A relation of past events brings you up against events and mentalities that, should you choose to describe them, would bring you to the borders of what your readers could bear. The danger you have to negotiate is not the dimpled coyness of the past—it is its obscenity.
—Hilary Mantel, the Guardian, Saturday 17 October 2009
If you read Nicola Griffith’s new historical novel Hild, you’ll learn a lot about life in seventh-century Britain. When you finish the book you’ll find it strange not to be drinking sharp white mead and eating game. You’ll miss the textures of cloth, the aural world of birdsong and snapping twigs, the sense of a battle axe always at your side. Hild’s senses are near-superhuman in their acuity; she’s extraordinary, like many of the characters we love best. But she’s thoroughly grounded in her time, in its political realities and religious uncertainties, and you never get the sense that she’s invulnerable.
In fact, for a woman as physically powerful and brilliant as she is, Hild is immensely vulnerable. She’s been prophesied to become “the light of the world,” and her quick perception and intuition allow her to act as a seer for an Anglisc king. All those she loves depend on her for political protection, and she’s constantly forced to make decisions with incomplete information, to try to see into the future and guess how the newly ascendant Christian faith will reshape the jostling kingdoms of Britain. Hild is strange and solitary and often very lonely. If she feels a bit like a superhero at times, she’s the kind of superhero we seem to like these days, weighted with responsibility and guilt for the collateral damage she inflicts while trying to survive.
If you read Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy, as my intro lit students just did, you’ll learn a lot too. Fancy Regency clothing terms—my students were baffled and delighted by “pelisse”—and all the social rules Sophy cleverly contravenes without suffering the least consequence. Who can cry off an already announced engagement, and when. (You’ll also absorb some nastily anti-Semitic rhetoric about money-lenders and highly questionable attitudes toward domestic violence, but more on that in a minute.) Sophy is not a superhero, but she is a super heroine. She’s Emma Woodhouse on steroids. Sophy can do with an errant duckling or a well-placed laugh what Jason Bourne can do with a rolled-up magazine: incapacitate her opponent entirely. She battles the world’s most boring suitor—a younger version of Emma’s hypochondriacal father—by deflecting his recitation of facts about trees in Jamaica with her own facts about trees in Portugal.
Unsurprisingly, my students adore Sophy and her farcical manipulations of the unwitting Rivenhall family. They love her almost as much as they hated Emma a few weeks ago. Sophy’s “empowering,” Sophy shoots a little pistol and races carriages through London, Sophy brings a monkey into the schoolroom and prods the uptight Miss Wraxton into displaying her worst characteristics, Sophy gets everybody married in the end—even herself. Sophy likes to tell people who are displeased with her cheerfully disruptive influence to “stop making such a cake of” themselves. But Sophy’s the cake. Sophy’s a confection, and even her more realistic inspiration Emma Woodhouse, “handsome, clever, and rich … with very little to distress or vex her,” is an exception among the women of her time. “I have none of the usual inducements of women to marry,” Emma blithely tells her naive friend Harriet Smith near the beginning of Emma, and explains that since she’s already mistress of her own well-appointed home, she could only expect less freedom, not more, if she married.
Stephen Greenblatt—one of the progenitors of the New Historicism, a branch of literary theory that grew enormously influential in the late 1980s and 1990s—describes culture “as a system of constraints.” New Historicism encouraged critics and readers to examine texts in cultural contexts, to see how social, political, and ideological constraints might have shaped literary works (and vice versa). Sophy appears to destroy constraints while actually working smartly within them. Emma’s Mr. Knightley, kind as he may be, basically personifies the constraints Emma needs to learn to accept. And Hild’s world is tight with constraints, even down to the rigid schedule the court keeps when moving from household to household throughout the year. That’s the kind of detail Griffith excels at in this novel, the naturalistic scene-setting that situates Hild and makes her life feel real.
Plenty of novels portray male protagonists with similar depth and political scope—Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell books, in particular. But we need more wildly ambitious historical fiction about women. We need to speculate about how constraints operated in the lives of women who lived in societies and times different from our own. Of course we can’t actually know the truth of their lives—historical fiction is always speculative and approximate. But when we speculate that way, when we engage in what Ursula K. Le Guin calls “thought experiments,” that’s when we learn the most about ourselves, and about the joys of situating.
