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.”