As a result of a couple of recent conversations, I’ve been thinking lately about historical fantasy, and the extent to which historical norms may limit a writer’s ability to include diverse characters - whether we count diversity in terms of race, gender, orientation, or other (unspecified/name your own).
You will be unsurprised, Gentle Reader, to hear that I consider this argument (these arguments, really, since there are a number of them) a cop-out. Whether it’s deployed in the service of fantasy drawing on historical inspiration (“The Middle Ages were just like that!”), whether it’s used to support the whiteness and straightness of alt-history and steampunk, or whether it comes into play in historical fantasy where the fantastical elements are part of a secret history.
Naming no names of those who’ve disappointed me, so as not to get bogged down in discussions of niggling details, I want to talk about why the use of these arguments is a cop-out, giving historical examples. (And since I’m an Irishwoman, my historical examples will mostly be from northern Europe: I’d really appreciate if people with a wider knowledge of world history chose to chime in with a comment or two.)
A Rebuttal to the Argument That Women Didn’t Do Anything Except Get Married and Die in Childbirth (Historically):
Even if we’re only talking high politics, I see you this argument and raise you the women of the Severan dynasty in the Roman empire, Matilda of Flanders, her granddaughter the Empress Matilda, Catherine de’Medici, Marie de’Medici, Queen of France and Navarre, Maria Theresa, Holy Roman Empress, Matilda of Tuscany... I could go on. And I can’t bear to leave off mentioning the cross-dressing Hortense Mancini, niece of Cardinal Mazarin, who—after fleeing from her wealthy and abusive husband—ended up presiding over a salon of intellectuals in Restoration London.
I’m less familiar with the Great Women Of History outside Europe. But I direct your attention to Raziyya al-Din, Sultan of Delhi for four years; Chand Bibi, Regent of Bijapur and Ahmednagar; Rani Abbakka Chowta of Ullal held off the Portuguese for several decades; the Rani of Jhansi was only in her early twenties when she died fighting in the Indian Rebellion (better known to the British as the Indian Mutiny); Wu Zetian was the only woman to rule China in her own name. Need I say more?
If we’re including women who did other things? Whole industries depended upon female labour. The production of clothing, for example. Domestic service. Food production. Crime: look at the records of the Old Bailey Online. Sometimes women went to sea or to war: Mary Lacy, Hannah Snell, and Nadezhda Durova are among those for whom we have testimony in their own words, but a rule of thumb is that where there’s one literate, articulate specimen, there are a dozen or a hundred more who never left a record. They wrote socially-aware medieval poetry, natural philosophy, travelogue and theology, more theology: they established schools and organised active religious communities in the face of establishment disapproval...
They did, in short, just about everything you can think of.
A Rebuttal to the Argument In Favour Of Not Including Lesbians/Transgender/Intersex Characters:
It’s a modern invention! They might’ve been queer, but they kept quiet about it! What do you mean, cross-dressing?
Sodomy is far better known than its counterpart. Male-on-male sexual activity has a long recorded history: in ancient Greece it was lionised as the epitome of eros, and the Classical world had quite the influence upon western European literature. The history of Sapphic love has been, perforce, rather quieter, apart from Sappho herself: for one thing it wasn’t illegal, and thus doesn’t turn up in historical court records with such frequency. But I direct your attention to Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, an eighteenth-century directory of reasonably successful whores published yearly from the 1760s. There, among the ladies who catered for the male trade, Miss Wilson of Cavendish Square held that “a female bed-fellow can give more real joys than ever she experienced with the male part of the sex,” and Anne and Elanor Redshawe advertised their services to “Ladies in the Highest Keeping.”¹ And Miss Anne Lister, a respectable woman of the Yorkshire gentry in the first half of the 19th century, left behind her diaries, in which her amours with other women are recorded for posterity. Those with much patience are welcome to comb through the records of the Old Bailey Online for women who deceived other women, and married them while pretending to be men: there are more than you might think.
As for historical transgender or intersex persons: well, one’s recently been the subject of an interesting biography. James Miranda Barry, Victorian military surgeon, is argued convincingly by Rachel Holmes to have been a probably intersex person, female-assigned at birth, who made a conscious decision to live as a man after puberty.² (Barry was the first person to perform a Caesarian section in Africa, and one of the very first to perform such an operation where mother and child both survived.) His friends, what few he had, seem to have been perfectly aware there was something not wholly masculine about him. After his death, his doctor said he wasn’t surprised at the rumour started by the servant who did the laying-out, that Barry was a woman: the doctor himself was of the opinion Barry’s testicles had never properly dropped.
I’ve barely scratched the surface here. I’m tired of watching hackneyed treatments of women in fantasy (Madonna or whore, chaste love interest or sexually insatiable villainess) defended on grounds of historicity. There are more roles for women than are shown as a matter of course. Some of the women who filled these roles, historically, were exceptional people. Some of them were ordinary, and their actions only look extraordinary in retrospect because of our expectations about what was or wasn’t normal.
So, I suppose my cri de coeur is this: Dear disappointing authors: disappoint me less. Dear fans of disappointing authors: please find other grounds than historical verisimilitude on which to defend your favourite authors’ choices. Dear Friendly Readers: the floor is open, what are your thoughts?
¹See Rubenhold 2005, Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies; Cruickshank 2010, The Secret History of Georgian London; Arnold 2010, City of Sin.
²Holmes, 2007, The Secret Life of Dr. James Barry.
Liz Bourke prefers being pleasantly surprised to being disappointed. Alas! The latter happens far too often. Find her @hawkwing_lb on Twitter, where she complains about quotidiana and catalogues her #bookshop_accidents.