Women in Historical Fiction

According to a survey on the Smart Bitches website, 81% of romance readers read historical romance. The rest of the results are interesting, as well. Yes, I noticed that erotic romance comes in at the bottom of the list, with only 45% going near it  (or admitting to it, at least.)

http://www.smartbitchestrashybooks.com/index.php/weblog/comments/survey-results-what-subgenres-do-you-read/

The historical appeal fascinates me. I love historical fiction. I don’t know how the preferences of lesbian readers stack up against those of romance readers in general, but my general impression is that historical romance (or let’s just say historical fiction) isn’t heavily represented in lesfic as a whole. I do know of some but I’d be glad to hear your recommendations.

One difference, I think, between straight historical romance and the lesbian version, is that in ours, the women get to be the strong characters. No swooning in the arms of an alpha male. (Yes, I know there are some strong female characters in straight historicals, but I’m speaking in general terms here.)

This brings me to a subject I’ve long wanted to rant about. There seems to be a belief on the part of women who write m/m historical romance that there’s no point in writing about women in history because women never got to do anything adventurous. They were never strong. They weren’t worth writing about. I actually saw this stated by an author for whom I have great respect, and echoed with complete agreement in numerous comments from other female writers of m/m historical romance.

What!?! I’m not going to list famous women in history—we’re talking about fiction here, after all, although I do admit to writing short fiction that included Queen Elizabeth I addressing the troops before the battle with the Spanish Armada. But there have always been strong women, strong sometimes in the same ways as men, and often in much more complex and vital ways. In some sense the very fact that our patriarchal culture has at best ignored and at worst suppressed their history makes them even more interesting to write about.

Last year I wrote a guest column for the Oh Get a Grip blog http://ohgetagrip.blogspot.com/search?q=Sacchi+Green . It was titled “Strong Women Ride You Harder”, on the subject of strong women in erotica, but I’ve already been talking too much about erotica here, so I’ll only quote a little. I’ll be posting the whole thing along with this in my own blog, sacchi-green.blogspot.com.) This isn’t about women in history specifically, but does, I think, fit the discussion.

“A case could be made that all strong female characters can be considered both dangerous and wicked, since they upset a patriarchal status quo that should be as outdated as Victorian fainting couches and tight corsets…

In lesbian fiction the characters are upsetting the cultural norms just by being who they are, and that takes strength. When who they are means taking on roles that have traditionally been seen as hyper-masculine, they need to be hyper-strong, in body, mind, and strength of will…

Cowboys, for instance. Without getting too personal, I happen to know that an anthology with a lesbian cowboy theme (“cowboy” is a job description, not a gender, and the women doing it don’t necessarily need to be called cowgirls) won a Lambda Literary Award last year over strong competition, so the writers must have been doing something right. Lesbian bikers and lesbian cops are more themes that draw on the appeal of strong women forging the lives they want without regard to gender expectations. The same could be said of women who are CEOs or astronauts or doctors or any of a long, long list of occupations once limited to men.

Strong, sexy women appear in a great deal of lesbian (and straight) erotica that isn’t so overtly themed, of course. On a tangential note, whatever you may think of Xena’s carefree approach to history and myth, that show cleared the way for later kick-ass heroines, from Buffy to Sarah Conner to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.)”

So what are your thoughts about lesbian historical fiction? Should publishers be giving us more of it?

14 comments

  1. I love historical fiction and I love lesbian fiction so I am always on the hunt for lesbian historical fiction. There are some good novels of this genre out there and I have enjoyed every one that I have read. Thanks for your insight on this topic.

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  2. If you go back far enough, you can find a time when being a woman was no disadvantage. I set my trilogy, When Women Were Warriors, in the Bronze Age, a time when matriarchal societies did exist, and female warriors were not uncommon. As it happens, it was also a time when same-sex relationships wouldn’t have raised any eyebrows.

    Catherine M. Wilson
    http://whenwomenwerewarriors.com/

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    • I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE your trilogy! I read it in a matter of days! I hope you are continuing to write in this genre.

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  3. I, too, love historical fiction, and I love to write it. Lady Evangeline St. Claire and Rhiannon Moore are my lesbian version of Holmes & Watson in the Gaslight Series. And I’ll have a new historical adventure novel published this year (hopefully) called Miss Smith & the Devil’s Library – again, late Victorian era, and the first book of a new series.

    One of these days in my copious spare time, I intend to dust off an old project: a re-imagining of Penthesilea and the Trojan War inspired by Homer’s Illiad. And then there’s an idea I have about a female spy during the Napoleonic Era… so many interesting historical periods, so little time! 🙂

    Nene

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    • Hi Nene – I would love to read your books. Amazon does not have them for Kindle 😦 Also, they are not well labelled by Amazon. I found this blog looking precisely for Lesbian Historical Fiction, and I found that I have read many of the books here – but not yours. Any idea if you are going to allow a kindle edition?

