Empowering History?

In a recent lecture, Hilary Mantel, the bestselling author of the historical novel, Wolf Hall, berated her fellow female writers for what she considered ‘falsely empowering’ their female characters in their work. This lecture, detailed in an article by The Telegraph newspaper (see link here), raises an interesting issue for any historical fiction writer, or indeed any writer incorporating the social, political or economic landscape of a particular time or place. Characters, after all, must be viewed within a frame or context – even when that appears to weaken rather than empower them.

Mantel’s major concern is with some (unnamed) female writers who retrospectively make their female characters look stronger or more independent than they would have been during a particular historical period. “A good novelist,” she argues, “will have her characters operate within the ethical framework of their day – even if it shocks her readers.” Fair enough – even though implicit within her statement is a criticism of predominantly female authors she obviously believe falsely attribute ’empowering’ characteristics upon their historical characters (even though I’m sure authors of both genders have been guilty of the same!). I also think Mantel’s criticism fails to address the expectations in the current book/publishing market and the demands for a more nuanced approached to historical fiction.

Many writers want to uncover forgotten voices in history – to give  a voice to people whose stories may not have been sufficiently examined in traditional historical textbooks or fiction. They also want to give readers a connection to these people – making them relatable as well as consistent with their time period. This can often be no easy task – as Mantel herself points out, many modern readers would find the beliefs and opinions of many historical figures unpalatable. That doesn’t mean, however, that writers shouldn’t be allowed to explore the commonalities that bind people together. No one, after all, would really want to immerse themselves in a world in which the characters have little or no redeeming features. Likewise, I think many women today would want to read historical fiction that relegate female characters to being weak, uninteresting or dull. In many ways it was the desire of readers to connect with female characters of the past that has created fiction that aims to have ’empowered’ female characters.

So how should a writer approach the delicate balancing act of appealing to modern readers, presenting an intriguing and relatable character, and yet remaining true to a historical period/place or social milieu? This is where Mantel could perhaps have been less strident and more forgiving of the challenges facing historical (as well as other fiction)  writers. With my own work, I know I want to portray strong characters even though I remain mindful of the social, political and economic constraints they would face during the time period I’ve chosen. To be honest, I’m not sure many editors would be interested in a completely ‘unempowered’ female character…it would certainly be a difficult book proposal to sell!

For me, history is not something that needs to be ‘revised’ in my fiction, but equally well, I want to explore the depths of my female characters that make them relatable to modern readers. I worry that Mantel’s view implies that somehow writers simply aren’t doing their homework even though the balancing act is a far more delicate one (in my opinion).

So TKZers, do you agree with Mantel that some writers have been guilty of falsely empowering their female historical characters? How do you approach the task of developing your characters against the context/landscape of their time period? If you are a reader of historical fiction, which do you value more, complete historical accuracy or characters who, despite the era, are still relatable?




17 thoughts on “Empowering History?

  1. 1) We (as authors) do not have direct experience in the historical time period we write about. Yes, we have other books & diaries, but we were not there to observe first hand. So we can talk generally about women & how they handled themselves in a certain time period, but there are always exceptions, just like there are today. There are documented accounts of women passing themselves off as soldiers during the Civil War, for example.

    2) Who wants to read a book about a woman (in any time period) whose response is always “Yes dear.” “No, dear.” “Whatever you say dear.”??? It would be author suicide to write all female characters this way (yes, I’m sure someone can think of a book that is an exception). I think when we are writing, we’re writing thinking our female character is the exception to what we perceive as an un-empowered female.

    3) I actually much more often find overdone female characters in a modern setting. It is a delicate balance. I want my female characters to be tough, yet female. Poised yet no-nonsense. But a fair amount of time I have run across female characters in modern settings who are pretty much overly Rambo and not much else. Even on TV series I rarely find a female character that I like for that reason—they just don’t strike a balance.

