Poster from Diary of a Lost Girl (G.W. Pabst, 1929)
ONCE UPON A TIME, women's lives might have been fodder for fairy tales, but they weren't considered the stuff of serious scholarship. That changed when affirmative action made higher education accessible to unprecedented numbers of students of color and white women. The newly arrived students clamored for content that reflected their experiences, and the experiences of the communities from which they came. Not finding what they sought, these newcomers dedicated themselves to doing the work necessary to broaden canon and curriculum. Today, that project has largely been forgotten, the struggle subsumed by the abundance of books about women's lives. But in a not-so-happily-ever-after twist, historical fiction about women has come to stand in for feminist history — a phenomenon that as a feminist scholar and an author of historical fiction I find especially troubling.
In 1985, Sherley Anne Williams wrote, "I loved history as a child, until some clear-eyed young Negro pointed out, quite rightly, that there was no place in the American past I could go and be free." The line appears in the "Author's Note" prefacing her novel Dessa Rose. The narrative begins with the eponymous protagonist enslaved, pregnant, and sentenced to execution for her part in a slave uprising. Williams took her inspiration from a real-life incident that occurred in Kentucky in 1829, in which a pregnant woman convicted of leading an attempted revolt was kept alive until her child was born; she was then hanged. The fictional Dessa, however, escapes from jail and evades capture, forging an unlikely bond with a white woman whose husband owns slaves. In giving voice to this imagined protagonist, Williams insisted, she used fiction to forge a place in history for herself as a black woman: "This novel, then, is fiction; all the characters, even the country they travel through, while based on fact, are inventions. And what is here is as true as if I myself had lived it."
Such blurred lines between fact and fiction run deep in African American women's writing. Fictionalized character and place names appear throughout what is probably the best-known female-authored slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. When Incidents was initially published in 1861, it was attributed to a pseudonymous author, Linda Brent. Despite the importance the imprimatur of truth gave to any account intended to convince readers of the horrors of slavery, the author of Incidents chose to alter details to protect herself from public judgment regarding "Linda's" choice — and it is clearly depicted as a choice, albeit one made within the stark limitations of enslavement — to bear children out of wedlock.
Well into the late twentieth-century, scholars presumed that Incidents was a fictional text, likely written by the white abolitionist Lydia Maria Child. In 1987, after six years of assiduous archival research by literary historian Jean Fagan Yellin, Harvard University Press reissued Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, substantiating the factual basis of the account and identifying the author-protagonist as Harriet Jacobs. The Harvard edition was groundbreaking, underscoring the vast potential of the field of women's history. The volume included a scholarly introduction by Yellin; footnotes providing historical documentation for the 1861 text; maps and floor plans of the places depicted in the narrative; and photographs of and correspondence from Jacobs and other black and white figures who appear in or were in other ways connected to the initial publication of Incidents. By verifying the veracity of Incidents, the new edition created a space for Jacobs in the literary canon. Following Yellin's example, feminist historians could begin to uncover that place in history for which Williams so eloquently longed.
The near concurrence of the publication of Williams's novel and Yellin's recuperative edition of Jacobs’s narrative was no accident. Both women were among the early affirmative action beneficiaries, becoming professors at the University of California at San Diego and Pace University, respectively. Dessa Rose and the Harvard edition of Incidents are representative of a broad range of creative and scholarly works published to challenge definitions of canon and curriculum that obscured women's stories.
In 1986, the year Williams's book was published and Yellin's was under final revisions, I graduated from high school, having learned nothing of women's history beyond one brief primary grade reference to Rosa Parks and what I gleaned from a biography of Girl Scouts founder Juliet Gordon Low that I chose for a second-grade book report. Perhaps women authors were somewhat better represented in my K-12 English classes, although all the readings and assignments I remember focused on male writers.
Many of the courses I initially took as an undergraduate repeated this lacuna, but — hungry for what Williams, Yellin, and others like them were doing — I sought out the few courses focusing specifically on women's history or women writers. After majoring in American history and literature, I continued on to graduate school, selecting programs that already boasted particular strengths in feminist theory and criticism and in ethnic literature. I intended to write the kind of books that would build on what the earlier generation of feminist scholars had done.
