Friday 5 April 2013

More on heroines and heroism in fiction

Among the many thought-provoking comments to last week's post on the 'quieter' fairytale heroines (thankyou all!), is this, from the children's author Lily Hyde:

"I was talking about this with a friend, who said she hated fairytales as a little girl because she was so aware that the girls in them never had any fun - she wanted to be the one riding off on a horse to adventures but felt that to do so she would have to become a boy ... It made me wonder if being kick-ass is actually not about empowerment as such, it's about fun. The fairytale heroines you describe in your post are strong and determined and successful but they are also responsible in a way that the male characters are not. ... Being responsible (by being clever or determined or 'good') is not seen as glamorous, is not showy, is not always fun."

I'm sure this is so - at least, Jo March seemed to agree.  "It's bad enough to be a girl, anyway, when I like boy's games, and work, and manners," she cries near the beginning of 'Little Women', and within a chapter or two is stalking the stage as the gallant Rodrigo in their home productions:

"No gentlemen were admitted; so Jo played male parts to her heart's content, and took immense satisfaction in a pair of russet-leather boots given her by a friend, who knew a lady who knew an actor. These boots, an old foil,  and a slashed doublet once used by an artist for some picture, were Jo's chief treasures, and appeared on all occasions", and Jo appears "in gorgeous array, with plumed cap, red cloak, chestnut lovelocks, a guitar, and the boots, of course."

When I was nine I never wore a dress or a skirt if I could help it, and certainly not if my best friend was around - we always wore shorts or trousers (then termed 'trews').  We were tomboys (or so we liked to think).  Together with our brothers we made rafts out of oildrums and bits of wood and tried to sail them on the River Wharfe; we fought the boys in the playground and got told off; we went up on Ilkley Moor with another friend who had a pony; we hid in the wooden hut shelter by Ilkley Tarn and made ghost noises as old ladies went past.  We looked for adventures, for fun.

We were also keen readers. We were trying to channel George.

I assume you all know who George is, but just in case: George is the tomboy heroine of Enid Blyton's immensely popular 'Famous Five' series, which has never been out of print since 'Five On A Treasure Island' was published in 1942.  Her real name is Georgina, but she refuses to answer to any name but 'George': she dresses like a boy and has cropped curly hair, she is 'as brave as a lion', never tells a lie, and is also, enviably, the owner of faithful Timmy, the gang's devoted dog.  By strangers (especially stuffy new tutors and shady criminal types) she is generally mistaken for a boy, a mistake she takes as a compliment.

Even more than Jo March, George was a great relief  to my generation.  She was usually in the forefront of the action, even in the illustrations, thus:

If there was a secret tunnel to be crawled down, or a midnight mission to embark upon, George would be there, with Timmy at her side always ready to have the essential scrawled message pinned to his collar: Trapped on Mystery Marsh.  The maths tutor is a spy.  The submarine will surface at midnight.  Call Scotland Yard!   George was fiery.  She had a temper and she used it.  She got into trouble for being rude: yet her instincts were always right.  While Julian, Dick and Anne would shake their heads over the tea-table, George, banished to her room, would be spotting the mystery lights winking from the moor.  Who would not want to be like her? - especially when the alternative looked like this:

This soppy girlie is Anne, mistaking a train for a volcano.

"I'm as good as a boy, any day!" was George's defiant cry: and so she was.   But why did she have to dress as a boy to prove it?

It was because girls needed so badly to read about adventurous heroines, and for some reason most of the adults writing for them were unable to imagine the possibility that one could have adventures in a skirt.  The sort of fun I enjoyed as a child - the pony-riding, the moorland walks, the raft-building, the make-belief - none of it was truly gendered: yet my friend and I felt it was: this was why we claimed the 'tomboy' label. The default assumption presented to us in the fiction we read was that women and girls did not have adventures; were hangers-on in history; led quiet, boring lives.  You would imagine no woman ever stepped out of doors without a parasol.