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  4. I think it isn’t necessarily that the publishers aren’t giving us the historical fiction but that fewer (percentage-wise) writers write it, thus the percentage of manuscripts being sent to publishers which are historical is small. Small of small results in minuscule.

    I have written two historical pieces of fiction, and they were just fanfiction. The amount of research for them was extremely time-consuming, and continued throughout the writing. This is not to say that researching for a contemporary-setting story isn’t also time-consuming. However, for historical fiction to be believable requires even more of it. Especially if you are taking the “non-traditional” route for your female characters.

    Are there authors who write nothing but historical? Of course. Are they being published regularly by some publisher somewhere? Probably. However, if 10% of authors tackle historical fiction, and only 10% of those authors is publishing, then the selection overall for readers to choose from is very small.

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  5. Thanks, Catherine. I’ve just downloaded the book (and spread the word a bit.) Now to find a good chunk of time.

    Nene, your series sounds great. I’ll try to get to it. Penthesilea fascinates me, too; I hope you do return to that project.

    Lara, you’re definetely right about the research. Sometimes I just get so absorbed in the research that nothing gets written. Lately I’ve been reading up on the lesbian community in Paris early in the last century (Gertrude Stein, Colette, etc.) without figuring out how to tackle it in fiction, especially since short fiction is what I write.

    Norma, feel free to recommend books you’ve read. It’s good to know that there are enthusiastic readers out there!

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  6. I liked your Snowfound. I wished it was longer as Civil War era is particularly interesting. And it’s nicely written for a short story.

    Sarah Waters writes some nice historical type books with strong female/lesbian characters.

    As far as real woman who were either bi or lesbian, I’ve seen two good movies about some historical or early twentieth century women.

    The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister

    and.. A Portrait of a Marriage about Vita Sackville-West. Both are fascinating stories about strong women who lived who they were during times when women were not supposed to do such things.

    I wish there were more lesbian/bi historicals. I enjoy them.

    I think the lesbian underworlds during certain historical time periods were probably very interesting with lots of interesting characters. Would be a gold mine for authors I would think.

    There seems to be a belief on the part of women who write m/m historical romance that there’s no point in writing about women in history because women never got to do anything adventurous

    Preaching to the choir here. Author Kirsten Saell screamed about this attitude amongst m/m authors/readers since years ago.

    I just don’t get it. I don’t understand why women wouldn’t want to read about strong female characters. There are so many women I admire. More than most men I’ve ever encountered. And it’s not a lesbian thing, I’m not a lesbian. I find it more interesting when a woman is adventurous and fights to be who she is against a patriarchal world.

    Even now. Women have to constantly fight against a constant attitude of wanting to push women back to being subservient and helpless. So what is so uninteresting about a woman who does that? How can it not be interesting to read about a woman who lives her life against all of that?

    I think many more women in history and now did/are doing as such. It’s just their stories are not as well known. Like Anne Lister who had to code her writing just to talk about her life.

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  7. Leah, I’ve seen the Anne Lister movie, and loved it. I’ve read Sarah Waters, too. I wonder how may still-undiscovered diaries are hidden out there? Or were destroyed long ago? And I’m sure there have many women throughout history without the independent means or writing skills to tell their own stories even in code, as she did.

    I’m glad you liked “Snowfound”. That’s one among several stories where I’ve done so much research, and been so involved with the characters, that I’d like to attempt whole novels about them–except that there are always more short stories I want write, and time just isn’t elastic enough.

    If the m/m erotic romance writers just stuck to the claim that they get more kicks envisioning two men together than f/f or even f/m, well, okay. Can’t argue with individual taste. But trashing women entirely is pretty strange.

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  8. I love historical fiction, lesbian or otherwise. I’m not sure what it is about the historical aspect of a story that appeals to me–maybe it’s that I learn something about our past, or maybe it’s that (in lesfic) we do get to see women in roles that have not been explored in the past (i.e., the hyper-masculine roles). I absolutely love reading stories about women who are put into roles that are traditionally male– whether it be a cowboy, a soldier, or a spy–because, no, women didn’t just cook, clean, raise children, and, in the case of the upper class, walk around their gardens sniffing sachets. They did “stuff” and had adventures, too.

    But whatever it is, it means a lot of fodder for writers because there is no end to history. Every single day that passes is another piece of history and writers will never run out of eras or events in which to set a story.

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