For the purposes of this essay, let’s define “historical fiction” as any fictional narrative that depicts a time period before the birth of the author—a setting the author can’t rely on memory to create and thus has to imagine. In an essay on historical fiction published last year in Public Books, Rachel Teukolsky writes: “Each era encodes its own desires into history.” We write what we want to read about the past, she means. We look for things to recognize; we look for things we can decline to recognize. Sometimes we want the dimpled coyness Hilary Mantel alludes to in the epigraph above, and sometimes we want the obscenity.
Teukolsky frames her essay as a celebration of Mantel’s Cromwell novels. She also advances a strangely limited definition of historical fiction: to “count[s] as a ‘historical novel,’ … a work must also depict world-changing public events like wars, natural disasters, or political struggles.” (According to the comments following her essay, Teukolsky told a reader that she used this definition because it was how “academics” define historical fiction, which is news to this historical novelist/academic.) Hence her appreciation of Mantel as a “rescuer” of historical fiction as a genre. Mantel’s Cromwell novels really do deserve every bit of analysis and admiration Teukolsky directs at them. When I finished Wolf Hall, I found myself sitting in the window seat of a plane, looking down at the clouds below, and thinking, Cromwell would be amazed to see this. It’s a rare book that can leave you feeling that you would like very much to know how a sixteenth-century politician would react to the beauty of flight.
But the things Teukolsky celebrates about Mantel’s historical novels—Cromwell’s moral ambiguity and masculinity, what Teukolsky describes as the instrumentalization of sexuality in the novel’s world—end up sounding like an appreciation of the lack of icky girl cooties in Mantel’s writing. I’m sure this is not intentional, but it’s unfortunate. Not just because historical fiction has often been assumed to mean only historical romance, as Teukolsky does note, but because it suggests that history itself is in some way a masculine enterprise. Better make sure you have enough wars and dudely political struggles in your novel, or it won’t “count.” In fact, Nicola Griffith herself makes a quite similar point in the comments to Teukolsky’s piece:
I agree that Mantel’s work is fabulous. But I disagree with your main premise: that historical fiction needs rescuing. It’s a wildly varied genre, which, like every other (and I include ‘literary fiction’), ranges from mildly ridiculous to utterly brilliant. The form is constantly evolving. We’ll know it’s reached the level of true acceptance when a novel written by a woman about a woman garners the kind of plaudits Mantel has. Until then, I suspect many readers will confuse genre with gender…
Decades ago, Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing outlined the kind of confusion Griffith describes. It’s distressing how often we still see the same rhetorical moves used to dismiss women’s writing—and that’s one reason I want to make sure Hild gets the attention it’s due.
To give Teukolsky her due, though, she makes an excellent point about anachronism in historical fiction. She writes: “When characters from the past behave according to the ideals of our contemporary moment—multicultural, knowledge-positive, open-minded—the result is a flattened novelistic world, with moral values clearly laid out like a chess board.”
As I said earlier, my students love Heyer’s Sophy partly because they read her as feminist, as an early “strong female character.” She’s bold but, to use a word they adore, “relatable.” Heyer’s book encourages that kind of reading, but the moral values it lays out are unnerving. It’s a fantasy of power that ends in a moment of supposedly playful submission on Sophy’s part and includes many moments in which her male friends and future husband tell her they’d like to kill her because of her meddling.
Even more disturbingly, it’s a fantasy in which Sophy’s power is proven not just by her skillful managing of her family but by the utterly cool manner in which she threatens a Jewish moneylender into forgiving a debt a hapless younger cousin has incurred. The hideous anti-Semitic stereotyping in this scene may be historically accurate, but the notion of a young gentlewoman brandishing a pistol at a slumlord moneylender is about as anachronistic as it gets. Sophy rides away calmly in a hired carriage at the end of the scene, but she might as well tuck her two blonde ponytails under a motorcycle helmet and pop a wheelie before zooming off to her next adventure.
