When I was a small child, some enterprising press put out a series of garishly illustrated, highly abridged versions of historical classics. They were short enough that they could be bedtime reading, long enough to give the unfortunate parent reading a sore throat and a sudden desire to revisit the Berenstain Bears instead.
“Wouldn’t you rather have Spooky Old Tree?” they would plead.
But I wanted The Three Musketeers, with all their swash and buckle and the words my father had to define for me, like azur and eavesdrop. Or The Last of the Mohicans, which had a rather different plotline in those pre-Daniel Day-Lewis days. But there was one problem: The women were dreadful. They were either villainesses like Milady de Winter or doormats like Madame Bonacieux. If they had the nerve to do anything interesting, like Cora, they invariably perished. Admittedly, she looked very fetching on her bier in the final picture (and I got to be the one preschooler in my class who knew the meaning of the word bier), but I didn’t want a heroine who died. I wanted one who lived and triumphed.
There’s a powerful, visceral appeal to the stories of everyday people in extraordinary times.
It turns out there were other people out there who wanted heroines who lived and triumphed. This was the ’80s, and in addition to big hair and rainbow-colored leg warmers, the ’80s also boasted racks of doorstop, mass market historical fiction. Someone made the mistake of giving me Mary Lide’s Ann of Cambray, about a fictional English noblewoman during the high drama of the 12th-century civil wars. Here was no doormat. Here was a woman in a man’s world, fighting to retain her patrimony, taking up her father’s sword, using any means at her disposal to hold to her own.
And Ann of Cambray wasn’t alone. The shelves of Waldenbooks (anyone else remember Waldenbooks?) were crammed with covers featuring slightly disheveled women in gorgeous gowns. There was Rosalind Laker’s To Dance with Kings, about four generations of women in the French court; Karleen Koen’s Through a Glass Darkly, Jacobites and intrigue and the romantic misadventures of the granddaughter of a duke; and, a little later, edging into the ’90s, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander. There were glossy reprints of the entire Jean Plaidy Queens of England oeuvre, in which any woman who married, slept with or randomly stopped to chat with an English monarch had her life story told.
Recently we’ve seen a resurgence of historical fiction—particularly set during World War II—focused on the experiences of women. But I’ve noticed a marked difference from that earlier wave. These women aren’t queens or noblewomen, real or invented. They’re ordinary women, thrust into impossible circumstances. They’re Ann Hughes in Jennifer Robson’s The Gown, an obscure seamstress who finds herself embroidering a gown for Princess Elizabeth’s wedding to Prince Philip, dealing with pressures and deceptions she never imagined. They’re Dear Mrs. Bird’s Emmeline Lake, who wants to be a hard-hitting journalist but instead finds herself sneaking answers into an advice column during the Blitz—and discovers that strength is something very different than she believed it to be. They’re Lynda Loigman’s The Wartime Sisters, Ruth and Millie, struggling with old resentments during the new realities of life on the homefront in World War II. They’re The Nightingale’s Vianne and Isabelle, their lives ripped apart by the Nazi occupation of France.
There are two aspects of these stories that I love. There’s a powerful, visceral appeal to the stories of everyday people in extraordinary times. Which of us hasn’t wondered, “What would I do? How would I cope?” Here, we get to live through the unthinkable from the safety of the printed page (or the glowing screen, as the case may be) and be assured that, yes, we could muddle through, that we would rise to the occasion, whatever that occasion might be.
But the bit of it that really calls to me is the fleshing out of the historical record. On book tours, I’ve found the most frequent question I get (other than “How do I find an agent?”) is, “But would women in previous centuries really have [fill in blank here]?” It’s not surprising that people wonder. Like those long-ago bedtime stories I was read, the history we’re taught in school tends to be men’s history. In my old textbooks, the history of the slave trade is Wilberforce thundering in Parliament; World War II is Roosevelt chomping his cigar at Yalta. Our image of women’s reality is shaped by equal parts Jane Austen and Jane Eyre: women in a parlor, sitting in a neat line on the settee, harp practice and needlepoint. War, politics, commerce: Those were male pursuits. We’re told that women weren’t and didn’t.
The thing is, they did. Women, underestimated, overlooked, have served as spies in every major conflict. It was women who managed to smuggle messages through to the imprisoned King Charles during the English Civil War and a woman who spirited his son, the Duke of York, out of Parliamentarian custody. When I wrote my Pink Carnation series about spies during the Napoleonic Wars, I used real women as models, from the mysterious Frenchwoman La Prime-rose to the middle-aged Englishwoman who went undercover as a midshipman in the navy and lasted several years undiscovered. Women went into war zones, they flew planes—one even built the Brooklyn Bridge (but that’s a whole other story).
Through fiction, we discover the stories that never made it into the textbooks, the women who went undercover for Churchill in France during World War II, who apprenticed as artists in Renaissance Europe or, as in my novel The Summer Country, the enslaved women who helped foment rebellion in pre-Emancipation Barbados. They weren’t queens or noblewomen, but they were there, their lives mattered, and their stories are finally being imagined—and told.
Lauren Willig is the author of such historical novels as The Ashford Affair and The English Wife. Her new novel, The Summer Country, is a bold tale set in mid-1800s Barbados.