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Fiction and the Historical Female

I'm delighted to welcome Helen Hollick, author of the fabulous Sea Witch Voyages series (pirates! white witches! adventure on the high seas!) onto the blog today. Helen discusses how she faces the challenge of creating a heroine who will appeal to 21st century readers without turning her into a modern girl in historical costume.

The 18th century was a time of great change: what busy years the 1700s were for England and Britain: Scotland becoming part of the United Kingdom – although gain some, lose some, for Britain lost the American Colonies towards the end of the 1700s.

Several kings – and a couple of queens; several wars, still some squabbling about Catholic v Protestant. Advancement in the sciences, exploration and shipping (by the end of the 1700s the English Navy was the best in the world.) Not a lot happening for women. Women were the property of men – although this was starting to (slowly) change. Women’s rights were on the cusp of being recognised, but it would take another two-hundred years for equal rights to become law in the Western World.

The problem with writing historical fiction is the difficulty of comprehending a completely different mind-set. It is not easy for 21st century authors to understand how 18th century women thought, behaved and lived, most fiction tends to romanticise their daily lives with novels ending as ‘happy ever after’. (An image not helped by Bronte and Jane Austen!) Spinsters were often looked-down-upon, unmarried girls who were the property of their fathers until they married – usually between the age of sixteen and nineteen - when they then belonged to their husband. Orphaned or widowed, they were at the mercy of the nearest male relative, and often treated badly because of it. However, unmarried women over twenty-five were useful to their widower fathers. They became the homemakers, cared for the younger children, and in too many cases fulfilled a wife’s role in the ‘bedroom’ department. Rape and paedophilia was not illegal, although incest was frowned upon by the Church, but then, who believed the ‘lies’ of a woman? On the other hand, the unmarried women had a chance of a longer life. There was no contraception, no anaesthesia for childbirth where one in four women died during or soon after labour.
Only middle and upper-class girls were educated, although that went the same for boys as well. But educating the girls was not for education’s sake: being able to speak several languages, dance, play a musical instrument, sew (fancy stuff, not the practicalities, that was for servants to do) read, hold an intelligent conversation all added to a girl’s value for a prospective (wealthy, or at least well-off) husband. Think Pride and Prejudice!

I’ve slightly got around this problem in my Sea Witch Voyages because although the sailing parts are as accurate as I can make them, and I have made a nod to historical events (although not sticking rigidly to fact), I also include a fantasy element. My female protagonist – my heroine – is a healer, a midwife… and a white witch. Her name, Tiola Oldstagh is an anagram of ‘all that is good’ (say it Tee-o-la, short and sweet, not the longer Tee-oh-lah). 

Not that she is all good. She does also have a darker side, revealed as the series expands. Let’s just say, she can kill if she needs to.

By ‘White Witch’ I mean she uses Craft. She can call up a wind, make someone believe they are looking at a wrinkled old woman, not a young lady, use her ‘extra’ skills to heal the sick and injured, but I have deliberately not made her Superwoman, or able to cast spells a-la Hermione in Harry Potter. Tiola has her weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

 The love of her life (well lives, actually) is my charmer-of-a-rogue hero, Captain Jesamiah Acorne. They meet in Sea Witch, but to Jesamiah’s chagrin he has a rival in the shape of a rich, and somewhat arrogant, Dutchman. What I like doing is bringing in snippets of historical fact and weaving them into the fiction. The rival suitor needs a wife. Any wife, but preferably one young enough to bear children, and pretty enough to show-off in public. He chose Tiola, even though he knew nothing of her background she fitted his ‘requirements’ nicely. The 18th Century was a period when men far away from their home country – England, France, Holland… needed wives, but the Colonies of America and outposts such as Cape Town in South Africa were not hugely populated with voluptuous suitable women of marriageable age. Solution: look through the bridal catalogues. Buy a wife. Looks and background were not the essentials; young of age, health, and ability to breed was the priority. Finding  a wife was no different to buying a mare or a cow. 

Tiola’s vulnerabilities are that her Craft has limits. I didn’t want her to be able to get Jesamiah out of trouble – and trouble follows him like a ship’s wake – too easily. Her weakness is her kind heart and need to help people who need help. She is a young woman with a huge expansion of knowledge.She is a witch, one of the Wise Women, she knows there are more than six planets, she knows the danger of germs and bacteria, knows the Universe was created at the Big Bang - and that is how I can make her very much a ‘modern’ woman with thoughts and feelings more akin to 2016 than 1716. But her knowledge can also be her undoing, for she must be careful not to betray herself. In England witches were hanged, not burnt, but the Spanish Inquisition was still in progress and the Church preferred the cleansing of fire for heretics and witches. The fear of the Essex-based Witch Finder General, and the deaths of the Pendle Witches were gone – just – but to be accused of witchcraft in the 1700’s was still not desirable. And in Voyage Six (Gallows Wake, not written yet, but hopefully to be published 2018) That danger will threaten Tiola Big Time. And even the protection of her husband, ex-pirate Captain Jesamiah Acorne might not be enough to save her…

Find out more about Helen and her books:-

Amazon Author Page
Buy The Sea Witch Voyages on Amazon
Helen Hollick's website 
Blog - Of History and Kings
Twitter - @HellenHollick


  1. Thank you Lucienne for inviting me - and the good (or should that be bad boy?) Captain Acorne and Tiola onto your blog.


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