And I did, in a way. While researching my dissertation, I came across a reference to Mary Bowser in A Shining Thread of Hope: The History of Black Women in America, a 1998 book co-authored by Darlene Clark Hine, then a history professor at Michigan State University, and feminist writer Kathleen Thompson. Born into slavery in Richmond, Virginia, Bowser was freed and sent to the North to be educated, only to return to the South, where, during the Civil War, she posed as a slave in the Confederate White House to spy on behalf of the Union. The three astonishing paragraphs about Bowser in Shining Thread illuminated both how women shaped American history, and how race and class shaped American women's experience.
Like Williams, I was intrigued enough by the historic fact to want to imagine the life of this woman who was first slave and then free, and to recount it in a way that could open up a place in the American past. Like Yellin, I devoted myself to researching the period and the people with whom this little-known woman interacted, tracking everything from architectural spaces to correspondences and journal entries. Ultimately, the book I wrote, The Secrets of Mary Bowser, stands closer to Williams’s novel than to Yellin's scholarly edition of Jacobs's slave narrative. This was as much a matter of circumstance as it was of authorial preference: as intriguing as Bowser's life is, the historical record yields too few specifics about her for a book-length biography.
As it turned out, however, fictionalizing Bowser's life offered something any author might value: a far wider readership. Historical novels about women's lives are ever popular — histories of women far less so. Indeed, it's difficult to name a bestselling work of nonfiction focusing on women's history. While Kathryn Stockett's novel The Help easily dominated bestseller lists for three years, the closest one could get to a bestselling biography of a black woman was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a publishing success due in no small part to author Rebecca Skloot's relentless and unapologetic marketing of the book, which began long before it went to press.
Turning to a genre that will reach a broad audience might seem an efficacious strategy for an author whose goal is to deepen awareness of women's history. Soon after The Secrets of Mary Bowser was published, the moderator of a book festival panel opened the conversation with me and my co-panelists by saying, "There is such pluck and courage to be found in all three of [your protagonists'] stories. As a starting place, I am interested in us looking at the personal and political, the political and the personal, and how they intertwine." Pluck here seemed to speak to the quality embodied by the women about whom feminists of Willliams's and Yellin's generation wrote. But as much as I admire pluck in a person, or even in a literary character, when we indulge this desire for plucky heroines we risk seriously misrepresenting the past.
This risk becomes especially apparent as themes emerge across historical novels. Over the past few years, I've encountered books with settings that range from sixteenth-century Italy to seventeenth-century England to eighteenth-century New England to nineteenth-century Washington, all of which share a basic premise: the protagonist is a woman whose role as a healer distinguishes her, and prompts her to undertake an amazing journey (sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively). Although it's not entirely inaccurate to claim that women served as caregivers and providers of herbal medicine in earlier eras, the premise has become enough of a staple of recent historical fiction that one might wonder how, if all these women were healers, anyone was left to be sick. The plethora of women healers in historical fiction seems analogous to the phenomenon common in past-life regression: everyone was royalty in a previous life; no one was a serf.
It's no crime, of course, to create a protagonist who is exceptional. But the exceptionality of a plucky protagonist can imply that it's pluck — rather than systemic factors of race, class, and gender — that determines one's narrative trajectory, whether on the page or in real life. As someone whose research and writing focus on race, I'm amazed at how often in popular historical fiction characters of color appear only to advance the trajectory of the plucky white protagonist, even in books that are positioned as celebrating a multiculturalist history.
Some might argue that I'm holding historical fiction to too high a standard. These are only novels, after all. Purely pleasure reading. But in the months since The Secrets of Mary Bowser was published, I've heard repeatedly from delightedly edified readers that historical fiction is the only way they learn history. That readers are hungry for historical fiction about daring women speaks to the success of Williams’s, Yellin’s, and their fellow feminists’ efforts: their project of historical recuperation and canon expansion exposed the ample material for books about women's lives, while concomitantly cultivating an audience for such books.
Yet this hardly marks the triumph of feminism.
As everyone who's ever heard a fairy tale knows, just because a story is about a woman, doesn't make it feminist. Although I don't want to advance an absolute definition of feminist fiction, nor would I want to advocate for some formulaic approach to creating feminist narratives, it's important to recognize that individual pluck doesn't automatically translate to equality or even true independence. Indeed, the discomfiting truth is that while the literary marketplace happily supplies historicals to appeal to female readers—far and away the biggest consumers of adult fiction—there's no great avidity from mainstream publishers to frame a novel as feminist. Quite the opposite, as I noticed while my team at HarperCollins/William Morrow and I were finalizing the title for my book. Of the top ten bestsellers on the hardcover and paperback lists that week, two had "wife" in the title, and two others had "girl." Also popular, though not among the top ten at that particular time, are titles that use "daughter." Plucky heroines apparently seem most appealing when there's no suggestion that, rather than being someone else's spouse or offspring, they might be independent figures in their own right.
