Writing Honestly About the Past

One of the challenges I find in writing women’s historical fiction is that of developing a main character who is strong and independent, yet believable in terms of social and cultural practices of the day. In the sequel to my first novel Hattie’s Place, I want the protagonist, Hattie Robinson Barton, to continue to stand on her own, to confront injustice and make a difference in the world. I really don’t enjoy writing about victims. But even the most superficial research reveals that, as a woman, Hattie would have wielded little or no legal or political power, not even that of self-determination, if she lived in the U.S. prior to 1920.

Set Hattie down in South Carolina, in the early 1900’s, and you have automatically circumscribed her world to one where her choices and actions are subject to the rituals and institutional laws designed to re-establish white male supremacy and control. Cast her as a white southern woman of education and means, and she will be corseted, dressed, and raised onto a pedestal reserved only for the Southern Lady, to be protected as a cherished possession.

“The  Southern Lady: Hostage to the Lost Cause,” is actually the name of the first chapter in Marjorie Spruill Wheeler’s New Women of the New South:Leaders of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the Southern States (1993). Wheeler  wrote that  many white Southerners in what would have been Hattie’s era, were devoted to the preservation of what they considered to be a distinct and superior Southern Civilization, and that the belief in the Southern Lady as the “guardian and symbol of Southern virtue,” was pivotal to the preservation of that order. (Wheeler, p. 4).

I mentioned above that I don’t want to write about victims. Oh, and I also want my story to have, if not a happy ending, at least an ending that is hopeful and uplifting. That means I must find a way to get Hattie down from her pedestal, set her on her journey to save the world and make a difference, and not leave her dashed upon the rocks when the story concludes.

The essential questions are these: How can an author create a character who who is strong, thinks for herself or himself, and refuses to become a victim? How can the author end such a story on a hopeful note and still remain true to the historical context?

I think the answer may partially lie in the lines I heard spoken in an episode of Wolf Hall, A Masterpiece presentation about Thomas Cromwell, who served under King Henry VIII. When asked by one character how Cromwell managed to achieve his goals, given his precarious position, negotiating between the crown and the church, another character replied:

A strong man (woman) acts within that which constrains him (her).

Applied to my question about character development in a historical novel, if the writer of fiction allows the character to move too far beyond the bounds of social/political constraint of the era, he/she must also be willing for the character to suffer the consequences–i.e., martyrs are made, heads roll, fortunes are lost, families are disgraced. When you read or watch a period piece in the era of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, you pretty much know what you are getting yourself in for. We are not talking about happy endings here.

At least the society in which Hattie lived in the 1900’s was a bit more stable than that of Cromwell’s sixteenth century England. Without rewriting history, the only viable option I see for keeping the character strong and getting the happy ending in either era, would be to change genres in midstream–perhaps to fantasy or time travel–and whisk the protagonist off to another world or time where a more favorable outcome would be possible. That is certainly being done in many bestselling novels, but I’m still working on becoming proficient in one genre and will have to save that for another time.

If strength is acting within what constrains you, then how far can the character push the limits and still get what she wants? As I see it, far enough to avoid being cast as a victim and not too far to be made into a martyr. As an author, I’m about to throw Hattie into the struggle for woman’s suffrage in white, male-dominated South Carolina. And, as sure as I knew, when watching that episode of Wolfhall, what fate Anne Boleyn would suffer at the will of a capricious king, I know that Hattie’s struggle to gain woman suffrage by action of the South Carolina legislature will meet with resounding defeat. That’s just the way it was back then. But that outcome will not define Hattie’s strength if she succeeds in acting within what constrains her.

The historical record tells us that the national suffrage movement did eventually succeed, and that Hattie would have been eligible to vote in the 1920 presidential election. In that sense, Hattie’s cause was won and there can be a happy ending. But it was Tennessee’s ratification in August of 1920 that provided the needed thirty-six states for the 19th Amendment to become law, after South Carolina had soundly defeated it when the bill came before the legislature the previous January.

The efforts of Southern women like Hattie to gain the vote by state action ended in failure. There is no other way to spin it. This quote from Pattie Ruffner Jacobs, cited in Wheeler’s book, expresses the disappointment these women must have felt:

It only remains for the outward and visible sign of our freedom to be put in the hands of Southern women by the generous men of other states, a situation which hurts our pride and to which we submit with deep regret but not apology. (p. 172, Wheeler).

Carrie Chapman Catt of the National American Woman Suffrage Association  acknowledged struggle that Southern suffragists faced:

No stronger characters did the long struggle produce than those great-souled Southern suffragists. They had need to be great of soul.

How will Hattie Robinson Barton find her place in the woman’s movement, while adjusting to her new life as a married woman and mother of Charles Barton’s four sons? How will she integrate her need to be her own person while living in the shadow of Charles’ first wife Elizabeth and taking on the responsibilities of marriage, motherhood, and social obligation? Will she become a victim of circumstance or a martyr in the cause? Or, will she find her way to strength by acting within in that which constrains her? Those are all questions that must be answered as the story unfolds.

 

 

 

 

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