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Xena Warrior Princess v Patient Griselda: Feisty Heroines in Historical Fiction

I had a wonderful time at the Historical Novel Society Conference in London last weekend (5-7 September 2014). There were some great panels and workshops, and it was lovely to meet old friends and make new ones.  

One of the workshops I attended was “Feisty Heroines and Dutiful Wives” which looked at the challenges of writing about women in history when their lives were so often constrained by prevailing custom, ideology and law. The panellists were Jessie Burton (The Miniaturist), Kate Forsyth (best-selling author of thirty books including The Wild Girl and Bitter Greens) and Professor Diana Wallace (Professor of English Literature at the University of South Wales, The Woman's Historical Novel).  

It was a topic that interested me because most of my stories have a male leading character. This surprises even me sometimes! After all, my main perspective in history and literature is a feminist one, and my literary giants are Frances Burney, Mary Wollstonecraft, Charlotte Smith and a host of other amazing women authors, particularly those writing in the eighteenth century (when most of my stories are set).  

But I don’t believe that writing with a male protagonist puts me outside the feminist pale when it comes to thinking about what life was (and sometimes still is) like for women. In a recent on-line discussion with writer Jane Davis, I was asked if the fact that opportunities for women were so limited influenced my decision to write from a male perspective in my eighteenth-century thriller To The Fair Land. I answered:-  

Yes, partly. Mainly, though, it was also part of the point of the thing. To The Fair Land is about a woman who has been somewhere women weren’t supposed to go and done things women weren’t supposed to do, and finding out about her from a male perspective was, I thought, a way of showing up the attitudes that tried to keep women in their place. Ben is no “right on” male...He’s limited by his own conventions, and this limitation is one of the things that makes it hard for him to get to the truth. So it’s about thinking about how both men and women are limited by gender stereotypes.

The HNS Conference Panel was an opportunity to explore the question further. It was fascinating to learn about the origins of the word “feisty”, which has roots in a Germanic word for a small dog and is also related to an Old English word for breaking wind. I hadn’t realised it was so insulting. I checked its meaning in the Oxford English Dictionary which gave: “Aggressive, excitable, touchy”. Of the four examples of usage the OED listed, two referred to male characters, one to a horse and one to a woman described as “feisty as a terrier”.  

As was pointed out during the panel debate, descriptive words are gendered. We don’t call Alexander the Great a feisty hero, for example. And we are all, I am sure, familiar with hearing women who voice their opinions described as strident or shrill. The discussion also touched on the performative aspects of gender – one thing that historical fiction can do so well is show us how women performed differently at different times as ideas of what constitute femininity and masculinity changed.  

So why don’t I write about feisty heroines? After all, I can enjoy a feisty heroine as much as the next woman – bring on Xena, Warrior Princess I say! And strong, rebellious, passionate heroines can be inspirational too. 

But I’m not always sure that the feisty heroine does women any favours. Their stories can seem so far-fetched and anachronistic they actually tell us very little about the female condition. The feisty heroine is the exception to the rule. She’s often in a privileged position because of wealth, social status or beauty. And too often her strength is defined in relation to masculine qualities: she may ride, shoot and dress like a man, run her estates as well as any man, be as learned as a man...and all I can think is, “Is this all?” Is this all that it means to be a strong woman? (It doesn’t help that her reward is often a man!) There are other sorts of strength – as panellist Kate Forsyth points out in her article Fie on the Feisty Heroine – the strength to make something of your life despite the constraints.  

Of course I want to write about interesting women. But who says women have to be feisty to be interesting? The “dutiful wife”, the woman who sits and sews, the woman who says yes with her lips but no with her heart, has her story to tell. What wouldn’t you give to know what goes on behind those calm eyes? It is just as likely to be a story as rich in passion, peril and courage as any scrape of our feisty heroine’s. 

Read Kate Forsyth’s blog Fie on the Feisty Heroine  

Find out more about the panellists:-

“…I’ve never seen the point in historical drama. Or historical fiction for that matter.” Jane Davis in discussion with Lucienne Boyce 

Find out about the Historical Novel Society




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