Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Susan Higginbotham on Why I Love Writing About Women Whose Husbands Die Horrible Deaths

I’ve written two historical novels set in medieval England and am in the process of writing another one, and all three of my heroines have one thing in common: their husbands die miserably. Each woman then remarries. Fortunately, I’ve never been one to follow the adage, “Write what you know”; otherwise, I’d have a seriously worried spouse on my hands.

So what drew me to these heroines? Not a desire to wallow in misery, for all my heroines, grim as their circumstances are at times, ultimately succeed in making new, fulfilling lives for themselves. Not an innate taste for blood and gore, for as my family can tell you, I’m about as squeamish as a gal can get. No, it’s my liking for strong women.

When some people hear “strong heroine,” they think of the “kick-ass heroine,” or, as Sarah Palin so memorably put it in a different context, “a pit bull with lipstick.” (For medieval times, I suppose, that would be a pit bull with a hennin.) You’ve met her: she can fight better than a man, cuss better than a man, and outwit any man, and by God, she’s drop-dead gorgeous as well. All very well and nice, but she’s not the type of heroine I write about, and she’s not one I care to read about either. No, when I think of a strong heroine, it’s a woman who can face adversity with grace, courage, and even humor.

And my heroines—Eleanor de Clare of The Traitor’s Wife, Elizabeth de Montacute of Hugh and Bess, and Katherine Woodville in my novel in progress, set during the Wars of the Roses, face plenty of adversity. Eleanor and Katherine’s husbands destroy themselves through their own ambition and leave their families disgraced and dispossessed. Eleanor not only is twice imprisoned in the Tower, but faces the imprisonment of her eldest son and the forced veilings of her three young daughters. Katherine loses her father, two of her brothers, and one of her nephews to the axe; two of her other nephews disappear without a trace. (Guess who they are?) Her mother and her sister are accused of witchcraft. Elizabeth de Montacute’s happy, comfortable world crashes around her when the Black Death pays its first visit to England.

How did these women—and all the others like them who saw their lives shattered by war, rebellion, and disease—cope with these tragedies? Medieval England did not have support groups, grief counselors, or psychotherapists. These women had to go on with their lives under circumstances that would paralyze many a modern, “liberated” woman. In many cases, it was religious faith that pulled such women through their difficulties and gave them the courage to face the next day. In others, it was probably determination, pride, a sense of duty, or sheer cussedness. Whatever type of strength got them through, it did, and I admire and stand in awe of them.

Moving centuries ahead, there’s a passage in one book in particular that to me embodies the essence of a strong heroine. Katie, the mother in Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, is far from being perfect. She has a fractious relationship with her daughter, Francie, the heroine, and she’s brusque, stubborn, and not always likable. Normally sensible and practical, she makes one great mistake in life: she rushes into marriage with Johnny, a charming and handsome young man who turns out to be a hopeless alcoholic, leaving Katie as the family’s chief breadwinner and authority figure. But she—like her mother, her sisters, and her daughter Francie—is up to the task. As the narrator tells us:

Those were the Rommely women: Mary, the mother, Evy, Sissy, and Katie, her daughters, and Francie, who would grow up to be a Rommely woman even though her name was Nolan. They were all slender, frail creatures with wondering eyes and soft fluttery voices.

But they were made out of thin invisible steel.

If that doesn’t define a strong heroine, I don’t know what does. And that is the type of woman whose story I want to read—and write about—in all of its incarnations over the centuries.

Susan Higginbotham is the author of The Traitor's Wife and Hugh and Bess, and she blogs at Reading, Raving and Writing by a Historical Fiction Writer. Her first book, The Traitor's Wife is due to be rereleased by Sourcebooks on 1 April, and is available for preorder.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. OOPS- big typo!

    What I typed wrong is that strong women rather than kick-ass women are not only always better role models but probably much more appropriate and necessary now.

  3. Thanks for hosting my post, Marg! I'm rhyming without meaning to, so it's off to bed!

  4. Fantastic post Susan -- I just adore your writing. Ha - no psychiatrist or Prozac? I don't think I wouldv'e made it in Medieval times.

  5. Wonderful post! you got me from the beginning with “Write what you know”; otherwise, I’d have a seriously worried spouse on my hands." LOL!

  6. Thanks for such a great post Susan! We really appreciate it!

  7. If you love medieval fiction may I recommend Ellis Peters to you if you've not already come across her. Her novels are mysteries set in the 12th Century and feature a sleuthing monk. For this reason there aren't that many kick ass women in them but they're brilliant.

    They're called the Cadfael series and made a very successful transfer to TV with Derek Jacobi. Fantastic settings and very atmospheric. Much recommended

    Laura Essendine
    Author – The Accidental Guru
    The Accidental Guru Blog
    The Books Limited Blog

  8. That does conjure up a neat picture, doesn't it? Pity I can't draw!

  9. I have not been checking the blogs etc. lately and just found this post.
    Susan I am big fan of yours! I love the women your portray! But I like the way your add humor into situations with all your characters. I am thinking of a particular comment the son of a Despencer made upon release. (Post the dad's grusome death)He says something witty about the situation and it struck me as very believable! I'm so curious about how people in those circumstances would have made light of it. And I believe they would have had to. I am looking forward to whatever you have coming out next!