The Woman’s Historical Novel: British Women Writers, 1900-2000

Written by Diana Wallace
Review by Sarah Cuthbertson

This timely, perceptive analysis gives a much-maligned genre its proper significance in the canon of English literature.

Diana Wallace sets out to show “that despite the extraordinary critical neglect of this area, the historical novel has been one of the most important genres for women writers and readers in the twentieth century. For very specific historical reasons…women writers turned to the historical novel at the beginning of the century, at a moment when male writers were moving away from the genre, with the result that it has come to be seen as a ‘feminine’ form, a view damagingly reinforced by its association with the ‘popular’.”

In Wallace’s view, women’s historical fiction has been not only a form of escapism but also a political tool and she shows how the two are, surprisingly, connected. For women, historical fiction has been a way of writing about taboo subjects or offering a critique of the present through the past. It has allowed women to “reinvent…the unrecorded lives of marginalised or subordinated people.” And it enabled post-WWI university-educated historians such as H F M Prescott and D K Broster, whose academic careers were blocked by sexism, to continue their explorations of history.

Wallace develops her ideas in eight closely-argued chronological chapters, each covering a decade or so. The years between 1900 and 1929 saw women becoming full citizens with the vote and access to higher education, keen to understand women’s place in history, and expressing disillusionment with imperialism, particularly in Naomi Mitchison’s novels of ancient Greece and Rome. Economic depression and the rise of Fascism in the 1930s led women writers to become preoccupied with defeat — in the present and as a warning to the future. Here Wallace cites Phyllis Bentley’s Freedom, Farewell, set in Caesar’s Rome, and Rose Macaulay’s Civil War novel, They Were Defeated. In the 1940s reading became important as escapism, with highly-coloured novels like Forever Amber and Georgette Heyer’s Arabella. There was also a revolt against the limitations of gender roles, and a preoccupation with invasion in novels such as Hope Muntz’s The Golden Warrior. Wallace sees 1950s historical fiction examining the damaging effects of traditional notions of masculinity in the face of two world wars (Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Flint Anchor, Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel). The most sympathetic male characters in 1950s historical fiction were men somehow ‘unmasculine’, either physically damaged like Robert Aske in H F M Prescott’s The Man on a Donkey, or homosexual like the Greek protagonists in the novels of Mary Renault. The 1960s saw the downgrading of women’s historical fiction by association with the rise of paperback “pulp” fiction, yet this was also a golden age of Renault, Dunnett, Sutcliff, Bryher, Iris Murdoch and Rebecca West. Bryher’s This January Tale, for example, reflected cold-war and Vietnam-era anxieties about history repeating itself in destructive cycles. The feminist 1970s saw the rise of the “bodice-ripper” and the highly marketable “brand-name” genres such as Mills & Boon and Catherine Cookson, although critics argue that this is not as ironic as it seems. However, the 1980s and 1990s saw a revival of the serious, “literary” woman’s historical novel, part of a general resurgence of historical fiction.

Fascinating as it is to follow Wallace’s ideas, the star parts of her book for me are the in-depth treatments of selected authors (some undeservedly neglected): Georgette Heyer, Naomi Mitchison, Phyllis Bentley, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Daphne du Maurier, Margaret Irwin, Mary Renault, H F M Prescott, Jean Plaidy/Victoria Holt, Dorothy Dunnett, Catherine Cookson, Mary Stewart, Philippa Gregory, Rose Tremain and Jeanette Winterson.