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.