The Female in Historical Fiction

Please refer back to my previous post, “The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue,” for further context.

Two weeks ago, I reviewed “The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue,” a historical fiction novel written by creative genius, Mackenzi Lee. In the 797 words of my review, I summarized my feelings from when I first consumed the story; I summarized how Lee’s transition from generally stereotypical, slightly bland descriptions of events at the start of the novel to robust backstories and elaborately intertwined plot lines at the novel’s close resulted in the dynamic characterization of three fictional youth. I discussed Monty, the angsty protagonist, and Percy, his best friend and forbidden love interest. This post is reserved for that third missing character, Felicity.

Felicity is feminism; never has a symbol stood out so clearly to me in a novel. In Felicity’s entrance into the novel, her bickers with her brother, Monty, show that she is anything but submissive. She is a female in the early 1700s, yet she acknowledges she has talents and deserves rights. She will not stand down to her brother and, while she’ll accept her place when necessary to avoid punishment, remains her own person. For example, despite being born female, she desires to learn medicine. She teaches herself by reading anatomy books disguised by the covers of trashy romantic novels. She studies medicine on her own time to the ignorance of all around her, until, that is, her medical expertise is needed. Seeing this strong female character in a historical fiction novel is refreshing.

The most forthcoming historical fiction female characters I have to compare her to are those found in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie,” a book I am currently trudging through in my children’s literature course. The differences between characters in these novels raise many questions. Wilder’s girls, especially Ma and Mary, are the epitome of submissiveness. Is this the personality of the girls, the actual prominent female behavior of the time, or a result of the didactic style Wilder writes in? In contrast, Mackenzie Lee writes about humanity realistically. Rather than trying to teach people how to behave through the good behavior of characters in her novel, Lee provokes thought through her characters’ mistakes. To the fans of The Little House books, you may try to defend the series by citing Laura, a playful young thing who doesn’t always do as she’s told. To this I counter her very young age, not her views of societal placement, are responsible. Perhaps Felicity simply possesses a more confident personality than the girls in this other historical novel; perhaps views of women grew harsher between the time these books take place; perhaps Lee more accurately delved into female rebellion by writing realistically instead of as a means to teach young children lessons; or, perhaps, Lee is able to write about a strong female character because she writes in a time where she herself feels empowered.

Felicity’s progressiveness is further emphasized in a scene where she addresses Monty concerning his sexuality. She doesn’t understand why he “lays with lads,” but she tries to. Is this realistic to the time period? I don’t think so (although it could be). I find it hard to believe that several hundred years ago, social and religious opinion would have been lenient enough for her to come to the independent conclusion that her brother’s sexuality doesn’t change his goodness, especially considering that homosexual acts were punishable by death in much of Europe at this time. Granted, there was no vocabulary to discuss sexual identity in the eighteenth century. Perhaps, then, sexuality wasn’t prominent in her interactions, meaning she didn’t know the full extent of societal bias. This subject requires further research. Luckily, Mackenzi Lee makes starting this process easy through one of her most ingenious features in “The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue:” a historical fact-check at the end of the novel.

Felicity is not submissive, explores a subject forbidden to women at this time (medicine), and is progressively open to her brother’s sexuality. She is a strong female character that many novels, particularly in the realm of historical fiction, lack.

For now, I hope you take away the following: an intrigue into how females have been portrayed in historical fiction novels and a curiosity surrounding historical accuracy in the portrayal of fictional characters.



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About the Author

Melissa Martin is a sophomore at UNCC pursuing dual degrees in psychology and English. Her talents include eating multiple Cosmic Brownies a day without tiring of them and slipping the word “incredible” into every conversation. She is incredibly fond of her friends, family, and reading.