Yet I love much of The Grand Sophy, too—Heyer’s Cotillion is even better. I love Ever After and Game of Thrones and plenty of other historically inspired works that play with fantasy or anachronism. I’m even fond of A Knight’s Tale, at least for the “Golden Years” dancing scene and for Paul Bettany’s Chaucer. (And for Alan Tudyk, because Alan Tudyk.) But I also want to read plenty of books in which the female characters do live within the limits of their cultural circumstances, just as we all do. Sometimes it’s more important to understand than to escape.
Once you read Hild, I recommend Ursula K. Le Guin’s stunning Lavinia, an account of the life of the barely-there young wife of Aeneas in Virgil’s poem narrated by Lavinia herself. She lives on in a murky way long after Virgil’s death because of her existence in the Aeneid, and she tells her story in a slippery metafictional way. Her life, she says, “is too contingent to lead to anything so absolute as death:”
All the same, sometimes I believe I must be long dead, and am telling this story in some part of the underworld that we didn’t know about—a deceiving place where we think we’re alive, where we think we’re growing old and remembering what happened when we were young, when the bees swarmed and my hair caught fire, when the Trojans came. After all, how can it be that we can all talk to one another? I remember the foreigners from the other side of the world, sailing up the Tiber into a country they knew nothing of: their envoy came to my father’s house, explained that he was a Trojan, and made polite speeches in fluent Latin. Now how could that be? Do we know all the languages? That can be true only of the dead, whose land lies under all the other lands. How is it that you understand me, who lived twenty-five or thirty centuries ago? Do you know Latin?
But then I think no, it has nothing to do with being dead, it’s not death that allows us to understand one another, but poetry.
Constraints aren’t just realistic; they’re also narratively crucial. They create drama and establish conflict. The lives of women have often been contingent, and that’s not something to celebrate, of course. I’ve seen many readers state that they don’t want to read about the hardships women suffered in the past (I haven’t seen as many complaints about contemporary stories involving women’s difficult lives). But as Le Guin’s Lavinia suggests, poetry and contingency can sometimes go hand in hand.
When I explain what I love about historical fiction, or about speculative fiction in general, I always bring up Samuel Johnson’s description of Shakespeare’s fantastic drama in the Preface to Shakespeare that accompanied his edition of the plays. Johnson says that Shakespeare “holds up … a mirror” to nature; he insists that it’s Shakespeare’s mimetic brilliance that ensures his popularity, because “nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature.” He then continues:
Shakespeare approximates the remote, and familiarizes the wonderful; the event which he represents will not happen, but if it were possible, its effects would be probably such as he has assigned; and it may be said, that he has not only shewn human nature as it acts in real exigences, but as it would be found in trials, to which it cannot be exposed.
In other words, the constraints Shakespeare chooses, though they differ from the constraints of our world, allow him to illuminate character.
Johnson treats human nature as a constant. Shakespeare’s mirror shows us ourselves, he suggests, even in unfamiliar garb. Because we can recognize ourselves in his writing, we can make the leap required to believe in its “wonderful” elements. I’m not sure I agree with Johnson about the constancy of human nature, and in historical fiction, after all, the events which we represent have already happened, or something very like those events, at least. It may be true that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. But maybe reading historical fiction that takes the constraints of the past seriously, that takes the constraints of our own imaginations seriously, can show us how we might already be repeating the past—just as excellent science fiction and fantasy show us how we might already be anticipating a possible future.
Other recommended historical fiction by women (add more in the comments, please!):
Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies
Toni Morrison, Beloved
Jeanette Winterson, The Passion
Kate Atkinson, Life After Life
Elizabeth Wein, Code Name Verity
Sarah Waters, the complete works
Monique Truong, The Book of Salt
Ayana Mathis, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
Katharine Beutner is an assistant professor of English at the University of Hawai`i at Manoa, where she teaches about and writes historical fiction, among other things. Her first novel, Alcestis, is a queer retelling of the myth of a Mycenaean queen who went to the underworld in her husband's place.