'Wolf Hall' Author: Resist Urge to Make Historical Women Live Up to Modern Ideals

Claire Foy as the future queen Anne Boleyn in "Wolf Hall." Image via PBS Masterpiece

Writing fiction is difficult enough, but when you write historical fiction you take on additional challenges. A good historical fiction author doesn’t just write a compelling story but also has to get the setting and attitudes correct. Many readers of historical fiction are somewhat familiar with the period in question and they’ll notice if you have anachronisms. You can’t have William the Conqueror (11th century) wearing 15th-century plate armor, for example.


Another thing writers have to do is resist the urge to give characters modern sensibilities.  Award-winning author Hilary Mantel notes that, in particular, authors need to resist making historical women more like today’s females.

Mantel, author of Wolf Hall, singled out her own gender for the criticism, questioning whether writers should “rework history so victims are the winners.”


“They want to give a voice to those who have been silenced.”

“Fiction can do that, because it concentrates on what is not on the record. But we must be careful when we speak for others…”

“If we write about the victims of history, are we reinforcing their status by detailing it? Or shall we rework history so victims are the winners?”

“This is a persistent difficulty for women writers, who want to write about women in the past, but can’t resist retrospectively empowering them.”

“Which is false.”

“If you are squeamish – if you are affronted by difference – then you should try some other trade.”

Harsh words, but Mantel has a point.

History is what it is, and much like the Confederate memorials under attack, you can’t change what actually happened to fit a narrative. As an author, if you want to portray women as something other than what they were historically, then I won’t say to stop writing, but I’ll at least recommend you switch to historical fantasy, where you have more license to go against documented facts.


Frankly, if you portray every historical female as the embodiment of female empowerment, don’t you essentially undermine the women who really did fight for the equal treatment women enjoy today? I mean, I’m just a man and all that, but by pretending this is just the way women have always been, you essentially ignore women who risked so much in previous eras.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to write strong, independent women. Where there’s something wrong is when you wash over how far today’s strong, independent women have come from those bygone eras.


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