kept women from achieving all that they might have. I still remember my sorrow and rage as a young woman, reading through Revelations, Diaries of Women, edited by Mary Jane Moffat and Charlotte Painter. So many girls and women whose talents and abilities were suppressed or crushed entirely. Who might they have been? What might they have written or painted or built had their desires mattered to the world? While women have not always been passive, they have all too often been prevented from steering their own lives.
Historical novelists, then, need to cultivate a kind of sixth sense for context – how much independent thought and action would the culture, government, and historical moment of the story permit?
The unwed mother in Janet Benton’s Lilli de Jong had to face all the shaming prejudice and financial hardship that Philadelphia society would mete out to her in 1883, but young Lilli also showed enough spunk to honor the legacy of women who really did defy the odds and keep their babies, even back then. By creating Lilli in this mold, Benton could satisfy the modern reader’s thirst for female empowerment.
The order grows taller when the story takes place in a world explicitly controlled by men, like colonial outposts of the British Empire or the military during World War II. Claire Durant, the heroine of Aimee Liu’s Glorious Boy, must navigate both these worlds as she strives to rescue her husband and son, who are trapped behind enemy lines. Was it plausible for Claire to join a Special Operations expedition in 1943? Liu’s research turned up no examples of women saboteurs in the Pacific, but she found plenty of models for Claire among the Allied spies and female resistance fighters in Europe. Tweak the facts of history just slightly, and the careful novelist can tell a story so believable that it very well might have happened even if it never technically did.
At the same time, it’s important to respect the reality of antiquated customs and norms that did constrain women in a novel’s historical setting. Nicole Galland, author of Master of the Revels, once scrapped a novel because her intended heroine could not realistically attain agency in her era — though the character was based on a Shakespearean character who, in the fiction of a play, had tons of it.
And just as there is a tendency to overlook women’s agency throughout history, there is also a tendency to whitewash sexuality. It’s often assumed that previous generations didn’t have as much sex as we do, and that what sex did happen was largely heteronormative. Research reveals a much different story.
When I began studying the sexuality of women in Germany and Austria in the 1930s, I found a wealth of lesbian material, including popular novels. There was a very active lesbian underground, with its own newspapers and clubs. Orly, the protagonist of my novel Exile Music even runs into a queer couple at the opera. Yet there were limits, both social and legal. As Orly comes of age in Bolivia, it becomes clear that a life with a female partner is all but impossible in her community. She knows without ever having to ask the price she would pay for confessing her sexuality.
We hope you’ll join us at the HNS Conference online on Friday, June 25, at 9am Central Time, for a spirited discussion of female agency, queer agency, and how to create all manner of characters who are both products of their time and place and exceptional.
Sign up for the 2021 Historical Novel Society Conference to attend this exciting panel.
Friday, June 25, 9:00-10:00PM (CT)
CREATING CHARACTERS WHO BELONG WHERE YOU PUT THEM
Janet Benton, Nicole Galland, Aimee Liu, Jennifer Steil