I write domestic noir. Or is it historical fiction? Or family sagas? Whatever it is, I do like my main characters to be struggling against the odds, which is probably why they have all been women. Because, even today, being a woman gives a character a head start in the “up against it” league. Set a book in the past and they have been so up against it that they might just as well have been trying to swim up Niagara.
The misogyny of the past had many causes – fear of the other, desperation to keep power, Biblical teaching or just animal brutality – but it was pervasive and it reduced women, in the West, to a level of inequality and subservience that we now condemn, with shock and horror, in other cultures.
The lead characters in my more contemporary novels – Shadows, Motherlove, The Unravelling – don’t have that sort of socially enforced repression to deal with, but you don’t have to look far back to a time when it still held sway. It wasn’t just the vote they lacked in the past. It was any sort of power or equality. It is only in recent decades that women, married and single, have been able to command financial independence – in the 1970s, even after the passing of the equal pay act, married women still needed their husband’s permission to take out a mortgage. Control over their own bodies had to be fought for through the 20th century, against social machinery that saw women as nothing more than reproductive property of men. Rape within marriage was only recognised as illegal in 1991.
So in fiction, setting a female protagonist in the past is automatically going to set her in a situation that already has “victim” stamped all over it and unless she’s a romantic heroine content with her role as the target of a dominant man, it’s very easy to be accused of being anti-men in what I write. But what I write, I hope, is merely a reflection of how it was for women, who were mostly not simple-minded romantic heroines but, like their brothers, just human beings trying to survive. Gwen, in A Time For Silence, who marries in 1933, is trapped in a life that would seem unthinkable to most people today, but which was accepted then as the norm. In Long Shadows, I tell the stories of three women taken even further back in time – a dependent servant in Victorian times, and daughters, in the 17th and 14th centuries, whose only purpose is to be married off. It was the way things were, the natural order, dictated by law, custom and the church.
The Covenant, published this August and the prequel to A Time For Silence, is set between 1883 and 1922, a time when women began to make themselves seen and heard less meekly than before. Suffragettes were on the march. The Great War brought women into the workplace. They were demanding education that stretched beyond fine embroidery and the right to own their own property. But women still had the monstrous regimen of established male power against them.
Economics was, as ever, all important. What paths were open to a woman in that period, to ensure that she survived, with food and shelter? She could choose to be respectable, or she could choose shame. Prostitution is the oldest profession and for every woman who chose it, there were probably a thousand who were forced into it, and more who were born into it, with no hope of ever escaping their fate. Women did whatever they must to survive for another day, even if it meant being shunned by polite society and an early death from the pox.
Many who headed for the cities, where work was supposed to be plentiful, would have finished up working the streets, because even if they found employment, it was probably so poorly paid, especially compared to men, that they would be obliged to supplement it. Prostitution wouldn’t have offered much in the way of economic independence, however. It would have left women at the mercy of the pimps who controlled them and the gents who paid for their services.
For those determined to keep “respectable”, marriage was the obvious goal, although it could be little more than prostitution and domestic service with the Church’s blessing. Marriage was not a contract of partnership, it was a contract of ownership. But it gave women a specific status and a guarantee of respectability. It was a status denied to any daughter obliged to remain at home, a pitiable spinster, helping or replacing Mother in the house.
For those living in the country, far from factories and mills, earning a living offered a few openings, like teaching, which would have afforded a little dignity, but it usually meant domestic service, on farms or in grand houses.
Servants could become valued and appreciated employees, but it was far more likely that they would be mere skivvies, consigned to damp attics and living on half rations. Women servants faced the possibility of “seduction” (a polite term for rape) by one of the gentlemen of the house, resulting in dismissal and an almost inevitable descent into prostitution.
The other option was to work for the family – to help father or brother on the family farm or in the family business. Like the prostitutes in the dark alleys of the inner cities, they did whatever they had to do to survive.
My main character, Leah Owen, has all the qualities of a survivor. She’s intelligent, determined, hard-working, uncowed, capable of thinking for herself, of dealing with situations, however dire, and of facing down opponents without losing her dignity. She’s the strongest, the fittest, the most promising in her family, and she dares to have dreams. In today’s world she would soar.
But she doesn’t live in today’s world. She’s a woman, and in her world, that’s fatal.