This attitude has changed, but only gradually, and we're still not quite there. During my childhood in the 1960's - not so very long ago really - it had barely begun to shift. You have only to look at the school stories packaged separately, as they were: 'The Bumper Book for Boys', 'The Bumper Book for Girls'.  The boys would get tales of historical derring-do, swordfights, brawls, sea-stories, war stories, plus practical tips on collecting hawk-moth caterpillars, how to make a compass with a cork, a magnet, a needle and saucer of water, and how to find your way in a forest by observing the moss on the north sides of trees.  The girls' books would involve tales about  flower fairies, the Girl Guides and Brownies, rivalries at hockey, lacrosse, and the ballet, how to make a Welsh rarebit, crochet a pretty mat for the table, and fold linen napkins into waterlilies or swans.

No wonder we wanted to be boys. No wonder we wanted to be George.  And since boys also read 'The Famous Five' - in droves - George was our ambassador: incontrovertible if fictional proof that girls could have adventures too.

In spite of obvious real-life historical examples such as Grace Darling, Flora Macdonald, Florence Nightingale, and Mary Kingsley (who whacked crocodiles on the head with her canoe paddle and extolled 'the blessings of a good thick skirt' when travelling in Africa), writers stuffed their female leads into breeches if they were to do anything exciting. Geoffrey Trease, in his popular and well-written historical adventure stories for boys and girls, nearly always provided a cross-dressing heroine.  There's  'Kit Kirkstone' aka Katherine Russell, in 'Cue For Treason', who runs away from an arranged marriage, falls in with a group of players, plays Shakespeare's Juliet, and ends up helping to foil a plot to kill Queen Elizabeth I.  There's Angela D'Asola in 'The Hills of Varna' - a young Venetian scholar who - disguised as a boy - assists in the rescue of a priceless Greek manuscript from destruction at the hands of barbarous and ignorant monks. I loved these stories - they are still very readable - but along with Enid Blyton's George, they fostered in my childish mind the subconscious belief that to be adventurous or lead an interesting life, girls had to resemble boys.  Which suggested girls per se were still somehow inferior.

I was interested to read the author's notes at the back of my copy of  'The Hills of Varna'. Trease claims his characters

... are no stranger than the real people who lived in the Italian Renaissance.  One has only to think of girls like Marietta Strozzi, who broke away from her guardians at the age of eighteen, lived by herself in Florence, and had snowball matches by moonlight with the young gentlemen of that city; and Olympia Morata, who was lecturing on philosophy at Ferrara when she was sixteen.

Stirring stuff!  I looked them up.  And if the truth is not quite as romantic as Trease makes it sound, it's more complex and in some ways more interesting.  Here is Marietta Strozzi, in a bust by Desiderio da Settignano: a cool and self-possessed young lady who was said to be the greatest beauty of Florence.

Despite the snowball fight (not a spontaneous street-corner affair between a gamine and a group of boys, but a piece of elaborate pageantry with political undercurrents) her life was bounded by the necessity to marry, and the limitations of being fatherless and "therefore" probably "stained".  The young man who wished to marry her was dissuaded from doing so.

As for Olympia Morata, whose picture is here, it's true she was a remarkable woman. Her father was tutor to the dukes of Ferrara.  Aged about twelve or thirteen,

already fluent in Greek and Latin, she became the friend and companion of the the young princess Anna D'Este. The court held protestant sympathies, and by sixteen Olympia was lecturing on Cicero and Calvin, writing and translating. In her early twenties she married a German Protestant who had come to Ferrara to study medicine. The young couple moved to Schweinfurt in Germany to evade the Inquisition, but were caught in the middle of war. Schweinfurt was occupied by the soldiers of the resplendently-named Albrecht Alcibiades, Margrave of Brandenburg-Kulmbach: and Olympia and her husband lived in dangerous conditions, at one point taking refuge in a wine cellar. Ultimately, the city was sacked and burned. In a letter to her friend Cherubina Orsini, written at Heidelberg on August 8, 1554,  Morata describes her difficult escape from Schweinfurt:

Vorrei che aveste visto come io era scapigliata, coperta di straccie, ché ci tolsero le veste d'attorno, e fuggendo io perdetti le scarpe, né aveva calze in piede, sì che mi bisognava fuggire sopra le pietre e sassi, che io non so come arrivasse.

I wish you had seen how dishevelled I was, dressed in rags, because they had taken away our clothes, and in fleeing I lost my shoes and nor had I socks on my feet, so I had to flee over the stones and the rocks - I do not know how I made it. 

(Translation courtesy of Michelle Lovric.)

