Friday, 18 November 2011

Feisty Girls - Celia Rees

Not so long ago, fellow History Girl, Eleanor Updale, was complaining in the pages of the Daily Telegraph about the preponderance of feisty girls in the books for children and teenagers that she was required to read in her capacity as a Costa Judge. Now, I have written about a fair few feisty girls myself, as have other History Girls, and I was hard put to think of a heroine, from Elizabeth Bennett to Scarlett O'Hara and Philip Pullman's Lyra, who wasn't feisty, so I'm not sure how far I concur with Eleanor's point of view.

Karen Wallace's Emerald is a good example of the place of the F.G. in historical fiction. Her eponymous heroine is as feisty as they come. Emerald is living in the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1 (who was on the feisty side herself) and she is a bit of a tomboy with little regard for convention or feminine attributes, preferring fishing for pike to needlepoint. She also has a pet bear, which has to put her right up there at the top of the F.G. stakes. She is attractive, strong willed and single minded, as feisty girls often are, but she is also kind, considerate, thoughtful and clever. I don't see these things as negative attributes. Indeed, the counterweights and contrasts within her personality are what gives the story it's narrative drive and power.

Emerald is approaching womanhood and is about to be forced to give up her independence, such as it is, her home and all that is familiar to her, to be married off as her relations see fit. She has no male supporters, a sister who has sold out in the worst way possible and a pet bear under threat of the bear pit. What is a girl to do? What would we want her to do? Woman up, that's what. Be true to herself and start fighting back. Use some of that sensitivity and cleverness to negotiate her way through the snake pit of Elizabethan court politics, conspiracies and all, and save herself, her sister, her bear and her Queen. It makes an exciting, will she, won't she save the day, heart in mouth story. How much story would there be if she'd given up at the first hurdle, agreed to marry a man chosen for her and settled down into a life of domestic drudgery. Not much of one, clearly, and what would have happened to the bear?

Luckily, Karen Wallace allows her heroine to follow her feistiness and delivers a satisfyingly rich, thoroughly convincing, page turning read. She hints at the end that there may be more to come. I hope so. The Feisty Girl has a strong and time honoured place in literature, for children and for adults. Emerald is an excellent addition to this fine tradition.

19 comments:

Katherine Langrish said...

It's a very striking cover, but that's not remotely an Elizabethan dress, and Emerald isn't remotely an Elizabethan name, and these things have so far put me right off reading it. I'd be really interested to know if you thought the book 'feels' like a historical novel, or more like a romance?

Katherine Langrish said...

Even her hair, for heaven's sakes, isn't Elizabethan! She looks like a Pre-Raphaelite girl. I know, I know I'm being pedantic, but it really does jar with me...

Book Maven said...

It's a shame about the cover, which is designed to be attractive to girls and with no regard to period.

This is completely out of the hands of the author usually.

But I love the idea of "womaning up" and will now use it!

Katherine Langrish said...

I do like the sound of the bear - that's for sure!

adele said...

Very interesting, Celia! Must try and read this. The cover thing is one I've gone on and on about before. Don't get me started about covers which try to 'appeal' rather than depict an aspect of the book within....

Marie-Louise Jensen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marie-Louise Jensen said...

I agree entirely with your argument for feisty heroines, Celia. We need them for the story, as you say, and girls need strong role models.
The trouble with the word feisty is it's overused. As anyone who writes for girls will know. And the even bigger problem is the number of reviewers who spell it fiesty....

Celia Rees said...

Agree about the cover, but as Mary points out, it is not in the hands of the author and there can't be many authors who can honestly say that they have never had a cover that they hated because the publisher refused to change it. I also aqree about the name but this, again, could be 'market pressure' (don't get me started, I can feel another blog coming on). The cover, the title and the name betray the book, because it is not a romance (particularly) and it is a perfectly acceptable historical novel. What we have to consider is, does what betrays the book to us, sell it to the teen reader?

Katherine Langrish said...

I agree, and have had the experience myself of really disliking a cover and not being able to get it changed. (And I don't think it helped sell the book at all, btw.) This one is strong and attractive, but definitely says 'romance' not history, as does the provocative, sexy turn of the girl's head. leaving aside the question of historical accuracy I don't see - in this cover image - anything to suggest a tomboy with a pet bear who enjoys fishing for pike. Far from selling the book on the strengths of the feisty heroine, they've put her in a perfectly draped gown and given her a smouldering expression which strongly suggests she makes her way in the world on the strength of her looks. I think that's not just a pity: I think it's all to do with the way girls are still expected to see themeselves.

Emma Barnes said...

I thought Eleanor Updale's article was fascinating, and I could see her point...but in practise I also found it hard to think of historical heroines I really liked who didn't fit the "feisty" bill. Barbara Willard's Mantlemass novels - all the ones I liked were the strong characters, or Jean Plaidys' "Young Elizabeth" and of course Jane Austen - who can stand insipid Fanny Price?

