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Monday 21 November 2011

Writing Strong Women

previous cover
Recently I had the privilege of enjoying a virtual book tour of some US book blogs to promote the release of the third in my Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy – Shadow of the King.

The format for these entail copies sent to various Bloggers who then post a review and often include a “virtual” interview of some kind. The interview usually consists of questions sent via e-mail for the author to answer.
One of these interviews from Jan "Devourer Of Books" (link is on side bar) was highly interesting, and a pleasure to answer – I have decided to expand my view here as an article. My thanks to Jan for permission to re-produce the original.
I must point out: these are my own personal thoughts and I take no responsibility for anything inaccurate! LOL :-)

Writing Strong Women in the 5th Century, without making them too modern

It is very tricky writing believable female characters in historical fiction. An author needs to make them interesting, a realistic character for the reader to identify with but to be fairly contemporary with the chosen time period. Which is where the problems often arise. 
Women were, usually, not very kindly looked upon in the ‘days of yore.’
In fact, unless the woman happened to be someone powerful like Queen Emma of England, Eleanor of Aquitaine or Elizabeth I they were regarded as little more than slaves and chattels to be used and abused by the menfolk.

Or were they?

I have a personal view of this – and although I welcome debate and comments, I stress these are my own views, written from the heart not the head, and may have absolutely no grounds in historical fact whatsoever! So no taking me to task, or outraged screaming abuse at me please. I think the idea that women were brow-beaten skivvies who did nothing but work in the fields, cook, clean, sew and give birth to children comes to us as a Victorian myth based on most of our history – until very recently – being written by men. Men who were often monks and knew very little about the everyday life of a woman. The popular view of Victorian ladies is that they were supposed to be genteel, demure, sexless, brainless, witless and inclined to faint every five minutes. The Victorians have a lot to answer for.

I make that sweeping statement because they got so many “facts” of history wrong and in consequence ruined great chunks of historical truth. I cite for my evidence: there were no scythes on Boudica’s chariot, the Vikings did not wear horned helmets, Lady Godiva did not ride naked through the streets of Coventry and Cnut did not try to turn back the tide to prove he was God. (He was actually trying to prove he was not God and could not turn back the tide!) And for good measure I will throw in this error; William I, the Conqueror, was not the first King of England and he had no right to the throne. So why do we number our Kings and Queens from him? OK, I grant that is not the Victorian’s fault – but there are plenty of Victorian history books which proclaim Duke William as a ‘good thing’ – this utterly distorts the truth behind the Battle of Hastings. (see my novel Harold the King.)

My point is, I think women had a lot more going for them in the past than we give them credit for. It is only from around Victorian times that women became seriously unequal – I must add I am blatantly ignoring the Cromwell years when everything was suppressed, fun and laughter along with womanly feistiness! And I suppose I had better admit to being dreadfully prejudiced against the Victorians so I am biased. I can’t stand the period. I reckon my ancestors must have had a series of awful experiences during that era, and they have been passed down to me in my genes, hence my dislike of anything Victorian. I also detest the Normans and the Tudors. Must have had a very traumatic past life! I wish I could go back in time via regression to find out.

When writing my Arthurian Trilogy - the Kingmaking, Pendragon’s Banner and Shadow of the King, I deliberately set out to make my heroine – Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere) a feisty, no-nonsense woman who had a sword and knew how to use it. Why? Because I wanted to move away from the Medieval-based novels where woman were given away in a loveless marriage to a man twice her age as a means of alliance.

I wanted my Gwenhwyfar to have her own mind, be wise and capable – full of passion and tempestuous moods. I wanted her to be a character that modern women could enjoy, identify with, and back to the hilt. In short, I did not want her to be the usual portrayal of Guinevere because that character of the familiar Arthurian legends, I also admit, I am not too keen on. My Gwenhwyfar, despite an often difficult relationship with the man she loves - her husband Arthur, never betrays him, is never disloyal and never tarnishes her honour. They row, they disagree, they make love with exciting passion, and throughout, my Gwen sticks by her man, despite her hot-headed temper and the tragedies that befall them. I have written her like this because I firmly believe, apart from making her more interesting to a reader enjoying a darn good story, that is how she would have been, had she really existed.

In The Forever Queen (US Title) / A Hollow Crown (UK Title) I wanted to write about an English Queen that few people had heard of - Emma.
She was born in Normandy, a daughter of Duke William's grandfather, and was the wife of two kings - Aethelread and Cnut, and the mother of two kings - Harthacnut and Edward the Confessor. She was as remarkable as the better known Eleanor of Aquitaine, but like her she had to survive. Both women were powerful, Emma rules England as Regent for her husband Cnut, and tried to save her son Harthacnut's crown. What drove these women I wonder? Surely it was the desire to keep their crown.
After all, the alternative was death or the nunnery.

Is it so dreadful to make the female characters in historical novels independent, gutsy girls? After all, a historical novel is, really, nothing more than a series of well camouflaged lies written around a few probable facts that are (wildly) interpreted by the author to fit nicely into a gripping (if the author is lucky!) story.
Sharon Penman’s character Joanna, King John’s daughter in Here Be Dragons springs to mind as a wonderful portrayal of a woman to be admired. Sharon writes her beautifully, from shy timid young girl to the brave, bold wife of the Prince of Wales who defies her own father by acknowledging her husband (Llewelyn) before her father – and who earlier in the story burns her husband’s bed because she found him in it “enjoying himself” with another woman. Sharon’s view of Eleanor of Aquitaine in her most recent books is also breathtakingly realistic. Elizabeth Chadwick’s women are believable characters, women the reader instantly bonds with.

As a contrast, I loathed Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Guinevere in her novel The Mists of Avalon; what a pathetic wimp she was, although I owe her a debt of gratitude. I was so annoyed by her moaning and whining I threw the book across the room and made up my mind to write my version of how I thought Gwenhwyfar should be. Result, The Kingmaking.

There are many extraordinary strong women in many varied historical fiction books, and of course I have only mentioned my favourites from two authors who are also good friends of mine – I could have a whole list of females who have influenced me through the years. In fact, rather than ramble on here I will open a separate blog on that very subject. Ladies and Gentlemen
Historical fiction is just that – fiction. The primary objective is to entertain, although the skill of a good historical fiction author is to make the story appear believable.

To that end, perhaps it is not a good idea to make a female character have too much of a modern perspective, but then who wants to read about women doing the daily grind of cooking, cleaning and sewing in a story?

I get enough of that in real life thank you very much!


Kelly said...
Helen, You are spot on correct regarding women in the historical novels. Your interpretation of Gwenhwyfar that drew me to your writing in the first place. Brightest Blessings! Kelly Stambaugh
Michele Brenton/aka banana_the_poet said...
I had exactly the same response to Guinevere in Mists of Avalon Only my reluctance to chuck such a fat book across the room stopped me. She wasn't worth pulling a muscle over!
Helen said...
It didn't do much good for the book either Michele - it became somewhat divided after it's short flight! LOL I keep wondering if I should read the book again to see if I have a different view now.... yes well, one can wonder for years!
Mimi Foxmorton said...
You're my hero! ;)

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