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Historical Fiction Discussions > Strong Historical Women

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message 1: by Anna (last edited Jun 06, 2017 01:18AM) (new)

Anna Faversham (annafaversham) | 90 comments My newspaper has an article about Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel's opinion on historical women entitled "Mantel: Writers are wrong to make historical women strong."

Highly respected for her books and the TV adaptations of them, Hilary Mantel explains that many of today's writers empower women when the situation they lived in would have made that impossible.

She says, "A good novelist will have her characters operate within the ethical framework of their day - even if it shocks her readers."

What do historical fiction readers think of this?


message 2: by Zoe (new)

Zoe Radley | 734 comments I agree with her in some aspects of it but I disagree with her sentiment that it's wrong, we all don't know how women felt or did at that time because mostly all of history is written by men, but as always there are exceptions that tell us that it wasn't just a world ruled by men with quiet women in the back ground, take for example Margery of anjou a very determined and strong willed women, Mathilda before her who even waged war on her cousin Stephen dear god I could go on and on and there are women who dared to even write let alone publish a book Janet of Norwich also Elizabeth Barton a prophetess so don't tell me that women were quiet and staid and had no voice... they did but in ways that didn't need to be shouted out.


message 3: by Anna (new)

Anna Faversham (annafaversham) | 90 comments I see you are reading a Hilary Mantel book, "Wolf Hall".


message 4: by Eileen (new)

Eileen Iciek | 463 comments There's also Anna Comnena, a woman who thought she would inherit her father's throne, only to have her brother snatch it away. Not that he was a bad ruler, actually pretty good. And Anna channeled her frustration into writing, becoming Europe's first female historian (12th century).


message 5: by Jasmine, Gatekeeper of Giveaways. (new)

Jasmine | 1165 comments Mod
There were strong women though. Margaret of Anjou, Isabella of Castile, Duchess Margaret of Burgundy, Catherine Medici, the Empress Matilda. Not every woman of that time was strong, but to ignore the ones who broke the mold does a disservice.


message 6: by Laura (new)

Laura | 38 comments something i notice when reading lists of "strong historical women" is the heavy inclusion of white, european women.....these lists seem to focus on queens and other "royal" women - who i agree are very strong historical women, but i'm really interested in reading about women OTHER than tudor queens and/or members of the court. there is almost never any inclusion of any other women from around the world (latin america, africa, etc). maybe it's just the lists i tend to come upon but even in the best "historical fiction" books lists, they are all heavily laden with Phillipa Gregory books.


message 7: by Jasmine, Gatekeeper of Giveaways. (new)

Jasmine | 1165 comments Mod
Laura wrote: "something i notice when reading lists of "strong historical women" is the heavy inclusion of white, european women.....these lists seem to focus on queens and other "royal" women - who i agree are ..."

This is a fair point. I'll admit most of my reading is about Europe, so it is difficult for me to point to great books or women in other parts of the world. You could say Cleopatra, though she was of Roman decent. Following that line you also have Nefertiti and Hatshepsut. Also if you look at some saints stories you can find tales of headstrong women of all different descents.

I found this list of women rulers on Wikipedia (not the best source), but if you want to do some research you could look for books about these specific women.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of...


message 8: by Carol (new)

Carol Keefer | 74 comments I think second wave feminists were "strong historical women". I love the poetry of Alice Walker in Alice Walker: Collected Poems: Her Blue Body Everything We Know: Earthling Poems 1965-1990 and Audre Lorde The Collected Poems


message 9: by Abigail (last edited Jun 06, 2017 08:57AM) (new)

Abigail Bok (regency_reader) | 610 comments I do agree with Hilary Mantel to the extent that making every female protagonist in obscure circumstances a strong woman is historically inaccurate. I often find such characters anachronistic. There is a lot of histfic these days that is simply a contemporary tale in fancy dress. Nevertheless, as interlocutors above have demonstrated, there were plenty of exceptions among women in the power classes, and it would be quite hard to make a story interesting that featured a female protagonist who simply acquiesced in her oppression. Should we then write exclusively about men? I hope not.

I haven’t read widely in lit outside the USA and Britain, but I would say that The Good Earth by Pearl Buck features an extraordinarily strong female protagonist. I haven’t read it since eighth grade, but I do recall her giving birth in the furrows and then going back to work! Left quite the impression. So perhaps there are ways to make women strong within their cultural context instead of making them strong in modern terms.

