Queens, Courtesans, and Warrior Maidens
I relate this touching anecdote because Doreen's post got me thinking about the ways in which historical fiction and feminism interweave. The conventional histories (much as I love them) tend to focus on the conventional narrative, a narrative of battles and parliaments, warriors and statesmen, fields in which women, for obvious reasons, play a lesser role. Historical fiction, on the other hand, has always been a place where a heroine can shine. Throughout my early teens, my heroine and role model was Caroline of Ansbach, the canny Queen Consort of George II, educated by Liebniz, crony of Walpole, de facto ruler of England. And why? Because Jean Plaidy had written a novel about her. Otherwise, she was little more than a footnote in an account of the Walpole years.
Both historical fiction and historical romance (the line is notoriously blurry) provide a means for shining the spotlight on the spunky women of the past, whether they were queens or courtesans and in so doing reshape our notions of women's roles in the historical narrative. I’ve found this to be especially true in the book on which I am currently working, set in India in 1804. I had very firm ideas about purdah and that sort of thing. And then I started researching. There was Begum Sumroo, who began her life as a dancing girl and rose to rule her own state, leading her own troops into battle against the British during the Mahratta Wars (she apparently retained the power to fascinate well into old age, wowing the men sent to negotiate a treaty of surrender). In Hyderabad, where my story is set, I found the courtesan Mah Laqa Bai, who was considered the foremost poet of her age and so respected for her wisdom that she was elevated to the Nizam’s council of advisors. The Nizam also employed an all-female regiment of soldiers, the Zuffur Plutun, or “Glorious Battalion”, commanded by female generals, Mama Champa and Mama Barun. These formidable ladies also served as his masters of ceremonies at court. Mama Champa began her career as the Nizam’s nurse, but, in the words of a contemporary chronicler, “As she was very intelligent, therefore his Highness of Illuminated Glory entrusted many of the works of state to her.”
That does rather belie the conventional image, doesn’t it? Nothing annoys me more than sweeping statements about the oppressed state of women prior to our enlightened modern era. Far from being counter-feminist, historical fiction and historical romance remind us that women have always played a rousing role in world affairs, whether it’s Joan of Arc or the spunky girl who helped James, Duke of York, escape from Cromwell (dressed in one of her gowns-- James must have loved that), or the warrior maidens of the Zuffur Plutun.