History has always been one of my great passions, so much so that I read both historical fiction and non-fiction in large quantities—ok, very large quantities—and have done so since I was a kid. I am fascinated by both the grand sweep of events, but also by the personal stories of the human beings caught up in those events, where these can be gleaned from between the lines. Usually though, it’s only the big name players who get to walk across the pages of historical non-fiction; mostly, too, the big name players are men.
There are rare exceptions: Joan of Arc, Elizabeth 1, Catherine the Great, the biblical Deborah who judged Israel—these are all women who affected the events of their time. Elizabeth Fry, Florence Nightingale and Marie Curie were also women whose abilities and passion brought them into the spotlight, but still their numbers are very few. In order to get a feel for women’s history in a broader sense, it is necessary to read even more closely between the historical lines—and also to look at alternate sources, such as oral histories where these are available, and the role of women in literature.
Obviously, the bulk of literature was also written by men and may have been coloured by other influences; for example, literature such as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and the plays of the Tudor/Stuart era were written primarily for the elite. Nonetheless, we have no reason to believe that all those male writers—in general and despite the usual human partiality—were any less acute observers of the human condition than writers in our contemporary era. So I believe it is fair to regard their work as one means of shining a torch on the experience of women in history.
And of course, there were some women writers. In Europe, Marie de France penned The Lais of Marie de France, while Christine de Pisan wrote The Book of the City of Ladies and The Treasure of the City of Ladies, amongst many others, and was recognised as a pre-eminent writer of her day. In Japan, Sei Shonagan wrote her famous Pillow BookTale of Genji is attributed to Murasaki Shikibu. Coming forward to the early modern era, women began to play a far more dominant role as writers, with Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, and George Eliot being amongst those who dominated English literature in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Male contemporaries such as Thackeray and Dickens shared Eliot’s concern with social realities and their novels provide a vivid social record as well as being works of literature.
Historical and contemporary fiction both offer the opportunity to explore women’s history, in addition to the primary and secondary sources that inform historical non-fiction. A great deal of how that source material is read will always be in the eye of the beholder, i.e. how we see and interpret “the facts”, just as the social observation in literature will also have been shaped by the writer’s eye. But they do help us to cast a small flickering lantern over the vast, unlit landscape that is women’s history.
I would argue that speculative fiction, which is the field in which I write, takes us the next step. Through enabling first writers and then readers to speculate on the “why” and “what if”, it also allows us to turn history on its head, if we wish, and explore alternative ideas of how a world or society might be. In doing that, we may—just may—be able, in a very small way, to help make future history new.
Helen Lowe is an award-winning novelist, poet and interviewer. Her latest novel, The Heir of Night, the first of the adult WALL OF NIGHT quartet, was published in the USA, Australia and New Zealand in October 2010 and is newly published in the UK. Helen’s first novel, Thornspell, (Knopf, 2008) won the 2009 Sir Julius Vogel Award for “Best Novel, Young Adult”, and Helen was awarded the Sir Julius Vogel for “Best New Talent” in the same year. She blogs every day on Helen Lowe on Anything, Really.