13.7.12

The Oppression of Women in Historical Fiction.

Women’s oppression across history has been written about constantly, even during the 60s, in an age of strong feminism. The desire for power, male domination, violence and control, and captive women, have been recurring themes from Jane Eyre to the present day. Drabble, Byatt, and Jean Rhys in her retelling of Jane Eyre in Wide Sargossa Sea have all used this theme. As have countless gothic and romantic suspense novels. Is this because women fear reliving the fates of their mothers?



‘Happy women, like happy countries, they say, have no histories,’ says Harriet in Victoria Holt’s Menfreya in the Morning.





Eleanor Hibbert, in her different incarnations, as Jean Plaidy, Holt, and Philippa Carr used this theme constantly. Her Plaidy novels were written in the 3rd person, which gave them a rounder, more objective viewpoint, if slightly distanced. Her others were in 1st and therefore more personal and emotional.





Gregory too writes about the lot of women. About primogeniture and how women are ignored. Even her biographical fiction is about exploited women, forced to marry for political reasons, or used by their political ambitious fathers. Her early novels also deal with the theme of exploitation in other ways, such as the agricultural peasant after the enclosures. Writing these novels in the 1980s, during the time of the miners’ strikes, this would strike a chord with readers, as it tuned in with the radical political consciousness of the time.


As with Gregory, so with Susan Howatch, who wrote about wealth and inheritance, stating that women were considered a possession as was a house or land. But she plunders history for her stories: Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine for Penmarrick, and Edward I, II and III for Cashelmara. She is saying that nothing changes. She used history itself as her inspiration, disguised and relocated while echoing the universal truth of her theme of exploitation of women in dysfunctional families. Both Howatch and Gregory teach us that history does not exist in a vacuum, that nothing really changes about human nature, despite progress in other fields.

Perhaps it is easier for us to view these problems through the prism of nostalgia. Class/sexual inequalities/social differences/violent abuse/illegitimacy and other strong themes, are often best viewed at a distance. They work because they don’t have to be defended, criticised or judged. People like to think - ah yes, that’s how it was back then. They are aware the issue still has a resonance today, yet it is easier to think of it with the benefit of hindsight. Its awfulness is often stressed quite strongly, yet as it is safely in the past, this allows a slight air of unreality or fantasy in the way the subject is depicted.

In the 1970s the theme of exploited women was turned on its head and the liberation of women became a popular theme in racy historicals. Known as bodice rippers these started with Kathleen Woodiwise: The Flame and the Flower. Rosemary Rogers: Sweet Savage Love. They depicted accurate sex in inaccurate history. History was pure fantasy, a mere backdrop. Women were still incarcerated, degraded, violated, and yet they maintained their sense of adventure and spirit of defiance and independence. The strength of the abused woman resonated throughout, giving women the right to enjoy sex, and to exploit men just as they had exploited women throughout history. Ultimately they tamed the hero. They conquered evil with love, a theme which was picked up by Mills & Boon at the time, and has featured strongly in romantic fiction ever since.



Marguerite de Valois in ‘Hostage Queen’ was most certainly an oppressed woman, bullied by her mother, Catherine de Medici, and imprisoned by her husband, Henry of Navarre, but never defeated. She remained a strong woman, a feminist before her time demanding equal rights, and far more intelligent than her mad brothers. She was the Queen that France needed but never got.

Gabrielle d’Estrées who takes the lead in Reluctant Queen, was sold by her mother, twice, to different men, so quite a different sort of oppression. Fortunately she was adored by Henry IV, whose mistress she became, so things improved, at least for a time.


In ‘The Queen and the Courtesan’, I set out giving Henriette d’Entragues the benefit of the doubt, that she was used by her father and brother. But while they were certainly complicit in all the intrigue in which they were engaged, I soon decided that she was no innocent victim. She was the very opposite of an oppressed woman, one who manipulated events to win herself the crown she craved. But did she succeed?


The Queen and the Courtesan, published 29 June, can be found as a paperback or ebook here:

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