    So no, I don’t think this is a problem in historical fiction. But writing realistic women characters (and taking a bit of creative license) is no different than using that balanced approach for any male characters in the books we write. Not every male character is a take charge, bring on the action type either, and probably gets written about less, for exactly the same reasons as the un-empowered female.

    • Totally agree – and I took issue with her singling out female writers of female characters as if somehow they weren’t ‘up to the task’. Every character needs to be realistic and balanced and, as you say, no one wants to read a dull-witted character of either gender!

  2. I don’t agree with Mantel. In every period of American history, in every neighborhood, and one every street, women have risen to the task that needed to be handled, regardless of what the mores and zeitgeist of the time did or did not dictate.

    Women whose only skills were household skills when their husbands decided that they should hit the trail for Oregon or California, stand out. Those same women, likely unskilled in firearms or fighting were called upon to sit by their husbands and load flintlocks to ward off attacks by animals, Indian people fighting desperately for their lands, and other assailants. The women pushed into that situation had no choice. They either did what they had to do, or there was a good chance she and her entire family could be seriously wounded, raped, die, or kidnapped. In that same era, women who made their way to the west were not found in the the bars of the towns they might come across. The bars and towns of the Wild West had strict laws and practices about women not being allowed in bars.

    There’s another example of this in the movie, Australia, starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant. Nicole Kidman, called Boss Lady by the charming narrator, a boy of about 10, took a direct hand in droving cattle to town hundreds of miles away. Even after doing that, she was not allowed in the men’s bar, but could go to the ladies’ drinking establishment. Finally driven to the brink of bankruptcy after all the work and effort she had put into saving the cattle station left her by her murdered husband, the townsfolk recognize that she is dire straits, but she has stood up to the calamities with such fortitude that the men invite her in for a drink. I’m sure in that real era, women were not trusted and were treated like chattel. But I can’t help believe that some women, somewhere in Australia, took on the male establishment and succeeded.

    Stereotyping, as Mandel has done, is doomed by the first woman in her society to decide she’d had enough, and charged ahead. Sometimes, that charge was into the heart of society-at-large. Other times, when a woman couldn’t succeed any other way, she might charge into the heart of criminality. Do the names Rosetta Cutolo, Enedina Arellano Felix, or Stephanie St. Clair mean anything to you. If not, Google them. Then take cover.

  3. I don’t read or write historical novels generally, so I can’t say either way. I did, however, find the argument fascinating. It can’t be an easy balancing act.

  4. Wasn’t Jane Austen and her contemporaries writing what was, for them, contemporary romance? Her women don’t seem unempowered to me, and that society had very strict rules about women.

    • Good point. Not sure why Mantel seems to view women as being ‘unempowered’ when we had female writers who managed to break norms by writing despite their societal constraints.

  5. I disagree with Mandel. There are many instances of women who were empowered, and often their contributions are only coming to light: The women during World War II who ferried planes, and fought in the Resistance, and well as African American women who served as “human computers” for gover ment in the 40s and 50s. For decades, even centuries, the roles of brave women have not been acknowledged. Please feature powerful women in historical novels. What bothers me in some historicals are inaccuracies, such as African-Americans sitting at the same restaurant table with Causcasians. As late at the mid-60s that was not allowed, not even for major celebrities.

    • I know – I think she has a very narrow “Tudor’ view of women in history – even though there were key figures like Anne Boleyn who I would hard’y consider ‘unempowered’!

  6. Of course women have always done what was required of them, and fairly often bucked societal norms to do so. (See, e.g., Elizabeth I, Catherine de Medici, Mary Queen of Scots, as examples.) And there were societies in which women’s roles were not so strictly limited, or else queens made their own rules. (See, most notably, Isabella of Castile.)

    And I don’t doubt that we view history through a distorted lens – our own biases, which we’re frequently blind to.

    But what bothers me more than overly-empowering a female character is to ascribe anomalous modern attitudes to historical characters with no explanation. I’m thinking specifically of one historical romance author who frequently has a same-sex couple as a background pair… and nobody bats an eye at this. Ever. Even in Victorian times (which we tend to view as the most prudish – although Victoria herself enjoyed her wedding night, and lots of nights thereafter).

