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?