Why I think all young women should be reading historical fiction right now

I think I know where the outrage from young women over income disparity comes from: They compare their own experiences today with modern fiction. Contemporary heroines boss men around, leave husbands and fiancees in the dust, live alone and run giant corporations. They (and we) should read historical fiction instead, to get a clearer picture and a truer perspective of how far women have come from the times when things were radically different.

 I recently read an article by author Mysti Parker called “Keeping Historic Heroines Real” and it was eye-opening. For instance, let’s take a favorite time period for historical fiction—the mid 1800’s. During that time, Parker reminds us, all women were expected to live in the “Cult of True Womanhood” zone. 

This was the place of the four cardinal virtues: piety, purity, domesticity, and submissiveness. Any deviation from these and what society viewed as ‘normal’ put a woman’s virtue in peril, and back then nothing was worse. Women were marginalized, treated almost like goods to be traded, bought and sold. They were thought to be needing the constant supervision of men and if that wasn’t possible or proper, there was always a ladies maid or a footman to follow every poor girl around and  report any wrongdoing to the parents. Women were expected to behave or they ‘could gave in to sinful temptations and hysterics.’ Some very few women defied those standards, but they were rare—-you just could not put women on equal footing with men without consequences. 

Here were a few ‘rules’: 

1. Women couldn’t inherit property in England. It went to the closest male descendant, no matter how far removed.

 2. Women did as they were told by the men in their lives. Period. 

3. ‘Ladies’ weren’t allowed to work. So, if they didn’t marry, they were financial and social burdens on their families, most notably on the elder brothers or widowed fathers. If either of those family members married the wife became the primary female and if she didn’t feel like supporting her husbands old maid sister or daughter she could toss her out. Her only acceptable option outside of marriage was  to become a governess or companion to a spinster.

4. Women were considered an ‘’old maid’ if the  weren’t married by 25. There were actually things called ‘Marriage Marts’ where girls ‘just out of the schoolroom’, around sixteen or seventeen, were dressed up and paraded around ballrooms for single men of all ages to get a good look at them. Parents held out for the best ‘offer’.often a very wealthy but much older man presented the parents with the best offer, and off the girl would be expected to go, pliant and uncomplaining. 

5. Women were considered of ‘loose morals’ if they went anywhere unescorted. Anywhere. 

6. Women were considered crackpots if they even wanted to vote. Or had a political opinion at all. 

7.  It used to take at least two people to get a “Lady of Quality” dressed every day.

8.  It was considered ill advised and a waste of money to educate women beyond the schoolroom. They were expected to learn things that would make them pleasing companions, but intellectual pursuits were frowned upon.

9.  If the man of the house chose to drink and gamble away the family fortune and leave his family destitute, which happened often, there wasn’t anything the women could say or do about it before, during, or after.

10.  Men were allowed to beat their wives. And women were expected to bear it in stolid silence.

And the science of the day just added fuel to the fire of public opinion. Take Darwin, for instance. Much touted for his ‘scientific theories’, even he promoted women as the lesser species. 

Maybe you were not aware of these published Darwinian “Facts”: 

Men-Powerful, Woman-Weak. 

Men-Active,   Women-Passive. 

Men-Brave,  Women-Timid. 

Men-Worldly,   Women-Domestic. 

Men-Logical,   Women-Illogical. 

Men-Rational,  Women-Emotional, susceptible to madness, hysteria. 

Men-Individual,   Women-Social/Familial. 

Men-Independent,   Women-Dependent. 

Men-Able to resist temptation,   Women-Unable to resist temptation. 

Men-Ambitious,   Women-Content. 

Men-Sexual/Sensual,   Women-Not sexual/sensual. 

Men-Sphere: Public,    Women-Sphere: Private

Men-Tainted,   Women-Pure.

Since these attributes were the only acceptable mannerisms, they became their own self-fulfilling prophesies.

