History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

15 October 2008

Queens, Courtesans, and Warrior Maidens

I began reading historical romance because of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Way back when, in the mists of the early eighties, my father gave me E.L. Koenigsburg’s A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver, my very first brush with historical fiction. And there was Eleanor, striding across the scene, going off on Crusade, disputing with theologians, eloping from one king for another, and generally taking over whatever she touched. I adored her. I wanted to be her (although without that distressing imprisonment bit). It was my Eleanor of Aquitaine obsession that led me, at the tender age of six, to my very first historical romance novel, Ann of Cambray, in which Eleanor had a walk on role. Ann, like Eleanor, was prepared to defend her territories at all cost, even if it meant defying a king to do it.

I relate this touching anecdote because Doreen's post got me thinking about the ways in which historical fiction and feminism interweave. The conventional histories (much as I love them) tend to focus on the conventional narrative, a narrative of battles and parliaments, warriors and statesmen, fields in which women, for obvious reasons, play a lesser role. Historical fiction, on the other hand, has always been a place where a heroine can shine. Throughout my early teens, my heroine and role model was Caroline of Ansbach, the canny Queen Consort of George II, educated by Liebniz, crony of Walpole, de facto ruler of England. And why? Because Jean Plaidy had written a novel about her. Otherwise, she was little more than a footnote in an account of the Walpole years.

Both historical fiction and historical romance (the line is notoriously blurry) provide a means for shining the spotlight on the spunky women of the past, whether they were queens or courtesans and in so doing reshape our notions of women's roles in the historical narrative. I’ve found this to be especially true in the book on which I am currently working, set in India in 1804. I had very firm ideas about purdah and that sort of thing. And then I started researching. There was Begum Sumroo, who began her life as a dancing girl and rose to rule her own state, leading her own troops into battle against the British during the Mahratta Wars (she apparently retained the power to fascinate well into old age, wowing the men sent to negotiate a treaty of surrender). In Hyderabad, where my story is set, I found the courtesan Mah Laqa Bai, who was considered the foremost poet of her age and so respected for her wisdom that she was elevated to the Nizam’s council of advisors. The Nizam also employed an all-female regiment of soldiers, the Zuffur Plutun, or “Glorious Battalion”, commanded by female generals, Mama Champa and Mama Barun. These formidable ladies also served as his masters of ceremonies at court. Mama Champa began her career as the Nizam’s nurse, but, in the words of a contemporary chronicler, “As she was very intelligent, therefore his Highness of Illuminated Glory entrusted many of the works of state to her.”

That does rather belie the conventional image, doesn’t it? Nothing annoys me more than sweeping statements about the oppressed state of women prior to our enlightened modern era. Far from being counter-feminist, historical fiction and historical romance remind us that women have always played a rousing role in world affairs, whether it’s Joan of Arc or the spunky girl who helped James, Duke of York, escape from Cromwell (dressed in one of her gowns-- James must have loved that), or the warrior maidens of the Zuffur Plutun.


Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Lauren, I love this post. And now I am dying to read all about the warrior-poet-states[wo]men maidens of the exotic east!

Right now I'm working on a companion book to ROYAL AFFAIRS on notorious royal marriages (yes, Eleanor of A. gets 2 entries, one for each marriage) with the emphasis on the perspective of the queen or queen-consort. The level to which so many of these women were both politically astute and politically active is extraordinary.

I have no idea what my editor is going to think, because I am only about halfway through my research and writing and have 324 pp already. There's just so much wonderful "human interest" stuff (I'm aware that readers prefer that, as to do I, to "and then they fought...") that I've given my inner editor her congé until I get everything written.

8:06 AM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Amanda, that sounds fabulous! I can't wait to read it (and I love that Eleanor of Aquitaine gets double time for her two marriages). It's the court intrigue bit-- the behind the scenes maneuvering-- that has always fascinated me, and that's where our queen consorts really come into their own. There's a great line in William Dalrymple's "White Moghuls" about many Brits shooting themselves in the foot in their dealings with local rulers because they underestimated the power of the zenana.

8:22 AM  
Blogger Linda Banche said...

You've got some great research there, and something I'm sure very few of us knew about.

As for the heroines of romance novels, they are supposed to be just that--heroines, bigger than life, doing more than we ordinary mortals do. They're not supposed to be only the leading lady. I'm disappointed when a heroine doesn't live up to her role.

9:24 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

What a great post, Lauren! It makes me even more eager to read your India book. I too read "Ann of Cambray" when I was young (though not quite as young as you :-). That was at the time I was working on a (never published) historical fantasy series set in an alternate-reality Britain. It was a fantasy not because it included any magic, but because I wanted the alternate reality so my heroine could be a princess and later queen--which gave her a power she couldn't otherwise have.

As I've blogged about in the past, I love characters who break the rules. Which means I often write about "fallen women" or women with some sort of past who are on the edge of society. But in any case, I like heroines who can play a role in political and social intrigues. Actually, a lot of the great political hostesses of the late 18th century and Regency did that--Lady Melbourne, the Duchess of Devonshire, Lady Holland, later Emily Cowper and Dorothea Lieven.

10:21 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Great post Lauren. I find that more and more as I research and write about my Scandalous Women, how many extraordinary and fascinating women there have been who may have gotten short shrift in history books.