Anna, I believe you have some female characters who are strong in this way, without violating their era-appropriateness.


message 10: by Zoe (new)

Zoe Radley | 734 comments Yes I am reading Hilary mantels wolf hall yes I don't agree with her views but her novels are rich and full of life... also she writes from a sort of view point of Thomas Cromwell so mainly seen through a mans view point. And yes I agree that the majority of women I have listed are white European but that's not due to me being prejudiced against any historical fiction say of other races it's just at this moment there is a tidal wave of Tudor and other European fiction being published. What I am trying to say is she should not use such strong language such as wrong when it's an opinion she has it doesn't mean the other writers are wrong either as it's their own views. I just find her really annoying. Because I don't like her but her wolf hall novel is a great read


message 11: by Jan (new)

Jan | 1800 comments Here's some of my favorite Asian historical protagonists.

Empress Wu of China and theTiger Queens of Mongolia are strong Asian women. The novels by Shan Sa and Weina Dai Randel are books about Wu. Stephanie Thornton is the author of The Tiger Queens. Anchor Min always has strong female characters: Red Azalea, Katherine, Becoming Madame Mao. Lisa See's characters are bold in spite of adversity: The Tea Gurl of Hummingbird Lane, Shanghai Girls are just a few of hers. Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club and Kitchen God's Wife are fabulous. And perhaps my favorite is The Red Tent by Anita Diamant set in biblical times.


message 12: by Jan (new)

Jan | 1800 comments Anchee Min, not anchor.


message 13: by Anna (last edited Jun 07, 2017 01:10AM) (new)

Anna Faversham (annafaversham) | 90 comments Zoe says, her wolf hall novel is a great read.

I loved the TV serial. Brilliant. I hope it comes on again.

Abigail says So perhaps there are ways to make women strong within their cultural context instead of making them strong in modern terms.

That's what I like to read and I can cheer them on!


Jayme(the ghost reader) (jaymeiltheghostreader) | 2790 comments Jan "don't blame me, I also voted for Hillary" wrote: "Here's some of my favorite Asian historical protagonists.

Empress Wu of China and theTiger Queens of Mongolia are strong Asian women. The novels by Shan Sa and Weina Dai Randel are books about Wu..."


I agree with you about Lisa See's books. I recently read "The Tea Girl of Humingbird Lane". I also enjoyed "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan"


message 15: by Jeffrey (last edited Jun 07, 2017 08:57AM) (new)

Jeffrey Walker (jkwalkerauthor) If you want to get away from books with well-known historical women, maybe try some of Sarah Dunant's books. I read her Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant a few months ago and loved it. No famous historical women, and none outside the confines of their convent, but plenty strong.

I was deep into letters and memoirs of mostly unknown women from the military medical, nursing and ambulance services during the First World War for a book I recently published. These were some of the strongest, most tenacious and bravest women I've ever encountered--and most anonymous to all but their families. I ended up with a main character who's an Irish nurse from a good working class family who is a kind of distillation of all these women I read about. As to whether she's strong enough, I'll have to check the reader reviews.


message 16: by ``Laurie (new)

``Laurie (laurielynette) Anna Faversham wrote: "My newspaper has an article about Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel's opinion on historical women entitled "Mantel: Writers are wrong to make historical women strong."

Highly respected for her boo..."


Thank you Hilary Mantel for pointing out the gross historical inaccuracy involved when authors of historical fiction turn their characters into feminist, modern day and therefore unbelievable women.

Yes, I do understand that authors have to stray from strict historical facts occasionally; but when I read HF I want the characters to be accurately portrayed as true to their time - if this isn't too much to ask for.


message 17: by Fiona (new)

Fiona Hurley (fiona_hurley) | 245 comments I imagine most women in the past were "strong" or they never would have survived! But I agree with Abigail about them being "strong within their cultural context". One of my favorite things about HF is seeing how universal human feelings are affected by culture and limitations.

