Today's guest writer is Mary Sharratt. She is the author of many best-selling novels, including Illuminations, The Dark Lady's Mask, and Daughters of the Witching Hill. She has recently published Ecstasy, a novel about Gustav Mahler's wife, Alma. Mrs. Sharratt writes about her motivation behind her biographical novels, and celebrates the lives of often forgotten or overlooked women in history. I hope you enjoy this insightful article about rediscovering and writing about the lives of some fascinating women! Thank you, Mrs. Sharratt, for taking the time for writing this article!
Writing Women Back into History
by Mary Sharratt
I’m on a mission to write overlooked women back into history, because, to a large extent, women have been written out of history. Those who did stand out and seize their power are often the most maligned. As Laurel Thatcher Ulrich observed, well behaved women seldom make history.
History was always my favorite subject in school. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t intrigued by the past, especially the history of women and ordinary people, as opposed to the elite.
The most fascinating course I took in college was taught by Professor Annette Kuhn about women and pre-industrial capitalism that expanded on J. Kelly Gadol’s landmark essay, “Did Women Have a Renaissance?” While elite were experiencing a Renaissance, women were the targets of mass witch-hunting hysteria that swept across Continental Europe, eventually reaching the British Isles, and colonial America. I dreamed about going to graduate school and making women’s history my lifework. Instead I went to Austria on a Fulbright teaching fellowship, got married, and moved to Munich, Germany.
Rather than pursuing graduate studies and becoming an academic historian, I began to write historical fiction about women in the past. My first three books tell the stories of purely fictional, made up heroines, yet I based my fiction on meticulous research. However, certain critics, who were not themselves historians and hadn’t done the thorough research I had done, accused me, rather predictably, of anachronistic portrayals of women. Too often people base their perceptions of women in the past on lazy and inaccurate assumptions. My heroines simply didn’t seem meek, submissive, and resigned enough for them.
I became so annoyed with this general ignorance that I elected to henceforward write biographical fiction, drawn from the lives of real women with documented primary sources to back me up. This way, if someone accused me of inaccuracy or anachronism, I could present the facts. Then I discovered that when it comes to women and history, you really can’t make this stuff up. Documented history is a lot more surprising, weird, and wonderful than purely invented fiction can ever be.
In my novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill, my first work of biographical fiction, I delved deep into the lives of 17th century Lancashire cunning women and recusant Catholics accused of witchcraft. In Illuminations, I explored the life of twelfth century visionary abbess, composer, and powerfrau, Hildegard of Bingen. In The Dark Lady’s Mask, I tell the tale of Renaissance poet Aemilia Bassano Lanier, the first woman in England to aspire to earn her living as a professional poet and who may have been the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. My new novel Ecstasy is about composer and life artist Alma Schindler Mahler. Alma has really been dragged through the muck by some biographers, so I wanted to rescue her from the man-eating femme fatale clichés.
In my opinion novelists have a much for challenging task than biographers, because we can’t just dish out the dirt about our subject. We need to make them sympathetic to the reader, make the reader care and understand why they made the choices they did. We need to “unpack” our historical heroine for the reader, which was especially challenging with Hildegard—I needed to make her visions and very complex theology comprehensible to modern secular readers. Above all I endeavour to make my historical heroines accessible to people today so they feel they can really understand this figure, her life, her motivations, and her beliefs.
Women have been pushed to the margins of history. With my fiction, I seek to bring them center stage and make them the center of their own stories. Academic adoption can be a fun way to learn about history and complex figures like Hildegard and Alma. I was deeply honored to learn that Texas Christian University has adopted my Hildegard novel, Illuminations, as academic course material. Reading a well-researched historical novel can be a very good starting point in learning about a historical figure—it’s less intimidating than dry scholarly tomes. Most importantly good historical fiction can and does serve as a springboard for readers—if they loved the fictional version of this figure, they can then go on to investigate those scholarly sources. They can dive deep in the research and form their own opinions and conclusions about this person. Perhaps they might even emerge with the spark of an idea for a book of their own.
About the Author:
MARY SHARRATT is an American writer who has lived in the Pendle region of Lancashire, England, for the past seven years. The author of the critically acclaimed novels Summit Avenue, The Real Minerva, and The Vanishing Point, Sharratt is also the co-editor of the subversive fiction anthology Bitch Lit, a celebration of female antiheroes, strong women who break all the rules.
Her novels include Summit Avenue, The Real Minera, The Vanishing Point, The Daughters of Witching Hill, Illuminations, and The Dark Lady's Mask.
Also check out my review of Mary Sharratt's novel: