“Whether I like it or not, most of my images of what various historical periods feel, smell, or sound like were acquired well before I set foot in any history class. They came from Margaret Mitchell, from Anya Seton, from M.M. Kaye, and a host of other authors, in their crackly plastic library bindings. Whether historians acknowledge it or not, scholarly history’s illegitimate cousin, the historical novel, plays a profound role in shaping widely held conceptions of historical realities.”
― Lauren Willig
I wrote my novel, ‘The Black Hours’, because I have an interest in the lives of ordinary people in history. I have always wanted to get behind the facts taught in my history lessons and discover how the politics, religion and social expectations of different times and places affected normal people trying to live their everyday lives, particularly women. Standing in the Museum of Witchcraft in Cornwall one blowy November day, I read with my daughter the list of those victimized by the witch-hunts in England. What struck us both was, firstly, how behind each of these names was a person, with a life, a family, with hopes, dreams and fears, and secondly, that the list was predominantly comprised of women. Now that ‘The Black Hours’ is finished and published, I hope that, in some small way, it tells the stories, the history of these poor women. A history that is reduced to a list of names, for, although we can research the laws, the religions, the culture and the beliefs that caused witch hunts to happen, what the books don’t tell us is how it felt to be a victim of those witch hunts, and, how it felt in particular to be a woman, on the outskirts of society, terrified that you would be blamed for all the tragedies and calamities that befell your neighbors.
So is there a role then for stories in histories? Can we learn from fiction how life was for women in the past? Read any of Jane Austen’s novels and you will come away with a sense of how it was for certain women in society – take the first line of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ for example:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
Now, although this line is ostensibly about life in the 19th century for a wealthy man, it also gives us an insight into life for women of a similar class. The problem for Lizzie and her sisters is that there are just too many of them – they must be married or face an uncertain future, and a man with a good fortune is exactly the kind of husband that they need. This gives a real insight into the precarious lives that faced even those women with a good background. And sometimes, just a good background wasn’t enough – you needed the wealth to go with it. In Austen’s ‘Northanger Abbey’ Catherine is viewed as a possible match for Henry Tilney and is invited to his impressive home. However, when General Tilney discovers that she is not rich as he had believed, Catherine is basically banished from the house and has to take a frightening seventy mile journey home alone.
Perhaps the book that shows the emotions behind the choices women faced in the past most brilliantly and evocatively is Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Poor Catherine Earnshaw is pulled between doing what her heart wants, to be with Heathcliff, and doing what society wants – to marry Linton. What Bronte does so well is to show Catherine’s conflicting state – she loves Heathcliff with all her heart, but she still wants the status and ease of life with Linton: “And he will be rich, and I shall like to be the greatest woman of the neighbourhood”. Emily’s sister Charlotte also explored this theme in ‘Jane Eyre’ -Jane will not risk scandal by staying with Mr Rochester once she finds he is married; not only because of her own strong morals, but also because if she were to follow her heart she would risk everything. She would be beholden to Rochester forever – he would be the only thing protecting her from scandal, gossip and ostracism.
So these novels do give an insight into the lives of women – at least a certain type of woman. And they do so in such a compelling, believable way because they were written by women who understood the social constraints that faced them and who surely felt those same frustrations in their own lives. They are contemporary to their time. Historical fiction writers are looking back to the past and imagining the lives of those who can no longer speak for themselves. A lot of historical fiction is concerned with well-known women – Elizabeth the first, Anne Boleyn, Mary Queen of Scots, for example, all have a plethora of fiction in which they star, and these novels, no doubt, tell us a lot about the lives of women and the challenges they faced. And other historical novels also do this, though their focus may be on men. For example, in Hilary Mantels’ ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring up the Bodies’, focussing on the life of Thomas Cromwell, Mantel also tells us a lot about the women of court – Anne Boleyn (again!), the usurped Queen Katherine, the seemingly innocent Jane Seymour and the breathless, desperate Mary Boleyn in particular. Cromwell’s wife is also strongly portrayed, as is his sister in the beginning of ‘Wolf Hall’.
It is worth remembering, as we peruse history books, that history was, in the main, recorded by men. For women’s history then, perhaps we should look to the(relatively few) books penned by women of the time, and those more recent works of fiction that have delved into the past; look to those novelists who have put themselves into the shoes of women and portrayed those struggles and triumphs, those tragedies and joys that women have experienced for centuries past. And perhaps we can learn from historical fiction of the very real losses that women suffered, in an effort to ensure those losses are never suffered again. For historical fiction can have a part in teaching us those lessons, helping us to see the women of the past as real people, living through events we can only imagine, and dealing with constraints that we hope we will never have again.
Alison Williams is an independent historical novelist and freelance writer from Hampshire in the south of England. Her first novel ‘The Black Hours’, set in 1647, is available now and tells the story of Matthew Hopkins, self-styled Witchfinder General, as he scours the countryside, seeking out those he believes to be in league with the Devil, and Alice, who finds herself at the centre of gossip and speculation. Alison’s novella ‘Blackwater’, the prequel to ‘The Black Hours’ will be available from Monday 3rd March.