For example, Anita Amirrezvani's books are set in 16th and 17th century Iran, where women's lives were very circumscribed. In The Blood of Flowers, an ordinary girl finds an outlet through the artistry of making carpets, while in Equal of the Sun, a princess manipulates family politics behind the scenes. They're not waving a sword on horseback, but they are strong characters.


message 18: by Zoe (new)

Zoe Radley | 734 comments ^ I agree with you Fiona and that's why I feel that Hilary mantels view point is misleading because how do you categorise a "strong woman" within a historical context as much power could be given to women but in a subtle way as in through marriage and some were able to keep up their husbands business when they were widowed it's not that we put modern views and characteristics on these women just that there should be a mix of woman being shown in historical novels, I can see where she is coming from but she seems to just blame everyone. Also am reading her novel wolf hall and she too falls under this too.... hypocrisy is a catchy thing


message 19: by Linda (new)

Linda Bridges (lindajoyb) | 716 comments As far as "ordinary" women goes, you might try the Cynthia Harrod-Eagles Morland family novels. Her characters feature strong women that are fictional in historical settings. They do get frustrated with the role of women in their time periods and the endless round of babies and housekeeping but also have to interact with the historical events that are occurring around them.


message 20: by Margaret (new)

Margaret Crampton (cramptonmargaret) | 7993 comments In my TBR collection is Headstrong: 52 women who changed science and the World by Rachel Swaby


message 21: by Michel (last edited Jun 30, 2017 04:01PM) (new)

Michel Poulin If we are talking about strong historical women here, how come no one has mentioned Joan of Arc yet? She was no royalty, just a simple peasant girl, living in a time where men undoubtedly held power over women. Yet, she convinced no less than the King of France to let her lead his army against the English invaders. She then LED the French in combat, leading charges and scaling the walls of enemy castles and fortified cities. Joan of Arc definitely needs to be mentionned here and there are no lack of good books about her.


message 22: by Anna (last edited Jul 01, 2017 03:50AM) (new)

Anna Faversham (annafaversham) | 90 comments Elinor wrote: But today's readers expect their heroines to be leading the charge for women's rights, no matter what the time period.

I wish you all the luck in the world, Elinor, with trying to get the message across that the plucky ones, able to stand alone, were the few. Yet it is only natural that readers want to align themselves with the heroine and they'd find it difficult to do that if they think she is a wimp. A path must be found where the heroine stays within the cultural norm but forges a way ahead to a better life perhaps? Then readers can imagine that not only does the heroine have to conquer the hero, but also conquer the ties that bind her to family expectations and cultural constrictions - as Abigail alludes to in message #9.


message 23: by Linda (new)

Linda Bridges (lindajoyb) | 716 comments I liked what Elizabeth Chadwick had to say about Eleanor of Aquitaine in the author's notes. To paraphrase, she said said that Eleanor was a leader for women within the constraints of her time period. I think that probably holds true all across the board. Women who stepped outside of the norm, such as Joan of Arc, didn't end up faring too well. Neither did Eleanor later in life when she pushed the accepted boundaries.


message 24: by Alice (new)

Alice Poon (alice_poon) Michel wrote: "If we are talking about strong historical women here, how come no one has mentioned Joan of Arc yet? She was no royalty, just a simple peasant girl, living in a time where men undoubtedly held powe..."

Michel, I'm a great fan of Joan of Arc, after reading Mark Twain's Personal Recollections of Joan Of Arc. I would highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in strong historical women.


message 25: by Tom (last edited Jul 09, 2017 06:43AM) (new)

Tom Behr) (tom_behr) | 23 comments Staying within the cultural norms of a different age is important. Certainly for the cultures reflecting the three Adamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, women were not expected (or allowed) to be "strong." "...the plucky ones, able to stand alone, were the few." But I also agree with many of the other posters that generalities, applied to individual people, are meaningless. "Few" doesn't mean "none." And since men wrote "history" for centuries, not surprising that our viewpoint may be unconsciously biased, and thus inaccurate.


message 26: by Jasmine, Gatekeeper of Giveaways. (new)

Jasmine | 1165 comments Mod
Tom wrote: "Staying within the cultural norms of a different age is important. Certainly for the cultures reflecting the three Adamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, women were not expected (or al..."

