“Writers Are Wrong to Make Historical Women Strong”

This is the title of an article by Hannah Furness, arts correspondent for The Daily Telegraph, on 1 June 2017.  The quotation is from Dame Hillary Mantel speaking in the second of her five Reith Lectures at the Middle Temple in London.

Hilary Mantel

The article said: “Women writers must stop rewriting history to make their female characters falsely ’empowered’, Dame Hilary Mantel has said.  Dame Hilary, the Man Booker Prize winning novelist, said writing about women in history has ‘persistent difficulties’ for her contemporaries who ‘can’t resist’ retrospectively making them strong and independent.  Anyone ‘squeamish’ about the difference in male and female roles in certain historic periods should, she suggested, try a different job.  Dame Hilary, author of Wolf Hall, singled out her own gender for criticism, questioning whether writers should ‘rework history so victims are the winners’.  She said, ‘Many writers of historical fiction feel drawn to the untold tale.  They want to give a voice to those who have been silenced.  Fiction can do that, because it concentrates on what is not on the record.  But we must be careful when we speak for others.  If we write about the victims of history, are we reinforcing their status by detailing it? Or shall we rework history so victims are the winners?  This is a persistent difficulty for women writers, who want to write about women in the past, but can’t resist retrospectively empowering them.  Which is false.  If you are squeamish – if you are affronted by difference – then you should try some other trade.  She added, ‘A good novelist will have her characters operate within the framework of their day – even if it shocks her readers.’

“Dame Hilary did not single out any particular author, but Philippa Gregory, who has written best sellers including The Other Boleyn Girl and The White Queen, has been praised for her strong characters.  Gregory has previously said: ‘The more research I do, the more I think there is an untold history of women.'”

The article goes on: “A ‘feminist ideology’ could have the unintended consequence of making endings too predictable because the woman would always come out on top, warns Gerard Lee, who co-wrote Top of the Lake (a BBC2 crime serial).  Fellow writer and Palme d’Or winner Jane Campion called his view ‘complete rubbish’.  She said film could change for the better overnight if 50% pf all public funding went to female filmmakers.”

My view is that Dame Hilary has a point: women in Tudor England had very little power or voice over their own affairs.  I haven’t read Philippa Gregory’s novels yet, but I think that giving a real female character, in a historical novel, more voice and power than she actually had is simply misleading.

As to the Lee-Campion disagreement, it’s not clear to me that strong female characters make an ending too predictable, but maybe Mr Lee means something more that strong female characters when he speaks of ‘feminist ideology’.  Ms Campion’s remark strikes me as self-serving, and I would ask her ‘in what way would films be so much better if they were made by females?’  She might be right, but what is the evidence?

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