Oddly enough I found it easier to think of stand-out historical characters who are gentle and timid and male: Will in Michelle Magorian's "Goodnight Mister Tom" or Stephen in Barbara Leonie Picardie's "One is One", for example. Both are outsiders of course at the start of the book - maybe that is part of it? An entirely conventional character who "fits in" with what's expected can't be completely appealing, whether male or female?

Going back to female characters - maybe the issue as well is that the feistiness sometimes obscures the very real constaints that those times placed on women - by maybe implying that anyone high-spirited enough can get their own way just through will-power? Which is a very unhistorical approach. I always thought Karen Cushman's Catherine Called Birdy managed to strike the right balance in that respect: she is very high-spirited (thus sympathetic), but in the end she has to marry where her father says, and make the best of it, because that is what would have happened. (Cushman does engineer a happy ending though!)

Anyway, looking forward to reading Emerald now!

Book Maven said...

Not only does the heroine of Troubadour (set early 13th century) appear on the cover of the new French edition, Elinor, as a sort of generic Monthy Python-type wench, she described in the blurb as a "princesse" which she is not.

Lizzier said...

lizandjacky@twitter, who work for Suffolk Schools Library Service, compiled a book list called "Feisty Females" in 2010. We did this in response to the highly successful "Boys into Books" campaign in 2008. We wanted to do a positive promotion for girl's reading and yes, we know, it's already out of date! However, if anyone would like a copy of this list, please contact us at:
jacky.offord@suffolk.gov.uk
or
liz.rastrick@suffolk.gov.uk

E Louise Bates said...

My biggest complaint about Feisty Girls is how often they are inaccurate for their time. Elizabeth Bennet is feisty, yes, but she is also respectful toward her parents, even when they don't deserve it, she is far more socially polite than even the Bingley sisters, and even when she is bantering with Darcy or verbally fencing with Lady Catherine, she is always appropriate for her era. If P&P were written today, I'm sometimes afraid that it would be Lydia who would be portrayed as the heroine, as she is the one who breaks all of society's conventions to "follow her heart."

Celia Rees said...

But Kydia is silly. A real FG is never that.

Perhaps we should differentiate between real FGs and petulant head tossing, anachronisitc imposters who are giving their sisters a bad name.

Astrid Holm said...

Thanks celia for such an interesting post, I will definately look this one out. (The bear sounds wonderful) Such interesting comments too from everyone about heroines. I agree with Emma about the 'insipid' Fanny Price and always yearned for Lady Bertram's pugs to savage her!

Feisty is aspirational and fun, but as has already been pointed out there is always the danger of her attitudes and actions coming over as out of step with the time period.

Sue Purkiss said...

Absolutely agree with Kath and others about the cover. But thanks, Celia - another book to add to the list!

Caroline Lawrence said...

What a fab post and brilliant discussion!

I guess I'm lucky that my publishers, Orion, consult me on details of the new-look covers of the Roman Mysteries. This is really gratifying as there is so much to get wrong. Still, the main aim of a cover is to get people to pick up the book! So we can't be too nit-picky...

P.S. You can see some of the Roman Mysteries covers in progress on the Facebook Fan Page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Roman-Mysteries/10404675950?ref=share

Eleanor said...

I've just caught up with this, Celia.
I know the headline on my piece made it look as if I was attacking feisty girls, but the actual article was primarily moaning about the scarcity of well-written male characters in the fifty or so books I was given to read. Not a scientific sample, of course, but an interesting snapshot of what is around at the moment and (perhaps more interestingly) the books of which the publishers are most proud. Even I am not so stupid as to think it is impossible to write feisty girls well, and those you mention from great books are indeed splendid characters. What wore me down was meeting the same girl over and over again - her feistiness apparently excusing the author from having to round her out in other ways, or to see the other characters in the story through any eyes other than hers.
As I said in the article, that was not true of all the books we had to judge, and choosing a winner from what I think is a fine shortlist will be extremely hard.
The winner will be announced on January 4th (see http://www.costabookawards.com)

And don't get me started on covers!

Celia Rees said...

I'm sorry if I upset you, Ellie, or misunderstood the tenor of your article, but I know that a lot of authors with girls as their main characters reacted as I did, especially as you were writing in your position as a Costa Judge. We can't be held responsible for the paucity of strong male characters I agree that it is not enough to just make a girl feisty (hateful word) without any kind of depth or reason for her to be that way but that is just poor writing. If that is what you were having a go at, I couldn't agree more,but it didn't altogether read that way. It seemed yet another 'go' at girls as readers, characters and writers, and I'm not happy to let that ride.