Ruminations on the nature of historical fiction…

I got a telling off recently by a woman who said or implied I was a male chauvinist. 

(The pig part of that soubriquet, fortunately, was omitted.  Though she may have been thinking it.  I don’t know.)

This accusation was levelled at me (I believe) because I don’t write about women much and I haven’t much experience with the female end of the historical fiction market.  I don’t read it either. 

Also I kind of gained the impression that the individual I had offended lived and worked in the US, whereas I live in Britain–and the market, whether one likes to accept it or not, is different in these two countries. 

(Whether I work in the UK is open to question–there are those who would tell you I rarely work…at least not if I can help it.)

So anyway, rather stung by this, I meandered into my book room a.k.a. the Growlery to try to assess if it was in fact true.  Am I a male chauvinist?

I looked up and down upon my walls of book–all history and biography.  And I shall be honest, there are very few female authors to be found there.  Elizabeth Longford is there.  Antonia Fraser is there.  So is Mrs. Adkins.  And Evangeline Bruce.  And the wonderful Amanda Vickery who is a delight in all ways.  (Yes, I’ve met her.)  But the overwhelming majority of the authors are male. 

I then made my way to the music room–the room into which another era of historical research has spilled.  (You just can’t get the wall space these days!)  That’s got all the Restoration history.  And there, one fares slightly better.  Chiefly because of the stellar work of Jenny Uglow and Prof. Lisa Jardine.

So then I got the cunning idea of producing a pantheon of queens for a blog.  A kind of why I don’t write fiction about queens blog–with their pictures and bit of why I don’t write about them. 

But that?  That just depressed me more. 

Because starting with Caroline, the wife of the Prince Regent, (with few exceptions) these creatures were among the least moral, least faithful, least inspiring group of individuals one could hope to find anywhere. 

And I don’t want to write about one or more women who run a revolving doorful of lovers through their days and nights.  (I honestly don’t want to read about it either…)

(In Caroline’s case there was a scent issue too as she was unaccountably averse to bathing.) 

Yet what makes it worse somehow–at least to me–is that they were indulging in these endless rounds of shagtasmagoria at a time when hundreds of thousands of people–their subjects–were homeless refugees, displaced, starving, taxed with their livelihoods and their blood, their lives and the lives of their children sucked into wars, dying in their thousands…

I just can’t do it.  Even thinking about it depresses me beyond measure.

Don’t get me wrong.  There were tremendous people living in the early nineteenth century.  Individuals of outstanding heroism, vision, vibrancy, tenacity, leadership, sensitivity and sheer bloody-minded courage.  And I love and honour them to bits.  They just weren’t the crowned ladies of the period, and often they didn’t wear frocks at all.

And if to say so makes me a male chauvinist, then I’m sorry for it, but so be it.  

However, I shall stick with Byron on this one:  “The drying up a single tear has more/Of honest fame than shedding seas of gore.”

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11 comments on “Ruminations on the nature of historical fiction…

  1. Rowenna says:

    Shagtasmagoria = new favorite word. I couldn’t agree more. This is why I am frustrated with the state of histfic today–I have no interest in reading or writing “all the King’s lovers and all the Queen’s men” kinds of books. Couldn’t give a fig. You are one of the few, Bennetts, who isn’t falling into that morass of mediocrity of subject matter. There are others, of course–but on the whole, I am frustrated. And if there’s anything more chauvinist than reducing women to oversexed minxes, I’m not sure what it is, so chauvinist you are certainly not.

  2. ‘Male chauvinist’ seems to be one of those terms coined by women in the eighties, jealous, I can only assume, that suffragettes had already stolen much of their thunder. Nowadays it’s PC-speak for any male who dare utter criticism of any woman, warranted or not. Or yet more, open a door, or offer his seat on a bus. How dare males discriminate in favour of the opposite sex in such a brazen manner.
    Bit of a giggle, really, as far as you’re concerned. Still, at least it’s a better reaction than ambivalence.
    Male chauvinist and proud!

  3. m.m.fahren says:

    I am sure there were many, Bennetts, noble who wore frocks. However, by class or sex, they were faceless and voiceless to the recorders of the time. That is not particularly anomalous to England and it is certainly not a statement in favour of glorifying the frivolous or the indecent. The lack of subject matter, I would think, shows a lack of interest in those qualities that qualfy the feminine in its strongest setting, which of course, does not negate, but is not native to those settings particular to male accomplishments and bravura. What the ‘weaker’ sex was permeated with is a type of courage reserved for those who endure, persevere, and support in rare form those in their charge and those who must negate themselves in every fashion to nurture.We don’t know of them precisely, because those virtues are not the sort that rock the pages of a ruling empire. They don’t fit too tidily in the annals that roar with the madding crowd.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      There’s been a great deal of study done on these precise women–those who endured, persevered and supported–over the past twenty or thirty years.

      There’s been a fascinating study of women who owned shipbuilding yards during the Napoleonic wars by the excellent Elizabeth Doe–her work has shown just what an enormous contribution they made to the war effort and to the economy and equally how their relationship with the Admiralty was very different to that of the male shipyard owners.

      Likewise, studies of the wives of the artistocracy has shown many of them to be the builders and architects (and overseers) of the great houses while their husbands were off, doing whatever they did, often abroad. And Amanda Vickery’s first book, The Gentleman’s Daughter, relies on letters and journals to illustrate just how much enduring, persevering, hard work, and support was expected of the gentry women of the 18th and early 19th century.

      But none of these women–all of them splendid or not so splendid perhaps–wore a crown in 1812. But if I do write about women, it is precisely these fine individuals whom I would hope to bring to life.

  4. m.m.fahren says:

    And that is precisely what I trust you do. When I said ‘noble’ it was a mislead,perhaps. As in “not of royal birth, but royal worth:” Thank you!

  5. Fascinating read Bennetts. You always manage to give me a new perspective on the period.

    P x

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