I’m so happy to welcome Mary Sharratt to my blog on day two of my blogiversary.
Her book, Daughter’s of the Witching Hill tells the true story of Beth Southerns during the witch trials of 1612 in Lancashire. Check for the giveaway at the end of this excellent guest post.
Rewriting Women’s History by Mary Sharratt
To a large extent, women have been written out of history. Their lives and deeds have become lost to us. To uncover the buried histories of women, we historical novelists must act as detectives, studying the sparse clues that have been handed down to us. To create engaging and nuanced portraits of women in history, we must learn to read between the lines and fill in the blanks.
Historical fiction can play a crucial role in writing women back into history and challenging our misperceptions about women in the past. Unfortunately writers can run into problems when they present a view of historical women that challenges our common misperceptions.
Readers and critics are justifiably skeptical about novelists who present plucky historical heroines with attitudes that feel too contemporary and thus anachronistic to their time and place. On the other hand, if you do the research, you will discover that every epoch had its radical voices, movers and shakers, extraordinary women who rocked the establishment.
Think of Sappho, Hypatia, Hildegard von Bingen, Elizabeth I of England, Aphra Benn, Anne Bonny the Pirate Queen, Emma Goldman, and Rosa Parks, to name a few. Too often readers and, unfortunately some reviewers, appear to have a distorted and uninformed view of women in history and seem too quick to label any strong heroine anachronistic, even if the author has backed up the fiction with considerable research. Too often we base our picture of women in the past on the lazy assumption that all women throughout history were completely downtrodden and disempowered.
Dr. Irene Burgess, Provost and Dean of Eureka College, Illinois, reminds us that what we know – or think we know – about women in history is mediated and changes over time.
“Because mores and language were so different, it’s frequently difficult for current-day readers to believe that women of the past had autonomy, capability, and choice,” Burgess points out. “A lower class woman of the 14th century in England, probably had greater degrees of freedom than an aristocratic woman of the 18th century in Italy. Although readers may perceive it as anachronistic to have a female weaver going to the tavern with some of her friends and telling her husband to take a hike if he protests, that probably did happen.”
Dr. Samantha Riches, Director of Studies for History and Archaeology at Lancaster University, UK, agrees that the reality of medieval women’s lives defy our popular conceptions. “In 1448 Margaret Paston wrote to her husband John with a shopping list including almonds, sugar and crossbows: he was away in London and she was aware that she would need to organize defense of their property in East Anglia against a neighbor with whom they were involved in a dispute.”
Although there are even fewer sources regarding the lives of common women, Riches believes that the visual evidence tends to indicate that women were employed in a wide range of occupations. Erika Uitz’s scholarly study Women in the Medieval Town reveals that women worked as merchants, money-lenders, brewers, and even miners. One of the book’s illustrations shows a detail of Hans Hesse’s early 16th century “Miners’ Altar” panel painting, which depicts a woman washing the heavy iron ore—a job that was even more backbreaking than mining.
So how can historical novelists create strong, authentic, and convincing female characters without resorting to either anachronism or lazy stereotypes?
Perhaps the most straightforward method is to choose an arresting historical figure, either famous or obscure, and delve deep into the research in order to bring her to life. Ask yourself what historical personae appeal to you and why.
You can also focus on a specific historical event. The Pendle Witch Trial of 1612 provided the foundation for my new novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill. Seven women and two men were hanged as witches, based on the “evidence” given by a nine-year-old girl, who condemned her own family. The most notorious of the witches was the girl’s grandmother, Elizabeth Southerns, aka Old Demdike, who died in Lancaster Gaol before she came to trial. Researching the trial, I was deeply drawn into this family tragedy, especially the tale of Southerns herself, cunning woman and healer, whose “charms” were Catholic prayers and whose reputation was so fearsome that court clerk Thomas Potts wrote that “no man escaped her, or her Furies.”
Best-selling author Sandra Gulland describes history as a continually moving target. “Our story of the past, how we understand it, is constantly in flux. New discoveries, new perspectives: all these help us to revise – reVISION – the past, or rather: the story of our past.”
Mary Sharratt’s acclaimed new novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill, is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. To learn more about Mary and the true history of the Pendle Witches, visit her website: www.marysharratt.com .
Thanks to Mary and Diane Saarinen, I have one copy of Daughters of the Witching Hill to giveaway. It’s open to Canada and the US. To enter, leave a comment with your email address and who your favourite female historical figure is. For an extra chance to win, Tweet about the giveaway. The winner will be chosen and announced on May 15, 2010.