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 fainting couch.
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 bodies.
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
Endorsed by NYT bestselling historical novelists Kathleen Kent and Karen Brooks comes a debut novel from award-winning nonfiction author Patricia Bernstein.
Based on a true story, something happened only once in Tower of London history as a consequence of one woman’s bravery.
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Read an excerpt.
Native Texan Patricia Bernstein grew up in Dallas. After earning a Degree of Distinction in American Studies from Smith College, she founded her public relations agency in Houston.
In 2018, her third book was named a Finalist for an award from the Texas Institute of Letters. The Austin American Statesman named the book to a list of fifty-three of the best books ever written about Texas. Patricia's nonfiction is previously published by Simon & Schuster and Texas A&M University Press.
Patricia lives in Houston with her husband, journalist Alan Bernstein, where she pursues another great artistic love, singing with Opera in the Heights and other organizations. She also basks in the glory of her three amazing daughters. A Noble Cunning is Patricia Bernstein's debut novel.