VIEW: Why we need to write women into history

A guest post from Alison Booth discussing her new novel, The Philosopher’s Daughters, and the importance of writing women into history.

To understand history, we rely upon the reports of others. And when we read those words we might ask ourselves whose stories are missing. Typically, it will be the stories of those who were losers, of those who had no power at the time: the disenfranchised, the dispossessed, the defeated. This is where writers of historical fiction can present different perspectives to those that are found in standard straight historical texts, because they can tell stories that include the marginal voices that history left aside.

The beauty of historical fiction is that it doesn’t only report what happened in the past, it also makes the reader feel what happened, and in so doing it creates empathy for preceding generations. It helps readers understand what was experienced by people living through different times and in different places. It also helps readers understand who we are now, and how we got here, so we can appreciate what progress humankind has made. For example, we can see – and perhaps better comprehend – the extent to which female and racial equality have evolved, and we can see this in a much more personal and moving way than in a straight history text.

Feminism and female emancipation feature strongly in my latest novel, The Philosopher’s Daughters, and so it never occurred to me not to make the principal two characters female. When I first conceived the idea for The Philosopher’s Daughters, I kept imagining 1890s London and two strong young women, the daughters of a moral philosopher. Someone like John Stuart Mill, a great advocate for the emancipation of women. Someone who gives the girls a relatively modern upbringing. Then I thought of altering the sisters’ circumstances so that they separately choose to journey into remote and wild Australia. What might happen to them?  How might they see life at the ‘frontier’ once they are confronted with the brutal dispossession of the Indigenous population? How would their characters develop as they faced danger?

Of course, there were other reasons why I wanted the two principal characters to be female. In particular, I wanted to capture the north of Australia through fresh eyes, and the female perspective would certainly have been that up north in the 1890s. Women of those times faced prejudice at every step, and I felt that my two female protagonists would be well-equipped to empathise with a lot of the displaced Indigenous inhabitants. Because I wrote the novel from the separate viewpoints of the two sisters, I was also able to present a nuanced view of what was happening, for these young women saw the world in different ways in spite of their common upbringing.

People often ask what is the difference between fiction and historical fiction. All types of fiction are products of the imagination, but historical fiction is set in a carefully-researched context that will survive the scrutiny of historians. It’s worth pointing out here that the historian’s approach to what is history probably differs from that of the Historical Novel Society, which defines historical fiction as being written at least 50 years after the events described in it, unless written by someone not alive at the time of those events. Thus, a novel written in the last two decades of the Cold War wouldn’t, by this strict definition, be viewed as historical fiction by novelists, unless it was written by someone under the age of 30, but it would be viewed as historical by historians. And I have to say that I find this slightly odd!

What can historical fiction say about gender equality and race relations in modern times? Historical fiction brings characters to life in a way that captures not only the essence of an historical period but also the deeper truths of human existence. From this we can better understand how the past contributes to the present. And we can also better comprehend how to right the wrongs of the past. There’s a sense in which The Philosopher’s Daughters might be thought of the 1890s meeting of the #MeToo and the #BlackLivesMatter movements. These movements in their present manifestation show that we do indeed have a way to go yet in improving gender equality and race relations.

About the expert

A novelist with a keen interest in history, Alison Booth is an ANU-based Emeritus Professor of Economics. She is a regular contributor to academic journals and has previously published four novels, Stillwater Creek, The Indigo Sky, A Distant Land, and A Perfect Marriage. In 2017 she received the ESA Distinguished Fellow Award, and she is also an elected Fellow of the Econometric Society and a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia.

Image description: Alison stands in a white blouse, black blazer and black pants in front of a bright tree with yellow leaves and surrounded by greass. She is smiling with one hand in her front pocket.