We've come a long way since the days in which women's lives were considered outside the realm of serious scholarship. Yet I doubt that Williams, Yellin, and other feminists of their generation could have imagined what success might look like: the desire to read about women has flourished to the point that it can actually undermine rigorous history — even when it comes to nonfiction, as the case of Mary Bowser reveals. Although Bowser's astounding intelligence work remains unknown to most Americans, those who've written about her often indulge an enthusiasm to celebrate her plucky exploits —and what they reveal about how gender, race, and class function in America — at the expense of accuracy. Thus, although her espionage is described in a steadily increasing number of history books and online, in sources ranging from the African American National Biography at Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Center to the CIA website, nearly all of these accounts repeat inaccurate, or at least unsubstantiated, claims about Bowser.
I addressed these inaccurate accounts in "A Black Spy in the Confederate White House," which appeared in Disunion, the New York Times' interactive coverage of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. The article presents new research on Bowser's life, tracing the extent to which Bowser herself prevaricated about her story as she carefully constructed a public persona she found efficacious. I conclude the article by noting that "the lessons she offers us may be about the limitations of history, and the power of invention." It's a useful argument for a novelist to make about her subject, of course. But what I find most disturbing in this particular blurring between fact and fiction is that as a novelist I've done more original research on Bowser than nearly all the historians who write about her, including authors of new nonfiction books that came out around the same time as my novel.
This isn't just a matter of clearing my protagonist's name. Rather, it's a concern about what it means to balance historical research with fiction writing, a balance that any author of historical novels must strike. Readers tell me they’re surprised they've never heard of Bowser, surprised at how moving her story is and how much it makes them care about the past. I believe that I'm carrying on the work of William, Yellin, and other feminist predecessors, as I reach an audience beyond academia. I see the novel provoking conversations that deepen an understanding of gender, race, and class, and of the significant roles women of color played in shaping America. But when people who love The Secrets of Mary Bowser ask me what I recommend they read next, I'm not sure how to answer.
As much as I wish readers who enjoy my novel would seek out literature by Harriet Jacobs, Frances Watkins Harper, and Harriet Wilson, the nineteenth-century black women writers whose work inspired and informed mine, I doubt they will. Even novels like Dessa Rose — or Octavia Butler's Kindred (1979), a fascinating meditation on how slavery haunts late-twentieth-century America — no longer seem to capture the attention of many new readers who are drawn instead to more recent historical fiction. Indeed, historical fiction can imbue readers and reviewers with a surprising level of cultural amnesia, as evidenced by responses to The Help. For scholars of African American history — including the Association of Black Women Historians — one of the most disturbing things about that novel's popularity was the repeated claim that it offered insight into the untold experience of black women who worked in domestic service prior to and during the Civil Rights movement — a topic that was actually covered a half-century earlier in Alice Childress's 1956 novel Like One of the Family (Childress, like a startling number of other black women writers, including Zora Neale Hurston, had worked as a maid). Whether one champions or decries The Help, it seems clear that Stockett's novel hasn't inspired equal interest in Childress's novel, let alone impelled readers to delve into books like Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics and the Great Migration (1994) by historian Elizabeth Clark-Lewis, or literary scholar Trudier Harris’s From Mammies to Militants: Domestics in Black American Literature (1982). Further still from most discussions of The Help is any recognition of the plight of undocumented domestic workers today, unknown numbers of whom toil in even greater vulnerability than black domestic workers did in the 1950s.
As a writer, I know that the power of historical fiction lies in its ability to draw readers in emotionally. That's the reason teachers, including myself, use fiction to interest students in the study of history. But examining the reception of historical fiction, I remember the lesson at the heart of feminist literary criticism: how we read is as important as what we read. Prior to the Harvard edition of Incidents, reading that narrative didn't yield the deep understanding of the era that Yellin's work made possible — work that began with Yellin reading and rereading Jacobs's words, and questioning the accepted wisdom about the authorship of the narrative. Therein lies a model as applicable to reading fiction as to reading a historical document like Incidents. If a reader finds in historical fiction a reason to wonder — about how many women were healers in colonial New England, or how medicine became professionalized in Europe and what that meant for women as patients as well as practitioners — then our curiosity for women's stories can lead us beyond a celebration of pluck, to seek a deeper understanding of the past.