Hilary Mantel is a brilliant writer. Her writing is so good that she’s just won the Booker prize for the second time, something that caused my mother as much pride as if it had been one of her own children. Her winning books are Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, both about the life of Thomas Cromwell and the fall of Anne Boleyn, which sexed up the English Reformation in a way that Horrible Histories could have only ever dreamed of. And yet, I can't help but notice one glaring issue with Mantel's presentation of the past: her protagonist invariably has to be a dude.
If a writer of historical fiction wants their book to be serious, and discussed by lots of academic people, they invariably choose a man to centre the whole thing around. There’s an assumption that in order for a book of this genre to be intellectually challenging and interesting, the main character has to be male. The argument most commonly used to make this acceptable is that women were stuck in limited, domestic roles in history, and it simply isn’t realistic to take them out of the four walls of the marital home and place them in the middle of an adventure. Men are better suited, because they were active in politics, religion and war. They didn’t have to worry about giving birth, or making the meals and running the house because they were far too important. Obviously.
For a woman to be interesting enough to become part of the plot, they have to be immediately placed in a sexual context. Look at the work of Philippa Gregory, who wrote The Virgin Queen about Elizabeth I. Except rather a lot of the book seems to revolve around Elizabeth and one of her courtiers, Robert Dudley. They have sex, which almost definitely never ever happened. Once they even do it in a barn, which is relayed in terms that definitely suggest being nicked straight out of the pages of a Mills and Boon scenario. Gregory concocted a sexual relationship in order to “liven up” the story of one of the most interesting queens England has ever had. But you know how many times Cromwell has sex in Wolf Hall? Suffice to say, I knew I wouldn’t turn the page and find him getting all hot and heavy while 'losing himself to the moment' on his way back from a meeting of the Privy Council.
If you need further convincing, take Elizabeth Chadwick’s Lady of the English. This book is about Empress Matilda, who is a definitely a woman who should have been the subject of a million prize-winning novels by now. She was the only heir to the English throne after her brother died in a shipwreck, but her cousin Stephen took the crown. She spent most of her life campaigning for her rightful place as Queen, only to realise that the nobility were too small-minded. She battled eleventh century patriarchy until Stephen died, probably out of sheer exhaustion, and she also, importantly, loathed her second husband Geoffrey, who was extremely violent and promiscuous. But how does Chadwick present their relationship? Does Matilda look at Geoffrey and feel afraid and trapped? No. She feels a “mingling of revulsion and desire.” Now, don’t get me wrong - I’m definitely familiar with this feeling. I get it when I leave Oceana at four in the morning and find myself gripping a box of chips. I would not get it if, just three chapters ago, I had sustained a black eye and some broken ribs. In the story of Matilda, Chadwick had a golden opportunity to portray her courage in overcoming domestic abuse in order to take on a medieval man’s world. Her book could have provided a potent message for modern day victims - or, at the very least, could have gifted Matilda with the agency that she actually had. But that obviously wouldn’t have been as popular as the fictional Matilda managing to orgasm every single time they slept together.
Novelists in this genre can do anything. They have the artistic license to free female characters from the limits they were subjected to when they were alive. Instead, they imagine trysts in barns or false pregnancies, limiting women to the same roles they hold in magazines today. They are endlessly portrayed as sexual objects and hysterical fools staring glibly out of stained glass before heading down to the barn; nothing more. And it is so important that this is changed, because historical fiction can illuminate the lives of incredible people.
While brave and inspirational women are being undermined, or rewritten, they may as well have been ignored altogether. They aren’t allowed to be the role models they should be, and because of that, we risk forgetting all about them - all in the name of a tussle in the hay.