Tom can you please edit your comment to remove the link to your book. I think you made a great point, but the bottom portion is advertising and not allowed in this thread.


message 27: by Tom (new)

Tom Behr) (tom_behr) | 23 comments Jasmine wrote: "Tom wrote: "Staying within the cultural norms of a different age is important. Certainly for the cultures reflecting the three Adamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, women were not exp..."
book reference removed sorry about that :-)


message 28: by Jeffrey (new)

Jeffrey Walker (jkwalkerauthor) If you want to read strong historical women, read the memoirs, letters, etc of First World War nurses. Vera Brittain's "Testament of Youth" is a good place to start, but a lot of new collections have been published to commemorate the centenary of the War. Amazing women in unimaginable circumstances.


message 29: by Michel (new)

Michel Poulin To read about strong historical women, I would suggest Women War Heroines by George Forty Women War Heroines.


message 30: by Tom (new)

Tom Behr) (tom_behr) | 23 comments Thanks, Michael!
Tom


message 31: by Tom (new)

Tom Behr) (tom_behr) | 23 comments Thanks, Jeffrey. That war was so unspeakable, mindlessly cruel that the human spirit had to rebel against the senseless butchery. I think of the WWI English poets, All Quiet on the Western Front, and more recently Wiswell's Masie Dobbs, I'll certainly add Testament of Youth to my reading list.


message 32: by Carol (new)

Carol Keefer | 74 comments Michel wrote: "To read about strong historical women, I would suggest Women War Heroines by George Forty Women War Heroines."

haha


message 33: by Abigail (new)

Abigail Bok (regency_reader) | 610 comments The movie of Testament of Youth, starring Alicia Vikander, that came out a couple of years ago was wonderful, in case anyone wants to approach the story in that way.


message 34: by Pamela (new)

Pamela Grimm (idafrans) | 12 comments Anna Faversham wrote: "My newspaper has an article about Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel's opinion on historical women entitled "Mantel: Writers are wrong to make historical women strong."

Highly respected for her boo..."


Well, yes and no. The assumption is that we know how women behaved etc. in that time period. For the most part, we really don't since we don't have their own stories told by themselves. Those of us who write historical fiction should not be constrained to write within a received understanding or "story" that is based on others' (usually men) tales about them.

So I guess I would modify the admonition to "don't make historical women powerful in modern ways" or something like that.


message 35: by Pamela (new)

Pamela Grimm (idafrans) | 12 comments Zoe wrote: "^ ...how do you categorise a "strong woman" within a historical context as much power could be given to women but in a subtle way as in through marriage and some were able to keep up their husbands business when they were widowed...

I think a great way to help the reader see these fictional women as real is for the author to include some examples of real-life women of the time in the end notes etc. Show that a woman lived like that at that time etc.


message 36: by Michel (new)

Michel Poulin Well, Eleanor of Aquitaine certainly would fit the definition of a strong historical woman who used her titles and marriage to great effect.


message 37: by Earl (last edited Aug 28, 2017 01:55AM) (new)

Earl DeVere | 15 comments Anna Faversham wrote: "My newspaper has an article about Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel's opinion on historical women entitled "Mantel: Writers are wrong to make historical women strong."

Highly respected for her boo..."


A silly statement. Probably written for publicity.

Lots of historically strong women for writers to choose from.

And I'll raise you one. Don't think a black slave woman on a plantation was strong surviving? Then you do not write well enough if you cannot show that. A long long line of female protest leaders throughout history also, Joan of Arc, Ghandis daughter, Rosa Parks, and the list goes on.

Do not think Eastern European and East German women are strong for almost never talking of the rapes they endured as the Red Army conquered and revenged? They protected their children and families. That is pretty damned strong. And that applies throughout history and in many cultures.

Strong women throughout history have not traditionally been action stars nor warriors, though their have been some, but how do you define strength? I include in strength not just the physical but also the mental and the spiritual.


message 38: by Earl (new)

Earl DeVere | 15 comments Truly a great topic! I may have been unfair to Martel, at least in the reality of women deferring to men element as some/many women do and have done in history. But her words were inflammatory stating you cannot make women strong. Publicity minded of her? Yes.

Looked at your books, Randy. Great time period to write on. Frontier women were strong as steel and spit nails. Building a house, a farm or other business to support you, plus confronting physical dangers? That takes guts to face.


message 39: by Randi (new)

Randi Samuelson-Brown | 4 comments Thank you! Probably that's part of the reason why I simply don't "buy" what Martel is saying!

I will confess that I haven't made it through Wolf Hall - but on the basis of that comment, I am very unlikely to read her other books. I feel her comment was ill-advised...

