I have a horrible memory. Especially for dates and details. As a student, tests that required memorization made my hands ache from writing and rewriting facts on paper until they were lodged in my head for, at most, forty eight hours when they faded into the recesses of my brain. But certain things have stuck with me for years, words I read in books that took me back in time. Books that portrayed history through the eyes of unforgettable characters like Laura Ingalls Wilder (Little House on the Prairie), Scout Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird), Jo March (Little Women), Ann Shirley (Ann of Green Gables) and Francie Nolan (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn). These female protagonists are strong, insightful, precocious, resourceful, and flawed.
Kay E. Vandergrift, Rutgers University professor, aptly writes in Female Protagonists and Beyond, “Through literature, young people can become familiar with aspects of history absent in most school curricula and with a literary canon that affirms women’s lives and represents female heroes independent of the male model.”
These female protagonists do become heroes for me, and their flaws are what interest me the most, Laura’s jealousy of her older sister, Scout’s impulsiveness, and Ann’s knack for getting in trouble. Their imperfections made these characters real, relatable and memorable, and their stories shaped my own writing, nudged me towards historical fiction, towards creating Rachel, my strong-willed protagonist in The Rachel Trilogy. I continue to read historical fiction, and have seen some compelling books within this genre in recent years, with female characters sure to resonate with readers for generations.
While historical fiction as a genre can be traced back to the 1300s with Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale, set in ancient Thebes and Athens, stories with female protagonists came along much later. Moll Flanders, by Daniel Defoe, published in 1722, reveals a woman with severe ethical shortcomings, a woman more flawed and immoral than most. Yet Moll’s strong voice in this fictional memoir, which offers readers a disturbing yet accurate look at life in the bleak eighteenth century, make her somehow likeable and most definitely unforgettable.
Set in 1700s London, England, Moll Flanders takes the reader from her birth (to a mother who is a convicted criminal), to her youth where she is a prostitute, through five marriages (one to her half-brother), to her years as a thief, into old age where she finally lives an honest, repentant life. Clearly, Moll is not a virtuous character; instead, she is a victim of circumstance, a person born into dire conditions who spends her entire life trying to survive a harsh, unforgiving world. What makes her so likeable, is her ability to say it like it is, to speak frankly: “I am giving an account of what was, not of what ought or ought not to be.”
Through Moll’s eyes, we see how survival as a poor uneducated woman at the time meant resorting to prostitution and marrying unsavory men. For all of her faults and mistakes, Moll is strong and never gives up on herself. “Hope comes to the young as naturally as the spring rains.”
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, is another example of historical fiction with a female protagonist who has been immortalized in movies and television: Elizabeth Bennett. Published in 1813, it is set in nineteenth century England and deals with a number of timely themes including manners, morality and marriage. Elizabeth, an intelligent, witty and judgemental girl of twenty, has become an indelible character in literature because of her fierce loyalty to her family and her tumultuous relationship with Mr. Darcy. Unlike her sisters, and many women of the day, Elizabeth is not willing to compromise her feelings in order to get married. “A lady’s imagination is very rapid; it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony, in a moment.”
Pride and Prejudice takes place in England, like Moll Flanders, about a hundred years later and worlds apart when it comes to setting. While Moll Flanders exists in the slums of London, amongst shady characters and dismal surroundings, Elizabeth Bennett lives in a large, well-appointed home in the country. Her biggest problem is that when her father dies, their estate will go to a distant cousin since her father has no male heirs. Her mother, a foolish woman, wants Elizabeth to marry this cousin, in order to keep the estate, but her father, a prudent man who values Elizabeth’s intelligence, advises his daughter to defy convention and do no such thing:
“An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.”
Through Elizabeth, we see how wealthy people of the day lived. Formal dinners and dances, walks through fields and woods, evenings spent by the fire listening to music and playing card games. We see their beautiful gowns, elaborate meals, and rooms filled with ornate furniture and paintings. Like Defoe, Austen successfully re-creates a world in the past, a place that no longer exists, and shows us what it was like to live there as a woman.
