Guest Post by Robin Henry –
Writers of historical fiction often face criticism for placing “modern” characters in a historical setting. Readers send angry emails about how writers got it wrong. “That could never happen!” they exclaim.
These comments frequently concern the actions of female characters. This essay asks writers to look for the spaces in the historical record where there is room for imagination and use them to write engaging and authentic historical fiction which examines the lives of marginalized people. Because, sometimes, it could have happened.
In James C. Scott’s Domination and the Arts of Resistance, he explains that part of the difficulty in understanding the history of a “subordinate”—in modern usage marginalized—group is that there is a public transcript of events and a hidden transcript, which the dominant group—for most Western cultures white, heterosexual men—neither knows about nor may access. 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.
Tactical prudence ensures that subordinate groups rarely blurt out their hidden transcripts directly. However, 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. (14)
The performance he refers to is the dominant group’s version of reality. Knowing history is written by the victors, the astute writer of historical fiction will see that the hidden transcripts provide room for heroines who neither assent nor conform inwardly to the dominant group’s conception of reality. They may even occasionally find ways to express their non-assent, as did many real historical women who had the means and opportunity. (See Christine De Pizan, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Heloise, etc.)
It would be ridiculous to assume that women (or any other marginalized group) 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. Women’s public writing had to disguise what they wanted to say more than their private writing.
Women have been protesting or “writing against the grain” from the beginning. 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 during 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 in Northanger Abbey:
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. (79)
In Unruly Women: The Politics of Social & Sexual Control in the Old South, Victoria Bynum examines how poor White and Black women misbehaved to find a place for themselves in a society that sought to punish and keep them on the margins (2). These women had to be repressed, because the social order in place relied on the labor and cooperation of all women (14). Indeed, if women (and others) 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?
Enter The Heroine’s Journey, a fabulous book by Gail Carriger, which examines ancient myths and modern stories to point out that there is an alternative to the Hero’s Journey, and that is the Heroine’s Journey. The Heroine’s Journey is not gendered—it is a different way to resolve a problem in a novel; it is a different kind of story.
The Heroine’s Journey emphasizes connection, community, and teamwork over the individualistic attributes of the Hero’s Journey. Carriger argues that the Heroine’s Journey has been devalued over time in the West, as the solitary Hero became the ideal story of modern times; for examples, see Batman, Superman, and pretty much any Marvel hero. To be clear, Carriger is not arguing that the Hero should be excised from culture, but that the Hero’s Journey should share center stage with the Heroine’s Journey and offer more ways to solve hard problems. According to Carriger, Harry Potter is on a Heroine’s Journey, because his story follows the beats that she outlines in her book (100).
Historical fiction writers are in the perfect position to use the Heroine’s Journey and the hidden histories of marginalized people to write compelling narratives set in the past. The characters won’t be modern, they will be people of their time who fought the existing social structure—sometimes winning, sometimes losing—but always working together to lift others up. The Heroine’s Journey calls for the protagonist to assemble her network, reach out for help and advice, and find a solution that will work for her community. Most Heroine’s Journeys have happy endings because the heroine seeks a solution that will benefit all in her community. Most Hero’s Journeys are tragic because the hero must die or has become so damaged in the course of the journey that he cannot live in the society he saves.
If you are interested in writing a different kind of story, a Heroine’s Journey, take a look at the beats outlined here, or get Carriger’s book and read up on it. Your characters may never be the same.
Austen, Jane, et al. Northanger Abbey. Reissued ed., Oxford, Oxford UP, 2008.
Bynum, Victoria E. Unruly Women: The Politics of Social and Sexual Control in the Old South. Nachdr. ed., Chapel Hill, Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1995.
Carriger, Gail. The Heroine’s Journey: For Writers, Readers, and Fans of Pop Culture. United States? Gail Carriger, 2020.
Scott, James C. Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. New Haven, Yale UP, 1992.
Wallace, Diana. “‘History to the Defeated’: Women Writers and the Historical Novel in the Thirties.” Critical Survey, vol. 15, no. 2, 2003, pp. 76-92. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41557206. Accessed 9 Jan. 2022.
Robin Henry is a book coach, librarian, reader, reviewer, tea drinker, and history nerd who lives in Georgetown, TX.
You can find her on Instagram @readerlybooks and at http://readerly.net
4 thoughts on “The World Needs More Heroines! Use the Heroine’s Journey to Outline Your Next Historical Novel”
Thank you, Carol, for this article: I’ll look at my plotting and see if my work (I imagine that my story Ann & Anna is a heroine’s journey, since it’s about two women freeing themselves from slavery) indeed follows this path.
Hi Shira – The article is written by Robin Henry. And yes, excellent advice! Thanks for commenting.
Ah I love this! I’ve just read the beginning of Gail’s book where she says ‘ Increasingly networked protagonist strides around with good friends, prodding them and others on to victory, together’. I realised that my protagonist was saved by a man-god forbid! The niggle in my mind’ it should be her friends’ has been confirmed!!
I think it is so important for authors of historical fiction to put right some of the misconceptions which people have about the lives of women in the past. Unfortunately readers often think that that is what it is – just fiction. I spent a lot of time researching a previous novel then had a negative review saying ‘The author seemed to be inferring that Elizabeth had antenatal care… which was non existent at that time (17th century)’. I addressed that comment by writing an article on my website about pregnancy and childbirth in the 17th century in order to justify what I had written!
My current novel though, is a heroine’s journey which is very relevant today as it features a female war correspondent. Set in the Second World War, I have drawn on the experiences of the remarkable women who reported from the frontline to create my main character. The book has only just been published so I await with trepidation reviews from people who don’t believe women played such roles ‘back then’.
A great article, and an inspiration to authors to bring some of the hidden history of women into the light. Thank you.