This is exciting by anyone's standards, considerably more of an adventure than most of us would wish to experience. Sadly, Olympia had not much longer to live. Shortly after arriving in Heidelberg,she began once again tutoring students in Greek and Latin, but a fever that she had caught in Schweinfurt never really subsided, and a few months later she died. She was not quite 29 years old: an early death, but not unusual for that place and time.

My point, though, is that here are two sixteenth century women who lived colourful, adventurous and energetic lives. Neither of them had to dress up in boys' clothes to do it.  Yet their experiences and those of other women like them have been ignored or discounted down the centuries. Why?  Because they are assumed to have been passive.  Yet I doubt if Olympia Morata felt very passive while she was escaping barefoot, or Mary Kingsley while cracking the crocodile over the head.  I'm willing to bet Olympia's life experiences were more dangerous and more 'exciting' than that of the Margrave Albrecht Alcibiades.  Adventures are rarely very much fun for those who are in them. And, to return to Jo March with her beloved russet boots and old foil - was riding off on a horse to  the wars ever really that much fun for the boys who had to do it?

Maybe we should look closer at our heroes as well as our heroines, and consider why the ability to fight is still so important to us that we tend - in fiction at least - to undervalue other forms of courage?


  1. Great post - and I love your caption for Anne!

  2. My 1950s/60s childhood came rushing back to me while reading this post. I did all these things except it wasn't on Ilkley Moor, it was on the beaches and countryside around Penzance in Cornwall. And I've never before heard any other woman mention fighting the boys and getting told off as a child. I won't say I thought I was unique in having done that but of course it wasn't ladylike to do such a thing back then, I got into a lot of trouble, and it's something I've rarely admitted to. I also devoured The Famous Five, and loved the four children who were in Blyton's ' Of Adventure' series, Sea, Castle, Island etc. Her book The Valley of Adventure probably fueled every one of my childhood fantasies. LOL. Thank you for such a brilliant post.

  3. I loved Geoffrey Trease's heroines. They were all strong and interesting. And if they had to cross dress, it WAS, after all, historical fiction. George was my heroine too. But then, I never much liked Julian anyway. He was too bossy.

    I wonder if all those girls' stories with horses were exactly this desire for action and adventure?

  4. The horse stories - yes, good point, Sue! And Cath, ha! We'd have been in trouble together, then. Sue, while it's true that some women in history have dressed as men - like the pirate Mary Bonny - I can't help thinking that Shakespeare is to blame for the many be-doubleted heroines in historical fiction. While that sort of thing is all great fun, the danger is that what women and girls were really experiencing may be ignored or written off as dull - when the reverse is often true. A good counter example is Ann Turnbull's YA novel 'Alice In Love and War' - the fortunes of a girl who follows her no-good-soldier-lad lover, and is as heroic as anyone could wish - but in a skirt!

  5. Okay, I’m probably about to do something very foolish here, but I am going to stick my head out above the parapet and say that I stand by my statement in the previous post regarding what is and isn’t considered a strong feminine character.
    I think we have seen quite clearly that what we’re talking about here is no longer a question of writing but a question of what we fundamentally believe a woman to be. For me, it pains and saddens me beyond words that women should not only happily relinquish but actively reject aspects of their essential nature because they believe that these attributes are masculine. We are human beings, faulty, passionate and dangerous at heart, we are capable of so much good and evil. That includes us women too. Fighting is not a preserve of masculinity as a visit to any local schoolyard will reveal. I don’t think that Olympia Morata was passive; I think it’s quite clear that she was anything but. Her life was exciting and dangerous and she didn’t turn away from her path and met those experiences head on with no qualms over social stigmas.
    As you say authors have in the past have suggested that to be strong is to be male but this is just the natural expression of archaic values in play. These attributes were held to be masculine and so these authors had no concept of how to express such characters in any other way, as you say “the adults writing for them were unable to imagine the possibility that one could have adventures in a skirt”. Consider it like this: If you put a barrister’s wig on your head people will presume that you are a barrister until lots of people keep doing the same thing and the wig loses its association. These attributes whether we like it or not are feminine also - to suggest otherwise is faulty thinking and comes across as highly sanctimonious.
    I’m glad that you mention real life examples of female heroism, Katherine, because these are exactly the women I had in mind. Women who didn’t adhere to what they were told they could or should do but who went ahead and followed their passion. I’m not saying that we should abandon quick wits for brute force – perish the thought. I am saying don’t dress it up as something it isn’t and I’m also saying that women should stop rejecting their inherent nature just because society has skewed the meaning of that nature.
    Unfortunately, at present, arguments over what it is to be a woman are so varied and polarised that we have reached a point of total stagnation, but that appears to be inevitable as we stand at different viewpoints and fail to budge. I hope that one day we will be able to reach beyond this point but I’m afraid it’s not going to happen by insisting that differences of opinion are forgotten – somehow we are all going to have to find a way forward that includes all aspects of femininity, and opinions from both sides of the fence, so that no-one feels misrepresented.
    Well, I’m sorry I have used up so much of your comment space, Katherine, and I really appreciate that you have opened up this discussion as it's a vital one, but if my words cause anyone to pause and think rather than react, or encourages one woman to feel free to state her case, then I think we will both be happy that I stuck my neck out?