I’m not saying women didn’t have their own brand of feminine power, but most of them had to be manipulating and sneaky about it. To be too direct was to risk being committed to an insane asylum, a thing routinely done to inconvenient or uncomfortable women.

Below is my quick recommended reading list:

Anything by Georgette Heyer, most notably “Frederica”, “Arabella”, “Lady of Quality”, “Cotillion” and “False Colors”.

Jane Austin of course, not just “Pride and Prejudice” but also “Sense and Sensibility”.

Margaret Atwood’s “A Handmaids Tale”, only historical fiction in a science fiction-y way. More a cautionary tale which in my mind should be required reading for every woman on turning eighteen. 

“The Red Tent” by Anita Diamanté

It is said, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”  We need to be reminded sometimes, of where we came from so we can be very clear about where we are going. And we need not be dismissive and blasé about women’s rights as though they have always been rights and will always be rights, because they haven’t, and they might not.

And we need to thank our grandmothers and great-grandmothers. They did the heavy lifting for us and they didn’t even have Facebook.
Below is a great list, borrowed from Lily King and Abebooks.com, of 21 essential historical fiction novels:

1.  “The Nightingale” by Kristin Hannah–Two sisters face horrific challenges in France during WWII.

2.  “All the Light We Cannot See”  by Anthony Doer–This heartwrenching tale of World War II won the Pulitzer in 2015.

3.  “The Twentieth Wife” by Indu Sundaresan–The story of one of the most controversial empresses of India’s 16th century Mughal Empire.

4.   “The Other Boleyn Girl” by Philippa Gregory–An entertaining if inaccurate portrayal of Anne Boleyn’s sister, Mary.

 5.  “The Three Musketeers” by Alexandre Dumas–Swashbuckling tale of d’Artagnan and the three Musketeers in 17th century France.

 6.  “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens–Parallel stories intersect in London and Paris during the French Revolution.

7.  “The Book of Negroes” by Lawrence Hil–An 18th century woman journeys from freedom in Africa, to slavery in the US, and back to freedom again.

8.  “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet” by David Mitchell–Love story between a clerk for the Dutch East India Company and a disfigured Japanese midwife.

9.  “Gone With the Wind” by Margaret Mitchell–The Pulitzer Prize-winning tale of the American South during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

10.  “The Leopard” by Giuseppe di Lampedusa–Sweeping saga of Sicilian society during Italian unification in the 19th century.

11.  “The Far Pavilions” by M. M. Kaye–This romantic epic set in 19th century India under British rule has been compared to Gone With the Wind.

12.  “The Last Crossing” Guy Vanderhaeghe–Complex saga of Victorian England and the North American frontier, told from multiple points of view.

13.  “The Long Song” Andrea Levy –A bawdy, farcical, yet unflinching portrait of a 19th century Jamaican slave girl on the brink of emancipation.

14.  “Kristin Lavransdatter” Sigrid Undset–1928 Nobel Prize-winning trilogy depicting Norwegian life in the Middle Ages.

15.  “Memoirs of a Geisha” by Arthur Golden–The fictional memoir of a geisha, from age nine to adulthood, in pre- and post WWII Japan.
16.  “Shanghai Girls” by Lisa See–When WWII reaches Shanghai, two sisters leave a life of privilege to enter arranged marriages in the US
17.  “The Egyptian” by Mika Waltari–1949 Finnish novel that was the bestselling foreign novel in the US until 1983.

18.  “The Pillars of Earth” by Ken Follett–Intrigue surrounds the construction of a cathedral in 12th century England.

19.   “Kristin Lavransdatter”1928 Nobel Prize-winning trilogy depicting Norwegian life in the Middle Ages.

20.  “The Name of the Rose” by Umberto Eco–A highly-literary murder mystery set in a 14th century Italian monastery.

21.  “Romola” by George Eliot–George Eliot’s study of life in Florence during the 15th century Italian Renaissance.

Happy reading!

~ Deborah

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