Who’s That Lady?: Women’s Historical Fiction and the Writing of Female Subjectivity

If you type the search term “women’s historical fiction” into Amazon, you will (as of this writing) receive over 25,000 results, with authors writing women-centered fictions set in almost every conceivable historical period. I use the term “women’s historical fiction” deliberately, as this specific sub-genre pays particular attention to the experiences of women in various historical eras.  Although the “Great Man” theory of history continues to exert quite a powerful hold on the public historical imagination, popular authors–authors such as Philippa Gregory, Stephanie Thornton, Kate Quinn, Stephanie Dray, and Michelle Moran– have inspired large and devoted readerships, and their works seek to evoke in contemporary readers an understanding of the struggles, and the triumphs, that women experienced in the past.  In doing so, they also articulate a theory of women’s history centered on the tension between female agency and subjection.  These works of history offer frames of intelligibility through which contemporary readers can experience the workings of history and the lives of the past.

While this genre is as diverse as might be expected, their covers typically fall into broadly two types.  The one (increasingly common) features a woman, with her back turned to the viewer, sometimes, but not always, overlooking a cityscape.

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The other, almost as common, typically features a woman gazing out at the viewer. Typically these women are not (as a rule) portrayed by famous or recognizable faces, but instead by unnamed models.

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The anonymity of these women stands in marked contrast to films and TV series, in which the historical personage is, in many cases, overshadowed by the star text of the actress portraying her.  Here, the lack of a specific star persona opens up the figure for appropriation and identification on behalf of the viewer. Through this anonymity, these covers invite the viewer to identify with the woman on the cover, to view her as their narrative surrogate, to either join with her as she gazes in ownership (longing?) at the city below her, or to see the historical gaze returned, an exchange between past and present.

The narratives of these novels also focus on historical female subjectivity, typically drawing out the experiences of a female figure frequently eclipsed by her male counterpart, such as a husband, king, etc.  Anne Boleyn (as well as other women of the Tudor court) is a perennial favorite, as are other women of the Early Modern period, but women from the ancient world have also become the focus of several notable sequences, such as the “Empress of Rome” books by Kate Quinn, Stephanie Dray’s trilogy on Cleopatra Selene, the daughter of the (in)famous Cleopatra VII, and Stephanie Thornton’s narratives about Theodora and Hatshepsut.  The women of these novels frequently experience the hardships of their patriarchal worlds, subjected to the cruel, and often sexual, whims of the powerful men in their lives.  While the narratives remain focused on individual subjects, they do at least gesture toward the systems of oppression that have historically disenfranchised women, in the process showing the ways in which these women, despite the social, cultural, and personal forces arrayed against them, nevertheless manage to persevere and rise to the top of the social and political hierarchy.

At the same time, however, these novels frequently resolve the plights of these women by introducing the marriage plot.  Thornton’s novel The Secret History, centers at least in part on Theodora’s marriage to Justinian.  However, even within this traditional resolution scheme, these novels articulate a particular vision of the subjectivities of historical women.  They strike a balance between providing contemporary readers a suitably satisfactory conclusion to their narratives via both the romance plot and the agency these women possess, and drawing attention to the world of the past in all of its squalor and suffering, peeling away layers of respectability to reveal the messiness of the past.

Furthermore, these novels emphasize the importance of abjection and suffering for women of all classes, and this suffering is key to the historical visions these novels evoke.  Whether they are aristocrats or peasants, empresses or nuns, the women of these novels must constantly contend with a world that does not value their lives or their experiences.  As a result, they must frequently battle and claw their way into the upper echelons of power.  The Theodora of The Secret History, for example–easily one of the most (in)famous ruling women of history–begins life at the bottom of the social and political hierarchy and must endure numerous setbacks in her ascension.  Within the first 100 pages of the novel she experiences the death of her father and her youngest sister, the necessity of becoming an actress and a prostitute, an unwanted pregnancy, and grindingly abject poverty.  Like the other heroines of women’s historical fiction, however, this suffering grants meaning to their eventual triumph and, ultimately, the sense of historical being these narratives create.  Modern readers gain a sense of the fundamental unfairness of this suffering, and it is this evocation of melodrama that grants these novels their emotional–and, I would argue, intellectual–force.

 


T.J. is a Ph.D. Candidate in Film and TV Studies in the Department of English. His dissertation examines theories of history as articulated in epic films and TV series set in antiquity. He teaches courses on film, popular culture, race, and gender, and in his free time enjoys watching The Golden Girls and nerding out over the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and their various adaptations. He frequently blogs at Queerly Different. You can follow him on Twitter @tjwest3.

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4 comments

  1. Great post, TJ. I enjoyed hearing a little more about this tradition–especially the two most common cover types. I was wondering about the gendered implications of writing about women’s history. You note some of the more famous authors of these series (Philippa Gregory, Stephanie Thornton, Kate Quinn, Stephanie Dray, and Michelle Moran)– they are all women. In what ways are the trends you are tracing related to the fact that this is WOMEN writers’ theory of history? Along these same lines, how are you, a male scholar who is writing about women writing about women’s pasts, oddly situated with respect to women’s history?

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    1. Oh, and a quick related follow-up question. What does it mean for this fiction to be classified as “women’s” historical fiction? (A question sort of related to what makes a woman’s film a woman’s film.) Does this imply an identification intended for women? Doesn’t this sort of re-entrench gendered dichotomies of history? You are using the term “women’s historical fiction” which implies you think this term operates as a useful descriptive category, but what are some of the downfalls of designating “women’s” historical fiction as a sort of other to historical fiction? I’m thinking here of some of my students’ comments that it’s difficult for them to identify with “woman-centered” TV dramas because they prefer “regular” dramas.

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  2. Great questions, Staci! To answer your questions in rough order:
    Though most of these authors are indeed women, there are a few men out there who engage in a similar project. The novelist C.W. Gortner springs to mind, though I’m sure there are others. In terms of my own positioning, as a self-identified feminist and queer scholar, I find that it’s not really that much of a strain to both identify with and attempt to understand these works (and hopefully to create some of my own at some point in the future).

    In terms of the classification of “women’s historical fiction,” I think it operates on a number of levels (as with the women’s film): it is clearly being marketed toward women, and narratively it does distinctly deal with the experiences of women.

    As for the larger question of the consequences of labeling it as specifically women’s historical fiction, I think that it does have its downfalls. At the same time, I do think it is still important to think through the ways in which women’s history is, in many ways, markedly different than that of men, given that they have occupied different political, social, and cultural positions in various historical epochs. While labeling this genre in this way may be limiting, I see it as my pedagogical mission to, in part, draw students into an understanding not only of those positions, but also into a pleasurable engagement.

    I do take your point, though, that these designations do threaten to pigeon-hole and minimize the importance of women’s history, but I still haven’t seen a way out of this conundrum. What do you think?

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