  6. Jillondon, we are in complete agreement! You say "I don’t think that Olympia Morata was passive; I think it’s quite clear that she was anything but." That is precisely my point: as I wrote with intentional irony: "I doubt if Olympia Morata felt very passive while she was escaping barefoot". So why have women like Morata been, absurdly, PERCEIVED as passive - as acted upon rather than actors? Is it because of the old epic obsession with 'heroes with swords'? Why are there still lots of people who honestly believe it's not possible to write an exciting story about a girl or woman in the past without dressing her up in doublet and hose and equipping her with a weapon? - as if women per se couldn't have interesting/exciting/dangerous experiences. I appreciate your long comment immensely, and wouldn't like you to think I don't agree with every word of it.

  7. Those were rhetorical questions, by the way, which you have already ably answered! ;)

  8. Tried to comment before to say how wonderful I thought this was. Very nostalgic too! Hope this time I'm let on to the site

  9. As a child, and even more today, I never considered pants to *be* boys' clothes.

    Pants were comfortable clothes. Pants were what you wore for fun, or for an adventure. Dresses were for school and church and other formal occasions (which were unlikely to involve fun.)

    When I wear a pair of jeans and a sweater, I don't feel as if I'm cross-dressing...

  10. No, of course, because you're not cross dressing - and neither am I, wearing jeans and a sweater as I type. It's been ordinary wear for women for I don't know how many decades now. But when I was small, there was still a mildly rebellious frisson in eschewing the dresses and skirts your mother rather hoped you would wear. And for the heroines of historical novels, such as Trease's, it's anachronistic to routinely, as he does, put them in breeches. I enjoyed his books very much - but I might have enjoyed them even more, and felt better about myself as a girl, if some of his heroines had kept their skirts. There is no evidence whatsoever that his own examples, Olympia Morata and Marietta Strozzi, ever wore boys' clothes. Trease would have been truer to history and to female experience if he had followed their examples more closely and allowed his young readers, boys as well as girls, to recognise that girls AS girls could and did lead exciting lives. With regard to modern children's literature, of course things have changed. Cross dressing in modern fiction does not exist (girl to boy), but while I have no problem with the existence of kick-ass heroines like Katniss of 'The Hunger Games' or Tris of Virginia Roth's 'Divergent', I'm slightly concerned that the alternative to kick-ass martial-arts heroines appears to be the love-lorn Twilight brood.

    In my opinion, Olympia Morata beats them all, hands down.

  11. Yes! Yes! I love these two heroines you've found. I love Victorian plant-hunters climbing Tibetan mountains in skirts and petticoats. And I actually often don't really love kick-ass heroines. I'm uneasy with them because they can so easily end up just another male fantasy trope like Lara Croft - another way of devaluing female experience. (I know it's not always so, and it depends on how you define kick-ass of course.)

    Taking the topic in a slightly different direction - as far as I know, many of the women who famously dressed as men in history did so as much from a sense of self-preservation as to be able to escape traditional female roles and have adventures...

  12. Dr "James" Barry, anyone? ;-) By the way, speaking of girls following sweethearts into war, anyone read Terry Pratchett's delightful The Monstrous Regiment? It sent up the whole idea, when a girl disguises as a boy to find her brother in a war and discovers her entire group of soldiers is women disguised as men! It isn't giving away much; anyone who knows the full quote will get the joke.

