Historical fiction & women

I read a fair amount of historical fiction and one pet peeve is the compromise authors have to make between writing women that don’t act like historical women and women who don’t reflect our modern ideals.  All too often, women in historical fiction are either unbelievable or simply aggravating.  So I’ve read three books recently that present women and history in different ways, but they all make the compromise in a pretty satisfying way.  And Only To Deceive, by Tasha Alexander, is historical fiction with a rich, young widow living in the Victorian era.  The Time Travelers, by Linda Buckley-Archer, is YA fantasy with a young teenager who travels back to the eighteenth century. To round out the trio,  Austenland by Shannon Hale has a modern woman who goes on vacation to a resort that (mostly) throws one into the early nineteenth century.

And Only To Deceive wonderfully portrays a historical woman who grows into her intellectual identity.  I mentioned that I have read books where the historical, independent, intellectual woman exists solely because that is what we modern women need to read.  These women are more often than not spinsters (beautiful, of course), and so I was immediately relieved to see Emily, the heroine of the novel, was not a spinster but a widow.  She does begin as an independent young woman who resists marriage because she doesn’t want to submit to a man, which seems rather modern to me, but we do have evidence (i.e. Emma and others) that resisting marriage wasn’t wholly uncommon.  That she finally succumbed to marriage brought me another sigh of relief, as even women who may not have wished to marry often eventually did.  Her situation as a widow gives her the most freedom a Victorian era woman could have and, thinking upon it later, I was honestly shocked that it hasn’t been used more for historical heroines.  Emily barely knew her husband before he died and is shocked and delighted to learn that her husband had secret interests, including Greek and Roman antiquities.  It is through her husband that she comes into her own, which fits with my historical understanding, but she does it on her own and (SPOILER) she ends up on her own, (END SPOILER) which fits with my modern sensibilities.

The Time Travelers (previously published as Gideon the Cutpurse) and Austenland both feature modern women (well, one woman and one girl) who are immersed into a historical setting.  This is a technique that has been done before and so is less original than the technique used in And Only to Deceive.  I wanted to mention it, though, because the technique does make the aforementioned compromise rather elegantly.

These two books in particular, however, are worth mentioning because of the heroines they feature …and also because I read them right after I read And Only to Deceive.  The Time Travelers’ main character is actually a boy named Peter, but a close second (and one of the POV characters) is Kate Dyer, an extremely clever and brave farmgirl.  Her father is a physicist and both her parents love knowledge (two of their cows are Eramus and Darwin!), so Kate is full of snark and intelligence.  She hates the corsets and skirts that make adventuring difficult.  I think, actually, that one of my biggest problems with the book was that Kate gave up a little too quickly.  She complained to Peter about this, but she didn’t fight to be active!  I perhaps shouldn’t judge Kate too harshly, for I have never been forced into the stays and skirts of 1763 and cannot say I would do any more than her!

Austenland actually features a character type I struggle with.  Specifically, Jane is a woman who fights her fancies and whose main motivation is to “get over” her Austen obsession.  I have such mixed feelings about this character, because while I feel obsession is never good, I also think that the direct impact of media (books, movies, video games, etc) on our lives is overemphasized.  I love Mr. Darcy… when I am reading Pride and Prejudice.  However, I don’t expect or even want Mr. Darcy in my life!  Am I alone in this?  Are there really hundreds of thousands of women out there who have disastrous relationships because they are expecting and dreaming of Mr. Darcy? That said, Jane still proved to be a sympathetic character.  She is true to herself in ways that can’t easily be explained without reading the book.

I don’t have a whole lot more to say, after all this isn’t an academic essay where I have to have a point and prove it. (If I’m to be honest with myself and whoever reads this, I say that because I am struggling to have the informal tone appropriate to blogs and sound smart and have polished writing all at the same time.) But I know that a major reason people read reviews to see if they want to read the books (I do, at least!).  What I wrote above may not help much, so here are some quick grades for the books:

And Only to Deceive – B+
The Time Travelers – B
Austenland – B-

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3 thoughts on “Historical fiction & women

  1. Love what you’ve done with the place! Lovely review, I’m gonna have to add Austenland to my list of to-reads. Why you ask? Because I love me some Austen, or anything Austen related. And, I don’t think that I’m secretly sabotaging my relationship with the boyfriend because I want a Mr. Darcy so badly, in fact, I’d choose Dave over Darcy.

    • Thanks for commenting! I’m happy to hear that you’d pick Dave over Darcy as I think the former is much better for you than the latter!

      I shall send thee Austenland, if you like and if you promise to write a short review for the blog. XDXD

  2. I haven’t read a lot of historical fiction, but I know the problem you mentioned about how to portray women. However, I am of the opinion that in many historical time periods, no matter how politically restrictive, at least some women had an independent/ambitious/intellectual/etc. mindset that we can identify with. These historical women’s ideals probably don’t match ours exactly, so the writer needs to be willing to do some research to get it right. But there’s no reason to think that just because the official ideals of the time said one thing, everyone necessarily agreed with those ideals and followed them.

    For this reason, And Only To Deceive sounds fascinating. You’re right; it’s astonishing that more authors don’t use widowed characters in historical fiction. And I am quite pleased by the spoiler you mentioned.

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