    So an exceptional woman, given the right story circumstances, doesn’t bother me. But she’d better be noticed as exceptional (as all those examples I mentioned earlier were/are), for better or worse as the story needs.

  7. Interesting discussion. It made me remember one reason I liked Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth. (I don’t read a lot of historical fiction…tried Wolf Hall and got bored trying to keep the characters straight because they are all named Thomas).

    Follett created a fascinating character Ellen, an outlaw living in the woods with her son. Ellen is very much a creature of her times yet her resourcefulness and strength is quite believable. There’s another female character Aliena, an earl’s daughter who rejects an arranged marriage and pays dearly for it. Follett seems to find the sweet spot between the historical reality of his time/setting and the dramatic demands of his genre.

    Oh…and let’s give a shout-out to Jean Auel. You wouldn’t want to get into a knife fight with the Cro-magnon Ayla. If they had had knives back then.

  8. Thank you for the interesting post and comments.

    Even though I’ve written a novel set in 1960 (and in my case don’t have any excuse that I wasn’t alive and kicking in 1960), I am not as widely read or experienced in historical fiction as I would like. However, I have tried to portray my characters, male and female, as at least somewhat aware of and influenced by the cultural values and mores of the day. But in the final makeup and actions of the characters, I felt I had (and all historical fiction writers should have) a lot of leeway with individual personality types (e.g., a Myers-Briggs spectrum, introverted-extroverted, gambler-risk adverse, mature-immature, ambitious-unambitious, stupid-smart, honest-dishonest), even when I take account of the likely specific financial, family, friend and educational influences and circumstances.

    So I agree Mantel is being unduly critical and restrictive in her parameters for female historical characters. And I particularly disagree with her statement: “A good novelist will have her characters operate within the ethical framework of their day.” My goodness, that’s what often makes a great story — characters who move outside that ethical framework, rightly or wrongly, as people have done from time immemorial.

  9. I don’t read much historical fiction, but I always think that people who insist on ‘women wouldn’t do this’ as a criticism of fiction are very narrow-minded. These people are thinking of cultures and societies. The writers are thinking of individuals. Even the individuals within a certain society will have their own minds, their own thoughts, their own actions, their own opinions, and their own secret abilities and actions.

    As writers, we don’t write about normal people in ordinary circumstances, because they’re boring. We might write about normal people in extraordinary circumstances, which requires a character to change, possibly against social expectations. We might write about non-normal people in ordinary circumstances, to see how they change their ordinary circumstances. Non-normal people in extraordinary circumstances are also very interesting.

    Hedy Lamarr was a very beautiful Hollywood actress, and famous. Her first Hollywood movie was in 1938. Because she was so beautiful and famous, no one suspected she was also an American spy during World War II. Also during WWII, she recieved a patent for creating a frequency-hopping signal to guide torpedoes. This type of signal is still being used today. She was a non-normal person in extraordinary circumstances.

    And it takes all kinds of people to change the societies they lived in. In the late 1800s/early 1900s, women were fighting for the vote in England and elsewhere. Suffragettes put up with a lot of abuse during their fight, because the were intent on changing the male-dominated society they lived in. Many were otherwise ordinary women. Were they ‘falsely empowered’ at a time of strict societal control of women?

    A woman I know is writing a civil war novel, based on extensive and detailed research. Yet she’s been told by people that ‘men did not wear shirt-sleeves on the street’. Ummm, yes they did. ‘Women did not deal with bankers.’ Well, they did when they had to. It wasn’t easy, but they did it.

    Even people living in ‘polite society’ aren’t ‘polite’ every minute of every day. They get naked and have sex or baths, just like everyone else throughout time. They spilled food on themselves, because even the most ‘polite’ person can be klutzy. Are people restricted by the times they live in? Yes. But that didn’t stop them from being ordinary individuals, either. And that didn’t stop them from fighting for something they believed in.