  13. Oh I loved Monstrous Regiment, Sue - thankyou for reminding me -it's delightful!

  14. What an utterly brilliant post. I loved it! I adored the character of George when I was a girl, and my sister and I used to fight over who got to play her in our Famous Five games. I was the younger sibling and so my sister used to say that meant I had to be Anne - which I very much did not want to do. I also love Geoffrey Trease - I collect his books. I never minded the cross-dressing - Georgette Heyer has done it a few times too, and I always loved the subversiveness of it. I've also really enjoyed everyone's comments - such an interesting conversation. I have written heroines who dress like boys and fight with swords and gallop about on horses, and I have also written heroines who love to cook, or sew, or who are frightened of horses. I agree there can be as many different fictional portrayals of women as there are individuals.

  15. Yes, I think we do tend to undervalue other forms of courage - and perhaps not even recognise actions as being courageous - like Petrova in Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes going on stage when she clearly loathes it.

  16. I wonder what those fantastic, beautiful, daring, sensitive, fully -rounded human characters Dido Twite or Lyra Belacqua would have to contribute to this very interesting discussion?

    These are fictional heroines who transcend, ignore and outlive all of our prejudicial notions about what attributes and activities are deemed 'masculine' and 'feminine.'

    Until we cast off the chains of gender dualism and embrace the idea that all human attributes and expressions are equally available to all human beings, we will struggle in the chains of this false dichotomy.

    As writers, those of us who are, we do perhaps have a responsibility to populate the fictional landscape with more Didos and Lyras. That is to say, more heroines who are first and foremost multi-dimensional, fully developed characters engaged in their meaningful story-lives and for whom their sex is secondary. (I'm aware that Lyra's sex was essential to the plot of His Dark Materials, but it doesn't define her as a person).

    Just a thought.

    On reading certain novels that were important to me in the 70s to my own children, I was enlightened, delighted and saddened in equal measure by my daughter's despair at the 'Janes and Susans' as she calls them who always played secondary roles to 'Simons and Peters.'

    She has never complained about Dido or Lyra. There's a reason for that.

  17. Cat, I loved the fact that Petrova was interested in mechanics, in a novel written in the 1930s, and nobody told her she mustn't be.

    Good points you make, Austin! Sometimes a book you loved as a child doesn't stand up later. And sometimes it gives you a pleasant surprise, such as The Wizard Of Oz, which I reread as an adult and realised just how many good, strong interesting women it featured, starting with Dorothy herself. The Witches, good and evil alike, rule Oz(and Glinda has female soldiers serving her), while the Wizard is a carnival and con man from Omaha who needs other people to get his things for him.

  18. In my reading childhood years I enjoyed the girls in some of Violet needham's books, especially "the Woods of Windri" and "Pandora of Parham Royal". years later my daughter enjoyed them equally but thought that some of the boy characters were immensely feeble!

    I have just discovered your blog--it is wonderful.

    Erika W.

  19. Thankyou, Erika - and how lovely to meet someone else who knows and reads Violet Needham - I have a few and look out for them whenever I'm in a second hand bookshop.

  20. I do agree about us having attributes of both genders within us. I used to like fighting with my brother and running around with a gun, but I didn't want to be a boy, just to be equal with them. I just had lunch, today, with a Greenham woman, and we talked about the Peace Movement, and non-violent direct action, which I did a bit of. Dodging the Met to mark the outside of MOD on Ash Wednesday, going out at midnight to demonstrate against a Cruise missile convoy that had been tracked by activists, all the way to Salisbury Plain and back - throwing a pumpkin in a sack down in the road in front of the convoy so it had to stop to investigate it, then darting out to throw paint over it - this was Lynette, who I had lunch with - these are activities, fuelled by the deep conviction that we did not want the world to be blown up and made uninhabitable - which weren't about fighting, quite the opposite, but were about campaigning. Women going over the Greenham fence on ladders to dance on top of the missile silos - I could take up far too much space here, but Greenham surely was a way for women to be active and heroic without trying at all to be men. Whereas our then Prime Minister, though a woman, seemed determined to be an honorary man.

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