My education started with Jean Plaidy, Taylor Caldwell and Anya Seton. A friend loaned me The Mistletoe and the Sword which featured Boudicca, and I learned about Pericle's mistress from Taylor Caldwell. I can't thank Jean Plaidy enough for her books about women from Lettice Knollys, Eleanor of Acquitaine, to Dorothy Jordan, and Queen Victoria.

I've also become aware of the differences between the way men have written about women in history and the way that women do.

Write now I'm writing about Evita and seperating the myth from the actual facts of her life is like digging for gold.

10:29 AM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Hi, Elizabeth! Your point about separating the myth from the truth with Evita is a very interesting one. I was re-reading Geoffrey Elton's "Reform and Reformation" the other day, and he makes a similar point about Anne Boleyn, pointing out (to paraphrase rather badly) that all the legend about her sex appeal, venality, et cetera tends to mask the fact that she was, in fact, a genuine scholar and reformer.

I think this goes to your comment about "fallen women" also, Tracy. So often, when women do break the mold and do extraordinary things, it is the sexual angle that gets played up, rather than the political angle, and the lady is credited with scheming rather than inventiveness, cunning rather than cleverness.

11:07 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

In ROYAL AFFAIRS I felt it was key to the relationship to highlight the fact that Anne Boleyn was both a scholar and a reformer. In the original manuscript I had posited that, at the time, she was arguably the most influential person on the development of the Christian religion since Jesus, as there never would have been an Anglican Church without her staunch refusal to sleep with Henry VIII out of wedlock. My editor toned down my rhetoric a bit, being perhaps gunshy about letting my bold comparison, such as it was, of Anne Boleyn to JC go to print.

11:26 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Lauren, that's one of the things that I'm discovering about Evita. While it's true that her marriage to Peron is what launched her political career, it was her ability to mobilize the poor, and the underprivileged, and her desire to help them that made her a legend in Argentina. No one had ever taken an interest in them before to the extent that the Perons, and in particular Eva did. She was very like Princess Diana in the way that she treated the poor.

11:46 AM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

What a terrific post, Lauren. You've motivated me to put "Ann of Cambray" on the top of my teetering TBR pile.

I too love reading about unconventional heroines who shaped history.


5:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a great post! Being mainly a reader, but keenly interested in women's history, I always get annoyed when reviews tell me that some woman or another 'couldn't have' thought in a feminist way. I concede that I don't know too much about medieval times, but it always annoys me, when someone says that after the Enlightenment.

Political power and influence aside, the discourse of women's value was around. In 1694 Lady Mary Astell argued in her essay 'Serious Proposal to the Ladies' that women were as capable as men. Hence, I as a reader, keenly dislike heroines that stick to our notions of what the past was like and what they should have behaved like, and root for the sort that recognize the limitations of their environment and still find their own way.

Just had to add my two cents'. Again, as always though, a wonderful and thought-provoking post on history hoydens!

Keep up the great posts,


10:04 PM  
Blogger Admin said...

Many moons ago, Ann Of Canbray was my introduction to the world of historical fiction/romance. I used to be a book snob and never read ‘romance’ books. It showed me that I didn’t really know what a romance book could be…or how good they actually were. It has remained a beloved book in my collection for many years.
And reading it was such a turning point for me I eventually started writing my own historical fiction story. In fact most the books I read fall into the historical fiction/romance category.
It tickled me to see you mention Ann of Canbray.

8:21 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Wonderful post, Lauren. Much food for thought, and excellent, both as counterpoint and response, to much of what we've been discussing here lately.

10:34 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Great post! You can add me to the list of people who pretty much worship at the feet of EofA (have you read Sharon Penman's mystery series that is set in her court?).

I can't wait to see what you come up with for your India book! With all that info, I have high hopes.

2:29 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Yes, Lauren, I loved this post, too! I've often wondered about the way men have reported history vs the way it really happened...women did figure prominently, more than they get credit for. Everyday women must have had feminist ideas, even in the middle ages and before. I can't imagine that women of the past were so brain dead enough they went along restrictive conventions of the time without ever questioning or thinking about it--or taking action.

I have gotten the criticism that my historical heroines were too modern, even though I went to the "eyewitness" contemprary reports and sources from the time and found first hand accounts events that prove the contrary--women either wrote the narratives or were described as a critical "unconventional" player.

I read the transcripts of an English court document about a woman in the 1400's who sued a nobleman for selling her a lame race horse. She won. And she was single, unmarried at the time and represented herself. There were many such events in that document. Women were there doing things the historians tell us they did not/could not. ;-)

3:12 PM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Kathrynn, I couldn't agree more! So many of the so-called conventions were honored more in the breach than the observance; in fact, there's been work done showing that, in many cases, where you have strong prescriptive literature, it's generally not because they're chronicling what's actually going on, but because they're reacting against what they feel is an unsatisfactory state of affairs. The confusion occurs when people take this prescriptive literature (etiquette books, etc) at face value. For example, there's been a lot of interesting work on law enforcement in Elizabethan England as it stood on the books versus how it actually played out in practice-- the conclusion being that there was a very wide gulf between the two. The same holds true for homilies about the way women "ought" to behave and the way they did. A friend of mine worked on a thesis about women merchants in the late Middle Ages-- there were an awful lot of them. That's not to say that there weren't barriers and prescriptions, just that they weren't universal, they varied over time and place, and, in many cases, they weren't terribly much observed in practice.

7:27 PM  

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