writers of historical fiction instinctively know that women readers are
looking for strong characters. These “sheros” that readers are seeking may not
be physically strong, but they have strong personalities (whether they openly display
their true feelings or mask them). Sheros have chutzpah. They don’t back
down from a challenge. These characters may experience fear or even terror, but
they don’t run away.
Women have displayed this grit throughout
history, even when their sphere of influence is severely limited, and little is
expected of them. Just think of how different our expectations are when we go
to the opera. Most of the great operas were created during the 19th
century and up through the early 20th century. The great heroines of
these epic romances usually end up dying of some dread but picturesque disease,
like Mimi in La Boheme or Violetta in La Traviata. Or they commit
suicide out of utter despair like poor Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly. Or
they are murdered like Gilda in Rigoletto or Nedda in Pagliacci.
Even the staunch Aida ends up sealed in a vault to die with her lover Radames.
We wouldn’t tolerate this nonsense
for a minute in our historical fiction! We’re not interested in a heroine who,
confronted with life’s many problems, melts away, dies, succumbs to depression
or allows herself to be done in by some man. If she must deal with a monumental
villain, we expect her to find a way to evade or outwit him, not pass out on a
We also expect her, as much as is
humanly possible, not to simply rely on a man to show up in a timely fashion
and get her out of whatever pickle she is in. No more Perils of Pauline
for us, where the cowboy arrives just in time to untie Pauline from the
railroad tracks before she is obliterated by a train.
I have a vivid childhood memory of the
old Flash Gordon serial in which the blonde, whom Flash loves, always stands in
a corner and screams when she is threatened. The brunette, on the other hand, daughter
of the series’ villain, is the smart one who helps Flash escape over and over.
But, of course, she’s not the one he wants. That helpless, fragile blonde
wouldn’t last for a single chapter in one of today’s novels. The real heroine
would either push her out of the way or teach her how to exhibit some spine.
One of my favorites in the pantheon
of strong heroines in historical fiction is Dr. Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese
Aguilar, heroine of the series of novels that begins with Mistress of the
Art of Death by Ariana Franklin (pen name for Diana Norman). Sent from
Salerno to England in 1170 to discover who is killing children in
Cambridgeshire, Adelia brooks no condescension from anyone, including the king.
King Henry II has asked for a Salerno doctor to come to his kingdom and solve a
mystery, never expecting a woman to show up.
Adelia is fearless. She takes a lover
and bears a child but refuses to marry, and, of course, she solves a series of
mysteries and identifies the guilty parties. She becomes a kind of Kay
Scarpetta of the 12th century, ferreting out the secrets of dead
Another in this pantheon of strong
women is the heroine of my novel A Noble Cunning. Bethan Glentaggart is
based on the true story of Winifred Maxwell, a persecuted Catholic noblewoman.
Bethan’s husband Gavin is condemned to die because of his participation in a
doomed rebellion against the first German king, George I. Most women in Bethan’s
situation were expected to accept their husband’s fate, say their farewells and
prepare to mourn. Bethan simply refuses to give in to this cruel fate. She
determines that she will somehow rescue her husband from the Tower of London by
devising a clever and complicated plot, and by relying on the aid of a small
group of devoted women friends.
When we read these stories of women
who overcame the limits of their situations and accomplished amazing feats,
it’s hard not to feel that, with all of our modern advantages, we ought to be
able to find a way to deal with our own difficulties.
Patricia Bernstein’s debut novel, A Noble Cunning: The Countess and
the Tower, was released by History Through Fiction on March 7, 2023. Upon release,
the book was a Semifinalist for a Chanticleer Award, reviewed by the Historical
Novel Society, and was on Hasty Book List’s Most Anticipated Historical
Novels of 2023.
Visit Patricia at www.patriciabernstein.com