Randi


message 40: by Zoe (new)

Zoe Radley | 734 comments I like her books funnily enough and do think wolf hall is genius in its warmth and depth of characterisations. But am not keen or even like her opinions on certain matters especially this


message 41: by Gael (new)

Gael MacGregor | 1 comments Strength comes in many forms, and doesn't require great fame to be vaild, recorded, and/or inspiring. It doesn't require leading an army to victory. Within the confines of each era, locale, laws of the land, and whatever wars or societal conflicts, women have stepped forward -- even when it must be quietly and secretively -- to protect their loved ones and pave the way for future generations.

Stength is building, not destroying. After the wars that men make, it's strong women who are the backbone of recovery. Celebrate them.


message 42: by Gael (new)

Gael MacGregor | 1 comments Oops... typo... VALID. Oy. Where's my editor when I need her? 😄


message 43: by K.M. (new)

K.M. Pohlkamp | 28 comments I saw that article and had mixed feelings about it. he does have a point about being correct to the period, but I would argue that strong woman who pushed societal expectations existed in every age of history. And well behaved women rarely make interesting subjects . . .

I'd rather read an historical fiction with a strong female lead so I hope authors keep them coming!


message 44: by Gabrielle (new)

Gabrielle Dubois (gabrielle-dubois) | 112 comments The strongest historical was maybe Eve. She did something that not even Adam, the first man didn’t dare to do: she ate the fruit of knowledge. And she found time to love Adam, to give birth to children and love them. God told her: you’ll give birth in pain. And as she endured this pain, she became stronger. And thanks to her, even if men told us during centuries that they were stronger, now, us, women, realize that strenght is in us, in our brain and heart. One may or may not believe this beautiful story, Eve is a beautiful, clever, strong character !


message 45: by Jasmine, Gatekeeper of Giveaways. (new)

Jasmine | 1165 comments Mod
Gabrielle wrote: "The strongest historical was maybe Eve. She did something that not even Adam, the first man didn’t dare to do: she ate the fruit of knowledge. And she found time to love Adam, to give birth to chil..."

True, though some people would debate if they consider her a historical figure since her existence is exclusively biblical, but she would be the first strong woman. The old testament of the bible is littered with strong women, though not all of them would necessarily be considered good.


message 46: by Gabrielle (new)

Gabrielle Dubois (gabrielle-dubois) | 112 comments Jasmine wrote: "Gabrielle wrote: "The strongest historical was maybe Eve. She did something that not even Adam, the first man didn’t dare to do: she ate the fruit of knowledge. And she found time to love Adam, to ..."

I also think that women are heroines! This could seem like a joke (English?) but it's not totally. Generally I find that we are more enduring than men. I wouldn't look like a kind of old wise person with a white beard, especially because I have no beard! and because I don't agree that the wise person is usually a man! but in the everyday life, job, home, meals, children, it's very rare that a woman dares to say: STOP! I'm tired. This
it's not as glorious as wearing a sword, but it should be rewarded!


message 47: by Alice (last edited Oct 23, 2017 12:21PM) (new)

Alice Poon (alice_poon) I agree with the view that in every stretch of history, Eastern or Western, there were strong women who dared to break through societal norms of their times to achieve goals for the greater good (usually in the form of peace and humanity). Their armory consisted of wits and soft power rather than physical strength.


message 48: by Gabrielle (new)

Gabrielle Dubois (gabrielle-dubois) | 112 comments Alice wrote: "I agree with the view that in every stretch of history, Eastern or Western, there were strong women who dared to break through societal norms of their times to achieve goals for the greater good (u..."

Absolutly, Alice! And ine of the difference between physical strength and intelligence or "soft power" as you say so nicely, is that physical strength decreases with age, as intelligence increases if it is maintained. It's a far better calculation in the long run to bet on one's brain... and heart.


message 49: by K.M. (new)

K.M. Pohlkamp | 28 comments Gabrielle wrote: "The strongest historical was maybe Eve. She did something that not even Adam, the first man didn’t dare to do: she ate the fruit of knowledge. And she found time to love Adam, to give birth to chil..."

An interesting perspective! I rather like your take :)


message 50: by Belle (new)

Belle Blackburn | 61 comments Sojourner Truth was amazing.


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