It’s been quite a week for women in the UK. First the news that Jodie Whittaker would become the thirteenth Dr Who and the first woman to play the role, and then the Bank of England revealed its new £10 note, featuring Jane Austen. But woman, before you get ahead of yourself and the two full hearts that now beat in your chest, beware. Because then came news of what the BBC pays its stars: a list dominated at the top by white men. I don’t know what was worse: the bald facts that show how much less the BBC pays women, or that it came as such little surprise. Up and down the country, women would have looked at their male colleagues and raised a wry, weary eyebrow. Not even a second heart can help with this one.
The tantruming over Jodie Whittaker’s appointment (and the earlier vitriol directed against the women who organised the Jane Austen campaign) has been extraordinary. This is not just about a woman’s representation on a piece of polymer plastic, or her elevation to the starring role in a fictional story. This is about women knowing their place, about being put in their place. About being scolded for having the audacity to want the same; to take up the space that has been reserved for men or designated male. And then, when we do, it’s as if something collective gives way and rears up at the terrible affront we represent: ugh, women, get with it! Don’t you know that’s off limits, out of bounds?
Times like this, progress on gender rights can feel thin and narrow. What is male by custom is male by right; what was, is, and what is, will be. These everywhere, implicit assumptions are what it means to live in a man’s world. Yes, things have changed, but change is slow. There is something deeper at play. Where men have the ocean, women splash through shallows, inches deep. Write your books. Publish, if you can. Act, brilliantly. Be your male journalist’s equal, put in the Newsnight shifts; risk your life as he risks his. But don’t expect equal treatment. Equal worth.
I’m not sure quite how this brings me on to historical fiction and how history is written, but here goes.
Historical novelists often say they use fiction to fill in history’s gaps, to imagine the texture of people’s lives: their thoughts, worries, passions. Fiction is a way to open up history, to crack it apart, to step inside the minds of the characters — both fictional and those who once lived. We make our characters ignorant of what lies ahead: that is the point of fiction. Novelists and historians are, it seems, impelled in opposite directions. Novelists travel with the facts as far as we might, or can bear to carry them, and then – exhausted, disappointed, perhaps – we must give them up, empty our heads, move through and beyond what we know towards the far-away blue of an imagined other.
If history can take us so far but no further, then every novel leaves the facts at that point. Does that make historians and novelists equal? Newspaper columns, annual lectures, radio interviews over the past couple of years have been full of the anxieties around this, but suggest not. History is primary; the historical novel is, at best, complementary; the historian’s meek serving maid or assistant. Underpinning this is the assumption that history is how we interrogate the past and historians are the ones who do it. But, when writing historical fiction, we’re not just writing about past events. Fiction, too, is a way to interrogate the past; in writing it, novelists can challenge how history is written, its assumptions, its focus.
Take Helena Jans. Descartes’ lover, and mother of his child. A woman who, unlike Griet, the imagined maid in Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, once lived. Although the relationship is known to historians, very few have shown any degree of curiosity towards it, or towards Helena. She knew Descartes for at least a decade, maybe more, at a pivotal time in his life. Yet where are the papers on her? The academic symposia that discuss her significance or impact on Descartes’ life and work? The reckoning that admits her absence? Look for it all you like, you’ll not find it. What you’ll find in its place is a predominantly male, academic discourse – unsubstantiated musings on her beauty (when no portrait or description of her exists), or on the nature of their sexual relationship as simple academic study by Descartes – before she is dismissed in short shrift.
Helena’s story is not complementary to Descartes’. She was a woman in her own right, with her own view of the world; her own story to tell. History, as a discipline, is as flawed as any other discourse when it comes to women. It is guided by assumptions that privilege a man’s story over a woman’s; that push women such as Helena to the periphery. And when we recognise this, then the binary distinction that asserts that history is primary, and historical fiction secondary,* falls apart.
So, when a historical novelist writes the story of a woman, that simple assertion in and of itself is a radical act. It’s feminist.
As is appointing a first female Dr Who.
I look forward to the day when this is no longer the story. But, sometimes, fiction is all we have. It’s where we, women, might find ourselves. It gives us a place to begin.
* See Niall Ferguson’s spat with Jane Smiley in a BBC Radio Four interview from October 2015. As Jane Smiley noted, history and fiction are different forms. Is an orange better than an apple? No, obviously not; they’re both fruit.
The 2015 radio interview is here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06gqdwk
Jane Smiley’s follow-up piece for The Guardian is here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/oct/15/jane-smiley-niall-ferguson-history-versus-historical-fiction