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.