'History to the Defeated': Women Writers and the Historical Novel in the Thirties

By Wallace, Diana | Critical Survey, May 2003 | Go to article overview

'History to the Defeated': Women Writers and the Historical Novel in the Thirties


Wallace, Diana, Critical Survey


The 1930s can be seen as a key turning point in the development of the historical novel: it is during this decade that the historical novel becomes a genre particularly associated with women writers. Women had, of course, written historical novels before. The gothic romances of Ann Radcliffe and her successors have 'historical' settings, while Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot both wrote historical novels. Baroness Orczy had been producing her Scarlet Pimpernel books since 1905 and Marjorie Bowen's The Viper of Milan had been a bestseller in 1906. As the 1920s wore on a steady flow of women's historical fiction gathered pace. Georgette Heyer's career as a bestselling historical romance writer began with The Black Moth in 1921. Naomi Mitchison published her first historical novel in 1923, while Sheila Kaye-Smith and Mary Webb produced so-called 'regional' or 'rural' novels which are also set in the past.

But it is in the 1930s that this trickle becomes a steady stream of historical fiction by and about women. Not only are there the socalled 'popular' writers such as Heyer, Orczy and Bowen, Margaret Irwin, Marguerite Steen, Doris Leslie, Norah Lofts and Daphne du Maurier, but an impressive number of more 'literary' writers produced one or more historical novels, among them Naomi Mitchison, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Phyllis Bentley, Helen Waddell, Henry Handel Richardson, Clemence Dane, Lettice Cooper, Rose Macaulay, Margiad Evans, Mary Butts, Vita Sackville-West, Storm Jameson, Kate Roberts, E Tennyson Jesse, Hilda Reid, Vera Brittain (Winifred Holtby wrote but never published a fourteenth-century romance about Wycliff), and Virginia Woolf.

Anthea Trodd suggests that by the 1920s the historical novel had recovered from a period of unpopularity. She links its increasing association with women writers and readers to early twentieth-century feminism which 'created a demand for information about the lives of women in history, and a need to understand how they had lived.' (1) In fact, if the 'literary' historical novel and the more 'popular' historical romance are considered together, it is clear that it is particularly the 1930s which witness the blossoming of historical fiction as a mode of writing in which women excelled. Certainly, Helen Hughes argues that after the 1930s the historical romance 'became predominantly a woman's genre, which it had certainly had never been before.' (2) While Alison Light, writing about post-1940 popular historical novels, claims that 'historical fiction has been one of the major forms of women's reading and writing in the second half of the twentieth century.' (3) This feminisation of the genre perhaps explains the increasing tendency to dismiss historical fiction as 'light reading', part of what Light calls the 'good bad group', (4) associated with women and with large print library books and therefore unworthy of serious critical attention. This attitude seems to last until after 1969 when the metafictional games of John Fowles and then later Umberto Eco, A.S. Byatt, Graham Swift and others start to make the historical novel a respectable subject for critical attention. Why, then, is it in the 1930s that this shift in the gendered associations of the genre takes place?

In his Marxist study, The Historical Novel (1937), Georg Lukacs argues that the historical novel emerged as a genre at the turbulent beginning of the nineteenth century because this was the point at which it became possible for writers to see history as the 'pre-history of the present'. (5) Lukacs argues that the experience of mass military mobilisation involved the civilian population to a greater extent than ever before:

   It was the French revolution, the revolutionary wars and the rise and
   fall
   of Napoleon, which for the first time made history a mass experience,
   and
   moreover on a European scale [...] Hence the concrete possibilities
   for
   men to comprehend their own existence as something historically
   conditioned,
   for them to see in history something which deeply affects their
   daily lives and immediately concerns them. 

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