    Many of Shakespeare’s plays had female characters who were non-normal – Lady MacBeth, Queen Titania, Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew (yes, the shrew is ‘tamed’, but she obviously made it to adulthood as a non-normal woman, and who knows how long the ‘taming’ will last), and many others. George Bernard Shaw took an ordinary character out of the gutter and gave her a ‘polite’ voice and lifestyle – aka extraordinary circumstances. Although she wasn’t a member of ‘polite society’ to begin with, she never did completely fit in there, even after her training.

    Society is filled with individuals. And stories are about individuals, not societies. Saying someone couldn’t do something because society said it was bad doesn’t take into account the individuals who lived their own lives.

    So back to my main theme (sorry for the impromptu essay): Societies are societies. Individuals are individuals living within (or partially within, or completely outside of) society. Stories are about individuals and their struggles. And often a person’s struggles go against societal constructs. Because societal constructs are by no means universal or permanent.

  10. I believe Mantel has failed to realize that these strong females are portrayed as outside the norm. They suffer the consequences of their uniqueness. I also think that like the bumper sticker says “Women who behave rarely make history”. Throughout history, it’s often the woman who has to keep things together. They hold the castle or the farm while their men go off to war or hunt. Many strong women complied with society’s rules but others bent even broke the rules. Without which we would not have the right to vote, certain medicines or many modern technologies.

  11. I am utterly stunned that Hilary Mantel has made such a declaration. Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, I devoured completely…and then went on to sup on the PBS TV interpretation. Could Hilary have meant “falsely empowering” women characters that were factual historical figures? That would make sense; because of the historical facts/data (mostly written by men, I presume) attached to the person…well, we would know who they were and what happened to them. In my opinion, Queen Anne, for an example, had a restricted life, not much more than an infamous marriage and a horrendous death…not much a writer could do to embellish or over empower her and still keep the integrity of the story. But with characters purely created, don’t we have a much wider berth?
    I write historical fiction. My women are strong, educated, and independent. They are women who function within the perimeters of their perspective environment, but with an intense sense of intuitiveness and survival instincts. And as a tale progresses, my heroines take on a life of their own, taking me down paths I never would think. I simply follow suit – what journeys!
    A couple of comments:
    Elaine – African-Americans dining with Caucasians in 40s, 50s, mid-60s. I disagree. It depends on what state, what country. Remember the Livings (interracial couple) married in D.C. 1958. My heroine, Muse, 1855 Paris, is dining with a multi-cultural entourage (think Charles Baudelaire and Jeanne DuVal). And, I certainly shared many a meal with my Caucasians friends in the 60s – California.
    B.J. – At one point, Suffragettes, late 1800s, were encouraged by their leaders to take up the art of self-defense. There is an image from a London newspaper of the time – a Suffragette flipping a policeman over her shoulder – is that not empowering?
    Clare – Enjoyed this thread immensely.

  12. One of my favorite authors was Ariana Franklin who wrote Mistress of Death Series set in old England and Italy. She adeptly addresses the struggles of and how her protagonist dealt with misogyny. There were many unsung heros who broke through the glass roofs of their time. Fictional history to bring forth their possible stories should be written with how they got their breaks and functioned in that world to the extent we have a historic record. Yet, the historic record about the institutions may also be incomplete or inaccurate.

  13. Claire, thank you for an interesting post. I’m sorry that Hillary Mantel didn’t give names so we would know to whom she is referring. In the Telegraph article, they mentioned Philippa Gregory, who writes about very strong women. But often her women characters wield power through their husbands, lovers and sons, which is probably the way it was done. Women have always managed to get their way. Remember that line from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”? It went something like this: the man is the head of the home but the woman is the neck. She turns the man any way she likes.
    It is a difficult problem, however, not easily resolved. Diana Gabaldon does it by having her modern protagonist, with all her modern attitudes and expectations, simply time travel into another age. That is reall,y cheating but makes for fun reading.

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