Mean Girls, Historical Fiction Style

As some of my Facebook friends know, there’s a group called The History Police where like-minded individuals congregate in order to decry books and movies that distort history. Because a lot of us in that particular group are interested in medieval and Tudor history, books dealing with those periods get a good going-over there.

One of the discussions has centered on a novel set during the Wars of the Roses. It depicts Margaret of Anjou as being sexually promiscuous. Elizabeth Woodville also features in the novel, and is depicted in this and the author’s other novels as practicing witchcraft with malicious intent. There’s nothing unusual about either woman being treated in this manner, of course; it’s almost mandatory in historical fiction set during this period.

Now, as we’ve discussed on this blog, there is no evidence–only Yorkist propaganda in Margaret’s case and Richard III’s unproven allegations in Elizabeth’s–that Margaret had extramarital affairs or that Elizabeth Woodville was a practicing witch. These allegations were politically useful to those who made them. They also have their roots in misogyny and sexism, accusations of sexual misconduct and of sorcery being convenient weapons to use against women one needed to discredit or to get out of the way.

Which brings me to my point (you knew I would get there soon or later, didn’t you?). The author of the novel I mentioned above is a woman, as are the authors of most other novels that depict Margaret of Anjou and Elizabeth Woodville in this manner. Why would a female novelist want to perpetuate these stereotypical views of these women, or of any other historical woman? Why not make an effort to separate fact from propaganda?

The quick answer, for female and male novelists alike, is laziness. After all, most of the novelists who deal in stereotypes of historical women also deal in stereotypes of historical men. One can write a novel that’s unsympathetic to, say, Margaret of Anjou or Elizabeth Woodville without turning Margaret into a slut or Elizabeth Woodville into a sorceress, but it requires a little more work on the author’s part. Sadly, many authors appear unable or unwilling to undertake such labor.

Another answer is to serve an agenda: the worse Elizabeth Woodville looks, for instance, the better Richard III can be made to look. If Margaret of Anjou is indeed sleeping with half of the nobility of England, the Yorkists can’t possibly be faulted for saying that her son is a bastard. Showing the Yorkists as capable of spreading lies to further their cause adds an unsettling element of moral ambiguity, which many novelists prefer to do without.

There’s also a third answer, I think: the old Good Girl/Bad Girl dichotomy, where historical women are made to fall neatly into one of two distinct categories. (Anne Boleyn: Bad/Catherine of Aragon: Good is one of the most common variants of this.) One sees this with historical men to some extent, but much more so, I think, with historical women.

So do female novelists owe some sort of higher duty when dealing with female historical figures? That’s a hard question to answer, but to an extent, I would have to say yes. I dislike perpetuating myths and unfounded assertions about historical figures in general, both men and women. I’m also not one of those women who finds sexism lurking under every tree. But sexism and misogyny, and the slanders based thereon, have colored our view of historical women in a way they haven’t of historical men, and for that reason I do find it especially bothersome when female novelists perpetuate these slanders–thereby ensuring that they live on and even giving them an added credibility that they might lack if they came from a male novelist. As the teacher in the movie Mean Girls said to a group of female high school students, “You all have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it OK for guys to call you sluts and whores.”

16 thoughts on “Mean Girls, Historical Fiction Style”

  1. Well said! When women like Margaret of Anjou, Elizabeth Woodville and all the others led such fascinating lives to begin with, it is so D&$^ frustrating when novelists overshadow their stories with such filth. It cheapens (in my opinion) what they endured. I think they would be happy to know we're in the corner!

  2. Susan, thanks for letting me know about The History Police! I'm going there next time I log on.
    It's not just lesser known authors that are guilty of filling their novels with tired cliches about historical figures- two authors (well known, I must admit) come to mind, including one who recently *cough* published novels in which a certain mother of a certain Queen conjures the mist at Barnet , and a certain mother of a certain King who murders two sweet little princes to put her son on the throne of England!

  3. I joined The HIstory Police partly because I feel so strongly about the wonderfulness of both Margaret and Elizabeth, and enjoy seeing them vindicated. Who could ask for better mothers in the context of the times in which they lived? The bifurcated womanhood (good girl/bad girl) shtick is so easy to fall back on.

    Thank you for fighting the good fight!

  4. Extremely well put, Susan! This is an issue I'm going to have to grapple with soon, and it's one that does my side no credit. The fact that it was deliberately spread calumny needs to be made clear, as well as (if possible) the effect it might have had on the women concerned. When the author offers no comment – or no character to comment – in defence of these women there really is no excuse.

    I think you'll enjoy the History Police, Caroline!

  5. Thanks for the link to the History Police, Susan – I've loved reading the discussions & would definitely join if I was on FB!

    I think you have a very good point about the importance of representing people less well known to history.

