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The Unconventional Heroine in Historical Fiction

 This is an edited version of a talk I did for Bristol Literary Festival 2017 (‘Stories of Strong Women: Unconventional Heroines’). The original talk also considered the ‘feisty’ heroine, which I’ve written about in a previous blog - Xena Warrior Princess v Patient Griselda.

Historical fiction loves unconventional heroines. I take such a heroine to be unconventional both because she kicks out against the conventions of the time and place in which she exists, and because she challenges the reader’s image of women in the past.

She does work that’s deemed to be masculine: a quick scout around the internet turned up historical romances about a newspaper reporter, geologist, astronomer, and mathematician. She refuses to accept the subservient role foisted onto women: she says no to arranged marriage, she makes her own choices about where she goes and who she sees. Or she wears men’s clothes, and in donning them she also miraculously assumes knowledge of male spaces and masculine conventions of which women, middle and upper class women at least, were usually deliberately kept ignorant. In the popular history mystery genre, she may be given a traditional female role such as midwife or lady abbess, yet is able to use that position to apprehend criminals, despite the fact that she’s operating in an entirely male-dominated legal system.

Some writers claim to base their unconventional characters on real, pioneering women: women who were newspaper reporters, geologists, astronomers or mathematicians. The trouble is they sometimes get carried away and set their stories years before these pioneers were born.

Sometimes, though, the unconventional heroine is entirely imaginary. Da Vinci’s Disciples by Donna Russo Morin is about an imagined group of women artists trained by Da Vinci who overcome the obstacles in their way to practise their art. The Illusionist’s Apprentice by Kristy Cambron introduces a fictional apprentice to Harry Houdini who dresses as a man, is wealthy, and works in Vaudeville.

Of course, these stories sound like a lot of fun, and they are obviously very popular with readers, precisely because they show women challenging stereotypes. To that extent, they really function as feminist fantasies.  

For me, however, they are problematic in that the heroine’s unconventionality is defined in purely masculine terms. She may ride, shoot and dress like a man, run her estates as well as any man, be as learned as a man...the unconventional heroine is someone who has risen above the constraining feminine condition of her time simply by being more like a man – because the assumption is that what men do is vastly superior and important and interesting.

She may dress like a man...Music hall star Vesta Tilly

So while I think there is a place for feminist fantasies of this sort – because such stories can be exhilarating, inspiring and just good fun – I also think there’s a risk that they reinforce gender roles. And by projecting attitudes of the present onto the past we forget that gender roles are acted out differently at different times. In the 1890s it was possible to write a biography of the critic John Addington Symonds without mentioning his homosexuality. You can’t imagine a biographer leaving that out today.

In fact, this fantasy unconventional heroine in historical fiction has herself become something of a convention. Yet there are plenty of examples of women who were able to rise above some of the conventions that sought to hold them back for us to write about: the women who struggled to get an education, to train as doctors, to win the vote. I think we are doing those women – any women – a great injustice if we just depict them as moderns in fancy dress. 

Women who struggled to win the vote

Mary Wollstonecraft, one of my heroines, lived a bold, brave life: she lived with a man she hadn’t married, she had a daughter by him, and she wrote an impassioned argument in favour of education for women. But she couldn’t shake off every shackle of her upbringing, so you’ll find that her argument is decidedly in favour of education for middle class women, for women who were expected to marry and have children.   

And it’s her limitations, the limitations of her time and place, that make her interesting. Not that she lived in some never-never land where anything goes. I think historical fiction is ideally placed to demonstrate that the lives women lived (and live) are already interesting enough. And depicting women in their own context, trying to understand what they were up against, may bring us closer to appreciating just how amazing they really were.   


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