Illuminating History’s Shadows Through Fiction
Illuminating History’s Shadows Through Fiction

Cue the James Brown!

March 08, 2024

“This is a man’s world, but it would be nothing, nothing, without a woman or a girl…”or so the lyrics go.

Leaving aside the ‘accomplishments’ attributed to ‘man’ in the James Brown song, even the misogynistic Mr. Brown admits the obvious (leaving aside the extinction of the species).

There’s plenty of room for conjecture about what the world would be without men, but only a few times in our history have we seen the rise of the heroine, of female leaders, writers, or the accomplishments of ‘the fair sex’ widely acknowledged and, dare I say, celebrated.

In 1855, Nathaniel Hawthorne complained that “America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash-and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed.”

As in this picture (popular in the late 1800s) shows, by the close of the 19th Century, a fair number of women writers were considered notable enough to have been included in this lithograph of notable American writers. Some names may be familiar – Harriet Beecher Stowe, Margaret Fuller, Catherine Beecher – but many women writers’ names – such as Catherine Maria Sedgwick or Lydia Maria Child – are barely known to contemporary readers.

My own experience is a case in point. Before researching Red Clay, Running Waters, and learning about their work, few of the names of 19th-century woman writers would have sparked recognition. Certainly, I had never read any of their works. Now, while reading them was rather more work, and the content was what most of us would call ‘sappy’, I see that their efforts and influences – in the face of much more opposition, and lack of typewriters or computers – should be honored, if not read, for paving the way for those of us writing today. Without debating how much further we as a society have to go, our own times, with its proliferation of women writers, would have probably thrown Mr. Hawthorne into the depths of despair.

Long ago, when I first started to read Historical Fiction, most of the stories about women featured those who were famous (or notorious), or in the upper-class, especially princesses and queens. Back then, only ‘Poor Eliza’ from Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin comes to mind as the singular Black female hero most would have heard of.

While the classics may have delved into the lives of ‘ordinary women’ a bit, there certainly has not been anything like the quantity of stories about women of all persuasions, classes or color as there are on offer today in the HF genre. The trend, of readers having the opportunity to learn about those less-than-famous, those of color, or those from a society completely unlike our own, has grown exponentially in the last decades. We can credit changes in some of our social attitudes, or some incremental progress in human rights for the genie escaping the bottle. We can also create those women who paved the way. And you know what they say – Once out, there’s no putting that ephemeral thing back inside. Aren’t we glad?

From my point of view, the rise in women writers – a large number of whom write Historical Fiction – along with the readers who thirst for their stories, can be credited with much influence over this progress. Stories, once lost, repressed, or neglected, are coming to light at the hands of the curious, the brave, the accomplished, and the willing. This is a very good thing. The more the world learns and knows – about our sisters, real or fictional, past or present – the better for man, and for womankind. Our picture of humanity is more complete, more dimensional, more informed because the genre has the capacity to educate while entertaining, as well as providing opportunities for independence and influence.

Maybe when a similar picture of well-regarded, well-known writers of the 20th and 21st centuries is produced, the ratio of men-to-women will be more equal. Or, perhaps by then, it will show the women outnumbering the men.

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