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SPOTLIGHT: Fie on the Feisty Heroine!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Fie on the Feisty Heroine! I say.

I’m been a little troubled recently by the plethora of ‘feisty heroines’ in the historical fiction I’ve been reading.

Don’t get me wrong. I love a strong woman!

Yet the truth is that the way that many of these heroines speak and act is utterly anachronistic. It rings untrue, and that breaks the spell of enchantment the book should be casting over me. 

In truth, strong women in the past were, more often than not, broken by their society. They were beaten, locked in scold-bridles, burnt to death for petty treason, stoned or imprisoned or locked away in towers or convents. Most learned very early on to do as they were told. 

Of course there were exceptions. Women who ran away to war, dressed as a boy, and were not discovered for years, for example (Wikipedia has a fascinating list of them

Joan of Arc being burnt at the stake

And history is full of women who were rebellious and rowdy, passionate and powerful – Cleopatra (killed herself with an asp). Boadicea (committed suicide rather than be taken captive by her enemies). Joan of Arc (burnt at the stake). Eleanor of Aquitaine (kept locked up by her husband for years). Emmeline Pankhurst (imprisoned and force-fed) … 

Emmeline Pankhurst being arrested

Of course I’m being selective here to make a point. There are many amazing women in history that lived mostly happy lives and achieved astonishing things. Empress Theodora. Elizabeth I. Marie Curie. Florence Nightingale. Mary Wollstonecraft. 

Marie Curie, a woman alone in a world of men

However, these are the exceptions, not the rule. 

This poses a difficult problem for historical novelists. On the one hand, we want to write books with strong, interesting, clever heroines. On the other hand, we need to be true to the times in which our heroines live.

It can help if we write about heroines outside the cultural norm. In my historical children’s series The Chain of Charms, which is set in the last few weeks of Oliver Cromwell’s life, my heroine is a Rom. This means she is free to gallop about the countryside and have adventures instead of sit quietly and sew her sampler as girls in the mid-1600s were expected to do. 

I recently read Act of Faith by Kelly Gardiner, which is set in the 1640s. Her heroine, Isabella Hawkwood, is the daughter of an Oxford don and philosopher and has been taught to read Latin, Greek and many other languages, as well as to think deeply and clearly. She is headstrong and impetuous and does many things that would be considered utterly scandalous in that period of time. However, she is constantly having to hide her intelligence and her learning, and she is also afraid and unsure, giving her character greater depth. (Here's my review of Act of Faith)

I ran up against this problem all the time in my novel The Wild Girl, which is inspired by the true untold love story between Wilhelm Grimm and Dortchen Wild, the young woman who told him many of the world’s most famous fairy tales. How I wanted Dortchen to be feistier! But she was the product of her time and her culture – the strict, puritanical and patriarchal world of Germany in the early 19th century. I could make her long for a world in which women were free to make their own choices, but I could not give her that world. 

Dortchen could not marry without her father’s permission.

She could not go to school past the age of 14, let alone go on to university.

She could not get a job. 

She could not even choose what to wear.

And, to tell you the truth, I think that my Dortchen shows greater strength and resilience in finding her way forward in the life she was given than if I had made her dress up as a boy and run away to fight in the Napoleonic Wars. Because the life I have created for her is as true as I could make it. It doesn’t turn history into a fantasyland where women dress in tight leather corsets and can kickbox (though, mind you, I do love a good, kick-ass, leather-clad heroine too! Just not in a historical novel).

In The Wild Girl, I have tried to show how difficult life was for women in the past, so that we can make sure that we don’t forget all that has been won for us. 

This is why I say: Fie on the feisty heroine! 

Give me women who are vulnerable as well as strong, conflicted as well as determined, kind-hearted as well as quick-witted, and who have to truly struggle to make their way in a world that does not pretend to make life easy for women.

One last final note: did you know the word ‘feisty’ comes from the German word feist, a derogatory term for a lapdog? 

What about you? Do you love a feisty heroine, or do also you think they are perhaps becoming a little cliched? 

Let me know what you think by leaving a comment - I always love to know what you think.

RachelB commented on 11-Dec-2013 11:51 AM
I think the big constriction to feistiness was having to have a male relative escort you everywhere. This cultural relic was still prevalent in many Latin American countries up to the 1970's! (Think West Side Story) If historical novels show ladies traipsing around on their own, this should be a red flag.
Paula Beavan commented on 11-Dec-2013 11:53 AM
I absolutely agree, having characters who don't behave realistically puts me off a story. Even more so when it's an historical novel. I also find it hard to swallow a modern character finding themselves in a timeslip and not quickly learning to conform to the culture and expectations of that time without coming to grief. I am reading the Wild Girl and love that she does as you describe, rebel as far as safety and prudence permits her, but still pushes the boundaries enough to keep me on the edge of my seat.
Kate Forsyth commented on 11-Dec-2013 12:29 PM
Thanks so much for your comments! I'm glad you agree with me :)
Ashleigh Meikle commented on 11-Dec-2013 05:53 PM
Historical accuracy is important to me as a historian. But if it works within context I don't mind it as long as it fits the period and scenario.
Christine commented on 11-Dec-2013 06:00 PM
I couldn't agree more about the fiesty heroine. In fact, she is the reason why my historical fiction reading has declined drastically. The more I came across, the less tolerance I had for it. It's reached a point now where I check as much about a book out as I can before I purchase it to ensure I will actually complete it- I can't make it beyond a chapter if I know it is going to be the same story of the woman who was rebelling (and, usually, catching the eye of some man who realistically would have been utterly off put by her behavior.) This entry was so refreshing. Women of their time are perfectly interesting on their own, embellishing them in an anachronistic way does no favors to anyone and ruins a story.
AJ Pearce commented on 11-Dec-2013 08:17 PM
I don't really like the word 'feisty' as too often it is used as a criticism of women, but that aside, if we use the definition which says spirited and plucky, at least in more recent history I think you can realistically have heroines who are 'feisty', but also have vulnerabilities. Otherwise they're a one dimensional character.

