One of the things I learnt from Writing Historical Fiction, the book I reviewed in my last article, was that there is a puzzling – not to say disturbing – visual cliche on the cover of a surprisingly large number of books of historical fiction which have a woman as protagonist. Celia Brayfield writes about what she calls “the headless woman” phenomenon on pages 50 through 53 of the book. It’s not just that women’s heads are lopped off, they can also be hidden, turned away or blacked out. It’s difficult to know what goes through the heads of publisher’s art directors when they make this choice. Brayfield uses this as one illustration of “the tensions that an author has to resolve when creating a female protagonist in a historical novel”. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what she means – not that I misunderstand her words, but I don’t understand how the headless women illustrates what she wants to say.
My gut interpretation is that publishers’ art directors assume that these books will most appeal to women, that they assume women read historical fiction to vicariously experience life in another time, and that if the face of the heroine is unidentifiable it makes it easier for the reader to identify herself as the heroine. I’m not saying I believe this to be the truth myself, but it’s the only interpretation I can find that seems to make sense. Because it is absolutely true that an astonishing number of novels of historical fiction with female protagonists are illustrated on their front covers by women whose faces are invisible.
The five book covers I’m using to illustrate this article were taken from the first few pages of Amazon UK’s current historical fiction lists. I picked the ones that seemed more or less “Tudor” but I could have included others from earlier and later historical epochs. Not all books with female protagonists set in historical contexts are illustrated like this, and there are a few (a very few) books where a male protagonist is similarly illustrated, but the broad tendency is very obvious.
What this cliche illustrates unintentionally (and I think this may be what Celia Brayfield is getting at too) is the way that women’s lives and experiences have for centuries been ignored – hidden – in history books. When I first came across Elin’s story, which forms the core of the novel I am myself attempting to write, I was astounded that I had never heard of it before. A young woman travels from Sweden to England in the 1560s, becomes a Lady in Waiting at the court of Queen Elizabeth I, marries the Queen’s step-uncle and ends up as the senior English female aristocrat and mourner at Elizabeth’s funeral in 1603. When I looked in the sources, I found her, but as I had studied Tudor history at school and at university I couldn’t understand why I was learning about this only for the first time. More than anything else, discovering Elin’s story made real for me the criticisms feminist historians have been making for years about the way in which history has been distorted by male historians.
It also illustrated what I had been teaching in my periods as a history teacher: that the history we know is the story that was told to us; that everybody – even the most well-intentioned and scrupulously balanced historian – is prejudiced in some degree and allows their prejudice to influence the story they tell; that everybody ought to be wary of prejudice – of the prejudice others and of their own prejudices; that there is so much more in the source material; and that every generation comes to the same material with new questions, new perspectives and new interpretations, and comes away with new stories.
And you can – should – apply this thinking to stories in the news and the tales you are told by people around you as much as to stories from history.
Not sure how much of that came across – here, now, or to my students back then – but I live in hope.
This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.