Saturday, August 15, 2015

Feminism and Historical Fiction





In 1997, Anita Diamant's The Red Tent smeared historical fiction in menstrual blood. Women, especially Jewish women, read it breathless with recognition, awe, and sometimes, outrage and disgust. Little women, like myself, read it at midnight out of the bathroom cupboard, so our mothers wouldn't catch us (maybe that was just me). I don't remember men reading it. I don't remember conceiving of either historical fiction or women's fiction as genres before I read it, but after I read it and listened to the adults around me, I knew it to be both.

At the time, I didn't question that there were such genres as historical fiction and women's fiction, and Jewish fiction. I didn't question that the depiction in The Red Tent was grossly ahistorical. I loved it, but I knew our foremothers couldn't have worshipped pagan gods or held arcane rituals around their menstrual blood. The attack on Shechem could not have been about anything other than the rape of Dinah.

But I loved what Diamant had done. She took a character lost to history, a character defined by nothing other than a few lines in the Bible concerning her rape, and created her. She gave Dinah back her name, a voice, a history, and ironically, a future. It's not the name or history or voice or future of the real Dinah. We will never know. But Diamant illuminated the possibilities of Dinah's life before and after, between, those lines.

Even if the real Dinah was raped, who's to say she didn't go on to love, marry, have children, celebrate, thrive? Because of Diamant's book, the name "Dinah" no longer conjures terror. It conjures strength, love, the bond between mothers and daughters, and yes, some weird stuff about spending your period in a tent with other women.

Diamant's book also conjured a movement, at least to my '90s child mind. After The Red Tent came a succession of books based on Biblical women. Books on Sarah (2005) and Esther (The Gilded Chamber, 2005) come to my mind, and I have no doubt that Diamant cracked open the market for these books. And the flow has never ceased. Women are hungry for books about their forgotten or sidelined ancestors. We imagine them like us, in our image, women whose lives were less perfect and more complicated, more important than the male histories would have you believe. This creation in our own image has been criticized. These women are not our foremothers; they are modern women, critics argue. These situations are artificial, ahistorical. Who would really believe that women thousands of years ago would dare to manipulate men or control business, speak to their husbands, in such a way? It is only modern women who do that.

I used to think this was a strong point. I studied women like Elizabeth I and Catherine the Great, but I considered them the exception. Exceptionalism has dominated the rhetoric of studies about famous women. Joan of Arc is The Woman Soldier. Elizabeth I is The Female King. Madame Curie is The Woman Scientist. etc. etc. In college, I was introduced to Aemilia Lanyer. And I was so excited. Here was a woman poet, a "proto-feminist," a woman who published her work in her own time. Except, here was also Elizabeth Carey and Katherine Philips and Margaret Cavendish. Here was Isabella Whitney and Margery Kempe and Mary Sidney. And Lady Mary Wroth and Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley. Early modern England (and other places, that's just my area of expertise) was crawling with women writers. I've been reading more and more often about female artists in the same period. Women worked as midwives and real estate moguls (See: Bess of Hardwick) and actively participated in society. Why is that there's a modern amnesia about their accomplishments? Why was their work pushed aside, so successfully hidden and undermined? That's a question for a different day. But they were there. They existed. They always have.

We know from written records (Forman's diaries) that Aemilia Lanyer, for example, accepted favors from Forman but refused to fornicate with him ("halek" was his strange euphemism). Other women though, did "halek" for their own purposes. Sex and intrigue and adultery are not inventions of the twentieth century woman. So, yes, women operated under a system of oppression. But it was not exceptional for women to overcome this bias. And, yes, at least based on the evidence we have, it tended to be educated, middle-to-upper class women who were most likely to win renown in writing and the arts. Interestingly though, many of the women whose work has come down to us were struggling to retain their position in the middle or upper class echelons. The women who accomplished the most tended to be those on the edge, scrambling for patronage, not too proud to use their talents to support themselves.

A more recent work of historical fiction brought such a woman to my attention. The Creation of Eve (2010) by Lynn Cullen imagines a particular period in the life of Sofonisba Anguissola. Anguissola was an artist during the Italian Renaissance, whose work was well known in her own time. She famously studied under Michelangelo and later was hired by Philip II of Spain to teach drawing to his wife, Elisabeth of Valois.

The life of the historical Sofonisba is fascinating. She supported herself and gained renown through her art. She went on to marry twice and maintained her connections with the Spanish royalty and Italian nobility. Her paintings are, in my uneducated opinion, masterpieces. Her self-portraits show a thoughtful and playful nature: for example, her portrait of her mentor painting her comments on the nature of herself as an artist and a woman.



Yet, without Cullen, I would never have heard of her. This is where I think historical fiction, in the wake of The Red Tent, has come to serve an important feminist purpose. Historical fiction has become a realm where we can reclaim the lost lives of so many women who contributed to history and society, and whose contributions have long gone unrecognized. In the case of Anguissola, many of her paintings, during and after her lifetime, were attributed to contemporary male artists. The work of identifying her art continues, and not without controversy.

In fact, this is what inspired Cullen's novel. The title, The Creation of Eve, refers to a portrait known as "Lady in a Fur Wrap." The painting, attributed most often to El Greco but seriously disputed, also is of an unknown subject.



Cullen attributes the painting to Anguissola, and creates a rich if historically unlikely context for the portrait. Another feminist move in Cullen's text that is too rarely found in contemporary fiction is that the book, while it includes romance, it centers on a female-to-female friendship between Anguissola and her young student, the queen of Spain. Other remarkable moves in the text include not vilifying Philip II of Spain, a favorite scapegoat in Anglocentric texts, and fleshing out three other characters of the Spanish court: Philip's "mad" son Don Carlos, his illegitimate half-brother Don Juan of Austria, and his nephew Don Alessandro. In addition, Cullen creates a character for the grumpy lady-in-waiting who appears in a few of Anguissola's family portraits.

Historical fiction these days is often cast as "women's fiction" or "historical romance." Not that there's anything wrong with either of these later categories, but all three seem to be considered less-than in the literary world and canon. Even some self-proclaimed feminists look down on other women for reading romances and historical fiction, engaging with a supposedly patriarchal past, rather than engaging in the work of building an egalitarian future. Yet books that re-imagine the past can be considered to be doing at least two kinds of feminist work—showing us what might have been and amplifying the reality of our rich proto-feminist history.

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