  6. Very well said, Susan. I was hacked off this morning to see the 'Margaret almost certainly got Edmund Beaufort to father her child' story being repeated again on FB. 🙁

    Anyone reading this who's a member of FB, please join the History Police page! 🙂 🙂

  7. Susan Higginbotham

    Thanks, Hodgepodgespv!

    Elizabeth, good point!

    Caroline, the irritating thing about those books, especially the latter, is that some people are already taking them as gospel. I've seen a number of people commenting on how nasty the historical Margaret Beaufort was, based on her portrayal by PG.

    Judy and Ragged Staff, agreed!

    Miss Moppet, thanks! And if you ever get on Facebook (it's a time-sucker, but a fun one), please stop by the History Police.

    Kathryn, that annoyed me too. I don't mind a little speculation,but without being privy to Margaret's gynecological history, how can it be said that her son was "almost certainly" fathered by another man?

  8. Ladies, prepare yourselves- as I commented on Gareth's blog, things are only bound to get worse where PG's "Cousins War" *gag* series is concerned. Apparently she's changed the subject of her next novel from EoY to Jacquetta Wydville. According to her blog, it's going to be titled *rolls eyes* "The Rivers Woman". You have been warned.

  9. Excellent post Susan, especially point 3. Don't you think also that including witchcraft and promiscuity adds 'spice' to novels, and that's why it's usually included? Is that what you mean by laziness? Women were at a disadvantage in those times, and accusations against the weakened members of society usually included witchcraft. Accusing women of adultery casts women as Eve, and carries with it the stigma of 'polluting' the family tree. It would be very difficult for women to fight back from these accusations. If there was a strong woman at that time, they were imagined to have some sort of flaw or seen as almost masculine and unnatural.

  10. Susan Higginbotham

    Thanks, Gareth!

    Carolina, that should be er–interesting. I anticipate lots o' Melusine.

    Anjere, I think in some cases the witchcraft and promiscuity are added for spice (as in Gregory's depiction of Elizabeth Woodville practicing magic), though in some novels, I think they're added mainly to build hostility toward the women depicted in that manner. Sandra Worth's novels are an example of this–Elizabeth is depicted as a witch and Margaret as being sexually promiscuous. Worth depicts both women as being not merely unsympathetic, but as downright evil.

    Elena, thanks!

  11. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarggh! No, girls, please, not The History Police and sinister invocations of thought police, Room 101, Big Brother, political correctness, Fox News, the Sun, etc, etc. Those Nasty Nazis had their history police too and while they were passionate about some things, the truth wasn’t one of them. Given their take on history it‘s a wonder the American and British Governments didn’t sue ‘em for libel. Pity as the law puts it one can’t libel the dead – it would save a lot of problems in the history department if one could.

    There might be a lot less teeth-gnashing if those passionate about their take took time to chill out and think through their 'theories' Honestly do some of them know how to assess as well as access? Take all those contributions to ‘The Murder in the Tower’. Motive is easy but when it comes to means – ‘getting in/out for a start – and opportunity – if one wants to get away with murder it has to be when opportunity is at the optimum – one can’t hear oneself think for the noise of all those hurdles crashing down.

    As for the latest take on Hastings – the mind boggles. Like anybody in their right mind with a contentious claim in the matter of inheritance or succession would want to put the one guy out of the way who could provide back up? It makes more sense if the opposite were true – gainsay rather than corroboration.

    It never ceases to amaze me how many historians get their Y-fronts or their boxer shorts or their thongs in such a twist over Hastings’s somewhat premature departure into the next world particularly the RGs who don’t half tie themselves in knots over the thorny issue over why did not only Stanley not get the chop – and boy do some of them wish he had – but played an important role in the coronation some three weeks later. Just rephrase the question not ‘Why did Hastings get the chop? but ‘Why if they weren’t executed or even tried were the other three arrested?’ As Alexander Meerkat says ‘Simple’.

    As for me I’m staying The History Detective with the answer for all those problems – it’s the Silver Blaze Syndrome. You know the story the one about the dog that didn’t bark in the night and another thing that never ceases to amaze me is how many historians haven’t even noticed all those non-barking dogs never mind constantly bark up the wrong tree. And if the historians can’t get it right what hope the novelists?

    Finally a word on bigamous marriages. If one is going to claim a bigamous marriage shouldn’t one first establish that the first marriage was legit? I always wondered why the Army Chaplain had put me through the third degree until I found out about diriment impediments.

    Being passionate about the truth isn’t the best way to discover it – some of these guys get so carried away they can’t see the trees never mind the wood. Keeping one’s head when all around are losing theirs is. Haven’t these guys heard the one about fools and rope? So be afraid, be very afraid. I’m just off to the hardware store for some more rope.

  12. Now I'm waiting for a novel that presents Livia (the wife of Augustus) as witch and secret participant in Dionysian orgies. 😉

  13. Let me add an my compliment to the many. Very well said! I always feel like the author didn't bother to go beyond the historical cliche. Can't wait to checkout "The History Police"!

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