The beginnings of feminism are seen in Jane Eyre, published by Charlotte Bronte in 1847. Jane Eyre grows up poor, as an orphan in England. She is raised in an orphanage and becomes a governess in a wealthy family; as her world merges with Mr. Rochester’s, we see the extent of the patriarchal society which thrived at the time. Jane is constantly thrust into subordinate roles and, as a woman, is not encouraged to speak her own thoughts and feelings. Jane, a strong, independent woman, eschews this inequality and sees herself as equal to men. She refuses to marry for the sake of convention, to be trapped in a loveless union:
“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.”
. The gloominess of life for a servant in the 1800s is vividly depicted through Jane’s eyes. Her world is oppressive with no change for the better in sight, yet Jane is strong and independent, and at times, like Moll Flanders, hopeful: “Even for me life had its gleams of sunshine.”
Though Laura Ingalls Wilder did not start publishing her Little House books until 1932, almost two hundred years after Moll Flanders, they happened to be the first historical fiction books I read. And as a recent immigrant to the United States from Canada, these books introduced me to the cultural history of Midwestern America. They marked the start of my love for the genre and for remarkable female characters. Thanks to Laura, I learned how pioneers harvested sap and made maple syrup, how they smoked meat, churned butter, washed clothes, built houses, cooked food, sewed dresses. I also saw the difficulties of travelling by horse and wagon, what it was like to come face-to-face with an American Indian, how children were educated, and how church united people once a week. And I came to understand the importance of small gifts of time and music.
“When the fiddle had stopped singing Laura called out softly, “What are days of auld lang syne, Pa?”
“They are the days of a long time ago, Laura,” Pa said. “Go to sleep, now.”
But Laura lay awake a little while, listening to Pa’s fiddle softly playing and to the lonely sound of the wind in the Big Woods,…
She was glad that the cozy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.”
I knew Laura so well from reading these books, I counted her as a friend. When I went to the grocery store with my mother, I would see butter and remember how much time it took Laura’s family to make it, so plentiful and easy for my family to buy. At Christmas, as I opened my many presents, I thought about Laura and how a piece of candy, a pair of mittens knit by her mother, and an orange would be her only gifts, and how much she treasured them for the love that had gone into them. Laura made me look at myself from the outside in. Her carefully written stories have preserved a moment in time in a way that textbooks cannot.
When I was in middle school in Illinois, I read To Kill a Mockingbird set in Alabama in the 1930’s. Scout Finch introduced me to racism and showed me the tragic consequences of hatred. Like Scout, I was a tomboy with short hair who refused to wear dresses or skirts. And like Scout, seeing Tom Robinson found guilty of a crime because of the color of his skin, made me lose my innocence, my naivety when it came to right and wrong, black and white.
“It occurred to me that in their own way, Tom Robinson’s manners were as good as Atticus’s. Until my father explained it to me later, I did not understand the subtlety of Tom’s predicament: he would not have dared strike a white woman under any circumstances and expect to live long, so he took the first opportunity to run—a sure sign of guilt.”
Reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird showed me what it was like to live in the south during the Depression, to have nothing extra, to be paid in food because people had no money, to live alongside blacks, despised for the color of their skin, to grow up amidst ignorance and oppressive heat: “Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum. People moved slowly then. They ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of stores around it, took their time about everything. A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with…”
For me, To Kill a Mockingbird is quintessential historical fiction with an unforgettable female protagonist. Lee’s setting is so distinct, you can see it in your mind, the sleepy town of Maycomb on a blistering day. Scout’s voice is so authentic you see what she sees, feel what she feels. To read this novel is to immerse yourself in this difficult time and place, to see history come alive, to know that the past means more than a timeline of dates and events.
More recently, we have Liesel in The Book Thief, Annemarie in Number the Stars, Marie and Antoinette in The Painted Girls, Sarah in Sarah’s Key, and Rachel Paskar in Rachel’s Secret and Rachel’s Promise. To Kill a Mockingbird, The Book Thief and Sarah’s Key have been made into movies, reflecting their popularity with readers and instilling in me the confidence that historical fiction will continue to thrive, as long as there are characters able to bring the past to life, to make history exciting and unforgettable. Which is good news for people like me, with no memory for just the facts.