By Francoise Harvey
I’ve always thought myself a pretty open-minded reader, willing to at least try most books, even if I don’t finish them – everything from Fifty Shades to War and Peace (which, if I’m absolutely honest, both fall into the DNF category). But like most people I’m still a reluctant reader in some areas, and for years my sticking point was historical fiction – a very specific branch of historical fiction, as it turns out, though for a long time I didn’t realise this.
You see, I was labouring under the impression that historical fiction meant fiction centred around Real People In The Past and specifically People I Learned About In School, as opposed to the far more wide-ranging genre that it actually is, and I simply could not suspend my disbelief enough to enjoy the narrative. I would complain, as I turned the pages, that I did not like this putting of thoughts in to the head of person who once really existed, and I only needed to see a book listed as ‘historical fiction’ to assume it was not for me. I’m probably one of the few book lovers in the world to have actively avoided Hilary Mantel’s acclaimed and award-winning Cromwell books and to automatically skip Philippa Gregory’s shelves at the library.
I expect you’re rolling your eyes by now, and fair enough. I’m an idiot, I admit it. I also admit that I now know there are books I have read and loved that are historical fiction by most people’s definition (in 2002, Sarah Johnson of Historical Novel Review defined a historical novel as, ‘A novel which is set fifty or more years in the past, and one in which the author is writing from research rather than personal experience’ – swiftly followed by the caveat that other people have different definitions and that the HNR sometimes breaks this rule themselves). But because they were not presented to me as historical fiction, I did not think they were until I learned better.
And I learned better in large part because of what has arguably been a small surge in recent years of historical fiction centred around women fighting, inwardly or outwardly, for autonomy and independence – or, more accurately, it is less of a surge in the publication of such books, but perhaps a surge in the marketing of them; a realisation that there are people crying out to see themselves and their histories. These writers have taken the often faceless and powerless women of history’s invasions, new religions and culture clashes, and given them voice, autonomy, passion, minds of their own beyond what was recorded by (mostly male) historians.
Of course historical fiction about women by women is not a new phenomenon. At a minimum, Margaret Atwood’s 1996 novel Alias Grace – based on the 1843 murders of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery in Canada – and 1987 classic Beloved by Toni Morrison – based on the true story of Margaret Garner, a slave who escaped in 1856 and, on being recaptured, took the awful decision to kill her child rather than have her become a slave – immediately spring to mind. (And yes, I have read and loved both and did not file them under historical fiction thanks to my aforementioned narrow-mindedness.) And as part of a request for recommendations from friends, Empress Orchid by Anchee Min (2004), Small Island (2004 – again, one I’ve read and loved) and The Long Song (2010) by Andrea Levy, The Penelopiad (2005, Atwood, again) and The Palace of Illusions (2008) by award-winning novelist and poet Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni were all brought to my attention.
But the gateway book to these new worlds of women’s voices for me was Sally Magnusson’s The Seal Woman’s Gift (2018). Set in 17th Century Iceland, it tells the story of the raid of Iceland in 1627 by Moroccan and Algerian Pirates. 400 people were abducted during these raids, and sold as slaves in the Ottoman Empire. Magnusson was inspired by the memoir of Lutheran Minister Ólafur Egilsson, who was taken along with his wife and two children, and released ten years before anyone else, sent to Copenhagen to beg a ransom from the King of Denmark. The ransom took ten years to arrive, and only 27 people returned, including Egillson’s wife Ásta Þorsteinsdóttir.
Magnusson looks beyond Egilsson’s memoir to Asta’s story – a complex tale of love, faith, and trying to build a new life in a different culture. Married to a minister, Asta faces challenges not just to her survival, but to her faith, as she balances her sense of self between her place in a harem, her belief in God, and in the premonitions of self-proclaimed selkie Oddrún, the sealwoman. Through Asta, we are shown, too, the decisions made (where they can) by other women taken by the pirates – those who take husbands, who ultimately choose to stay. Those who return, only to be shamed for how they survived.
I had no idea of this significant period in Icelandic and Algerian history until this novel. You will, I guarantee you, fall down a rabbit hole of reading. I know I did – in part, more about this period of history. But also I found I wanted more – more new-to-me history, and more – please more – from the POV of the women living it.
And so next up is Kiran Millwood Hargraves’ first adult novel, The Mercies (2020). Again, a coastal town, but this time we are on the remote Norwegian island of Vardo, December 1617, thrust into a sudden (‘as if loosened from a bag’) and terrifying storm. So sudden it couldn’t possibly be natural, and which history records as having sunk ten boats and drowned 40 men who were out fishing, leaving the women of the island to survive without men for the next 18 months. The storm coincides with a new law against Sorcery and Witchcraft, the realities of which are brought to the women of Vardo by frightening new commissioner Absalom Cornet who has been sent, with his new and timid wife Ursa, to tame the wild women. It is a masterful examination of how suspicion and fear twists relationships and insidiously affects communities, as events edge inexorably and inevitability towards the notorious Scandinavian Witch Trials of 1621.
Then: Pat Barker’s award-winning The Silence of the Girls, a fantastic and brutal retelling of the Iliad largely from the point of view of Briseis, the unwilling concubine of Achilles. So used am I to having the stories of Achilles and Troy told in words of honour and glory, of Gods and trials, that it is a shock, almost, to be thrust into this brutal depiction of the war for Troy. Seen through the women’s eyes, who in the original Iliad are doomed to lament but remain silent, Barker spares us nothing of the crudeness of the soldiers’ meals and songs, the dividing out of the captured women, the heat, the flies, the rats, the blood in the sand. Briseis, a noble woman by birth, relays to us the stories of tussles over honour with all the disdain and grimness and pragmatism of one who’s life is forever in balance because of men’s vanity. It’s an incredible piece of work, depicting the last days of Achilles through one who does not worship him as a hero and never could.
And now I faltered. I sent a call out to my fellow readers – more books like this please; more books that teach me of events I didn’t know had happened or spin what I thought I knew on its head.
While I waited for an expected one or two responses, I settled into a re-read of a book that, oh, lo and behold, was historical fiction! Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist (2014, and arguably the second-oldest book mentioned here), in which a young Dutch woman is sent off to Amsterdam to her new husband, a man she has never met. Young and inexperienced, she finds she must negotiate the politics and customs of Amsterdam.
I returned to Twitter. The responses had flooded in with titles old and new. So, in short order – here is a continued round-up of recent-ish historical fiction written by women, from the point of view of women caught up in historical events in which they have previously/traditionally, been portrayed as little more than extras on a movie set.
What I love about these books is that they tell not of the history I was taught in school, which was, granted pretty Brit-centric. Instead of Kings and Queens and the plague and cowboys v indians, these women are living pirate attacks, once-in-a-century storms and Greek battles, Jamaican plantations, Dutch and Algerian trade wars… The effect of these books, I find, is best described by Sara Collins in Frannie Langton: ‘A man writes to separate himself from the common history. A woman writes to try and join it.’ That’s how it feels to read these stories – they have filled gaps in my knowledge that needed filling, and in those gaps there are voices now, and faces in the spaces where previously there was only the silence of the girls.
Francoise Harvey is a writer whose work has appeared in various literary journals and in Best British Short Stories 2017 (Salt Publishing). She won a Northern Writers Award in 2017. She is also a freelancer with an extensive background in publishing, offering services for writers and publishers. http://francoiseharvey.wordpress.comJoin MyVLF for FREE