As a couple of real life examples, I can only go back to the mid-late C19th, but if my mother's stories of my great and great, great grandmothers are anything to go by, those women were (and had to be) pretty spirited, resilient and self reliant!

Perhaps it was different if you were middle or upper class. Our family(housekeepers, seamstresses, music hall performers etc) were out earning a living, running families, dealing with poverty and (some of the theatrical lot) enjoying the occasional party, from 14: all in very challenging environments for women.

Hopefully they are real life people who fit perfectly with your description at the end of the post! So based on that, I think there is room for great pluck - or feistiness - in historical heroines - although I agree entirely with you that they need to be multi-layered characters in their historical context, and not Lara Croft in a frock.

Perhaps the time has come to reclaim the word 'feisty' for its positive rather than negative meaning?!
Michelle Diener commented on 11-Dec-2013 09:07 PM
Kate, interesting post. :) My Tudor-set series has a heroine who really was anachronistic to her times, but fortunately for me, was in fact a real person - Susanna Horenbout. She was an illuminator and artist and worked at Henry VIII's court. Albrecht Durer wrote in his diary after spending some time with her family "Never could I have believed a woman could draw so well." So I am able to have my cake and eat it too, in this respect, although I have written her to be very aware of how unusual her position is, and I am careful that she internalizes her reaction to the surprise, suspicion and outright amazement that comes her way, simply from her performing her job.

I agree that if a woman didn't simply accept and happy embrace her lot, that she would have internalized her feelings much of the time because of the repercussions to her and her family, but I don't accept that there was hardly anyone challenging the status quo, even if subtly. If that were the case, we wouldn't be where we are now.
Joanna Sheen commented on 11-Dec-2013 09:40 PM
I'm not sure I like the word feisty - I never use it as I am not 100% sure we all see it as the same thing - however if any woman is going to be the main character in a story - she certainly can't be the silent doormat type or the story would snooze off.
Strong and determined might lead to different actions in different times - what is seen as "feisty" by today's readers may well be totally different if you are in a different time with different standards - I echo the other poster's comment about time slip books and would add aghhh to some of the examples I have read.
It's an interesting debate - and I will follow future comments with interest.
Maureen E commented on 12-Dec-2013 01:53 AM
No argument from me! I think the feisty heroine is actually pretty damaging because she suggests that there's only one way to be a strong woman. In fact, all of the real life women I think of as strong don't act in 'feisty' ways--their strength comes from their courage in meeting difficult situations and coming through them. Feisty heroines are fine sometimes, but they're not the only kind of strength.
Kate Forsyth commented on 12-Dec-2013 11:11 AM
Thanks so much for all your comments. I agree with you all! I particularly love the use of the word plucky - I like that much better than feisty. I seem to have grown a strong dislike of that word in particular, perhaps because it has been over-used. Strong, determined, courageous, unconventional, resilient - these are all words I love and which I want in the heroines I both read and write about. Michelle, your book sounds wonderful and just the sort of thing I love to read - I'm adding it to my must-read list :)
Zoya commented on 12-Dec-2013 10:07 PM
Sorry to go all Austen on you, but I keep thinking of Lydia Bennett when you mention feisty as being outspoken, brash and rebellious - imagine her as the protagonist? She could be quick-witted too, but unfortunately she was also extremely silly, or was it just lustful? Her 'feisty' personality was her downfall anyway. (Or could have been.) She did however contrast well with the elder Bennett sisters who minded the manners of the times and suited Austen's purpose of showing resilient women under pressure, and hence getting the happy ending - a moral there. (Although perhaps there was a little more leeway in the English Regency era - Lizzie did refuse a family proposal!)
Owl Johnson commented on 27-Dec-2014 04:58 PM
Actually, this article makes me feel much better about the FMC in the novel I'm working on. She's a woman living in the Belle Epoque (more specifically 1911) period.

She's surrounded by powerful women; her best friend/sister-in-law is a suffragette, her spinster aunt is a journalist (like Nellie Bly), several of her coworkers at the garment factory where she works are organizing a union...and as much as she would love to march with her friends and fight for equality, her job is the only thing that's feeding her family at the moment. She can't afford to lose her job.

She doesn't consider herself brave in the slightest...although she has a lot more courage than she gives herself credit for. And it's that courage that makes the MMC develop a great deal of respect for her.

Thanks for the article. I've found it very helpful.
Freya commented on 22-Aug-2016 11:55 AM
*Brilliant* post -- thank you, thank you! This is precisely what I've felt all my life (reading since age 4) about "feisty" heroines. I love your Dortchen Wild, partly because she deals *honestly* with the obstacles of her time & place & sex. You even give us Hannah as a foil, yet show us honestly why it is that Dortchen cannot make the choices that Hannah makes. Thank you for your truthfulness, however dark the paths to which it leads. It makes the whole story live.

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