Book Drunkard

“I am simply a 'book drunkard.' Books have the same irresistible temptation for me that liquor has for its devotee. I cannot withstand them.” L.M. Montgomery

Happy Blogiversary – Day 2

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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.

Good luck!

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29 thoughts on “Happy Blogiversary – Day 2

  1. What a great post! And I’ve been hearing great things about this book. It’s on my to read list & I’d love to win a copy.

    I’ve never been much into history and I’m not a religious person, but the first name that popped into my head is Joan of Arc. I tend to think of her as a fierce female who stood up for what she believed in. Sure, she might have been a little coo coo for cocoa puffs, but who isn’t? 🙂

    colleenmckie at eastlink dot ca

  2. My favorite female historical figure is probably Nefertiti.
    amandarwest at gmaildotcom

  3. I love learning about Cleopatra and Queen Elizabeth I.

  4. Philippa Gregory is a great author!

    deb55106(at)gmail(dot)com

  5. Not real original, but Joan of Arc and Scarlet from Gone with the Wind come to mind, first!

    Bill 😉

    billsmith2003 (at) gmail (dot) com

    Hope you’ll check out my book giveaway:
    http://drbillsbookbazaar.blogspot.com/2010/05/book-giveaway-dead-or-alive.html
    http://thehomeplaceseries.blogspot.com/

  6. I find this whole discussion fascinating — maybe I should consider going back to school! I think I have to pick Boadicea as my favorite female historical figure – she took on the Roman Army! Maybe she didn’t realize what she was up against, but I think she would have fought just as hard even if she had realized just how overwhelmed she was.

    Thanks for these wonderful posts, and thanks for the chance to win a copy of Ms. Sharratt’s book. I’m really looking forward to reading it.

  7. P.S. — Happy Blogiversary, too!

  8. Laura Ingalls Wilder, author
    annarudow at gmail dot com

  9. Abigail Adams is one of my favorite female historical figures. She was such a strong woman to take care of her family while John was overseas for so long.

    srfbluemama[at]gmail[dot]com

  10. Thanks for this lovely giveaway. Emma Lazarus would be my favorite historical figure.

  11. Pingback: Happy Blogiversary – Day 3 « She Read a Book

  12. Happy Blogiversary! What an informative post.
    I have been wanting to read Daughters of Witching Hill. My favourite historical woman is most likely Elizabeth I.

    knittingmomof3 (AT) gmail (DOT) com

  13. Happy Blogiversary, I would love to win this novel.

  14. Happy Blogiversary!

    One amazing female historical figure for me: Queen Elizabeth I.

  15. Is that real or fictional? I adore Mercedes from The Count of Monte Cristo.

    Real? Elizabeth I fascinates of course, Cleopatra is another.

    Thanks so much!
    This book sounds so fascinating!
    kaiminani at gmail dot com

  16. Happy blogiversary, Martina! Thanks for hosting the giveaway.

    And thanks so much, everyone, for your comments about great historical women!

  17. My favorite historical woman is Dolley Madison – wife of the 4th US President. She did so many things that were firsts and was so brave.

    I would love to be entered for this giveaway.

    dolleygurl[at]hotmail.com

  18. EVE…the first woman….
    thanks for the chance to read this fabulous book…happy anniversary 🙂

  19. My favorite historical woman is Diane de Poitiers. Thanks for the giveaway!!!

  20. My favorite historical woman is Queen Elizabeth I. Thanks for another great giveaway…I REALLY want to read this book!

  21. I would say Cleopatra, Queen Elizabeth, & Anne Boleyn.

  22. Great post, I’ve been fascinated by every thing I’ve read about this book, and by all the extra information shared by Ms. Sharratt. A favorite historical woman to read about is Emma, the mother of Alfred the Great. I don’t particularly “like” her, but her influence on early English history is amazing.
    Thanks so much for the giveaway.

  23. I’ve always been fascinated by Cleopatra

  24. Please include me! thanks

  25. Marie Antoinette.

  26. What a fantastic giveaway! And I have so many favourite women in history, how the heck do I choose? From the formidable Queen Elizabeth I to Victoria, to the Famous 5 here in our own country…women have done amazing things throughout history. Of course I would be a bad magazine editor if I didn’t promote Henreitta Muir Edwards especially, one of Canada’s Famous 5 and the founder of the Victorian Order of Nurses among other accomplishments.

    I love reading about women and history and I kind of have a thing for witch trials. Would love to win this. Fingers crossed!

  27. Please enter me in this giveaway!

    My favorite female historical figure is Susan B. Anthony.

  28. I tweeted:

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