What can women's historical fiction teach us?

Historical novel

Diana Wallace,Professor of English Literature, as well as leader of the English Research Unit , on what women’s historical fiction can teach us.

The most common charge against women’s historical fiction is that it is, to quote a well-known historian, ‘tosh’ – that is, that it’s inaccurate quasi-history, or that it’s a kind of Mills and Boonification of history. That may be true of some historical fiction but we’re in the middle of a fabulous renaissance of the form which has been primarily led by women – Philippa Gregory, Jeanette Winterson, Hilary Mantel, Rose Tremain, Sarah Waters.

My research focuses on women’s writing, specifically on historical fiction, partly because that’s what I enjoyed reading when I was growing up. But when I went to university to study English in the 1980s I found that very few women writers were included in the syllabus at that point. My research was initially sparked by the frustration and anger I felt that women writers had been unfairly neglected and ignored and that something needed to be done about this.

After doing my BA in English at Lancaster University I worked as an editor on children’s magazines before doing an MA, again at Lancaster, and then a PhD at Loughborough University. Like a lot of women academics, I’ve been a bit of a late starter with a slightly chequered career path. I started at the then University of Glamorgan in 1998: it was an exciting time when we were starting to build up the English department into something really special.

Things have changed quite radically since the 1980s and women writers are much more likely to be included on courses in universities and in schools. But there are still inequalities – for instance, it’s still the case nationally that the majority of university lecturers and particularly professors teaching literature are male, while the majority of students are female. And it’s still the case that the majority of the books which get reviewed in national newspapers and magazines are by men. Those kinds of inequalities create a climate in which certain kinds of books, like historical fiction, can be undervalued, simply because they are written by, or primarily read by, women.

Literature is a very powerful thing – it can open doors, change lives, send you off on a completely different trajectory from where you thought you were going. So it’s really important that the literature we make available to students includes books by women as well as men, and equally that different races, classes, nationalities and sexualities are represented.

For The Woman’s Historical Novel (2005) I looked at women’s historical fiction across the twentieth century and found some really wonderful historical fiction – particularly from the early and mid-twentieth century - which is sadly out of print now. It would be very good to see new editions of some of these books. I was especially glad to be able to edit Hilda Vaughan’s Here are Lovers (first published in 1926) for Honno last year. It’s made a fascinating novel, about the limitations and frustrations faced by Victorian ladies and working-class Welsh men, available for a new generation of readers.

Another old chestnut which is trotted out by reviewers every so often is that historical fiction is nostalgic and conservative – that writers turn to the past because they don’t want to engage with contemporary events which are too difficult. In fact, the opposite is true – writers often use a historical setting to write about contemporary issues in more politically radical ways than they would otherwise have been able to do. Naomi Mitchison is a perfect example of someone was able to write about sexuality, abortion, imperialism and the abuses of political power in historical settings but who found her books were censored when she wrote about those issues in a contemporary setting. Sarah Waters does something similar today in the way she writes about class and sexuality.

One of the most important things women’s historical fiction can teach us is about the possibility of change – that if things were different in the past they can also be different in the future. It’s up to us to learn from the past to try to create the kind of future we want.