A few months ago I visited a military museum as part of my research for ‘Into the Valley of Death’. The wonderfully obliging curator showed me every detail of the uniforms, but when I asked when the regiment’s smooth-bore muskets were replaced with the Minié rifle I saw for the first time he was unprepared. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, hastening to look in the records. ‘I thought you’d be writing a historical romance.’
There was no need to ask why. Several members of the Crimean War Research Society had already asked ‘Are you writing a romance?’, and I somehow don’t believe they’d have put the same question to a man. Yet before I start ranting about sexism, there’s actually good statistical foundation for these assumptions. If you browse the authors in the Historical Novel Society, there’s no doubt ‘romances’ are written overwhelmingly by women, while ‘action and military’ are very firmly the province of men. There are exceptions, of course, and writers like Robyn Young, Philippa Gregory and M.C. Scott have all proved women can more than hold their own in a military world, but in general there’s a truth to the expectation that women don’t write war. What I want to know is – why?
The best explanation I can think of lies in the adage that we should only write what we know. As someone with imagination I’m not sure I agree with that, but when I read the novels of men like Douglas Reeman or George MacDonald Fraser, it’s impossible not to recognize that someone who has actually fought in a war will have far greater knowledge and understanding of it than I can aspire to.
It’s also true that the one place where nobody bats an eyelash at the nature of my research is the Crimea itself, and when I attended the parade on Sevastopol’s National Day it was easy to see why this was.
(Is it just me, by the way, or is that poor lad in the middle struggling to find somewhere safe to put his elbow?)
We can see this kind of scene everywhere now, but women in the Ukraine have been an essential and active part of the military since the days of Russian rule, and I was moved to see so many of them marching with the veterans of WWII.
Here, at least, is one place where no-one thinks it strange that a woman should be interested in the business of war.
But I don’t believe military service is the only factor. Many of the foremost male writers in this field have no more experience than I do, but still no-one queries the credentials of Bernard Cornwell, Conn Iggulden, Robert Fabbri or Simon Scarrow – and I doubt anyone asks if they write romances. There’s something else at play here, a long-standing perception that the subject of war is somehow unsuitable for women.
I first encountered this at the age of 8, when my sisters and I were so fascinated by the film ‘Zulu’ that we not only ‘played’ it relentlessly, but even wrote an appalling series of ‘Zulu Weekly’s about it. All might have been well had our poor parents and schoolfriends remained the only unwilling recipients of this dross, but we also sent one to the actor Stanley Baker himself, and the next thing we knew the Cambridge Evening News was at the door. An article about our insatiable blood-lust appeared the next day, and a week later they were back with a camera.
|Yep, that's me with the plaits. Sorry.|
We were too excited by the glory to recognize the tone of the previous article, and when the BBC asked my father to participate in a discussion about the impact of cinema on impressionable minds while we performed Zulu dances in the background, we were devastated when he said no. Apart from the insanity of actually wanting to be filmed frolicking in nothing but gym knickers and cotton wool, we simply didn’t get what it was all about. I thought it was our age that made us exceptional, but my mother pointed out wearily that boys much younger than us played at violent westerns all the time. What made this a story was the fact that we were girls.
I should have seen it, really. We should have known when the reporters wanted us to wear skirts for the picture, and when the photographer wrapped one plait round my shoulder to make sure it would show. We certainly should have suspected it when the question we were repeatedly asked was ‘And are you all really bloodthirsty?’ We weren’t, actually, and the one shot of the film we none of us liked was the (now ridiculously tame) close-up of a spear plunging into a soldier’s chest, but we could see what the nice adults really wanted and obediently gave them a resounding ‘Yes!’ They wanted freaks – nice little girls who liked blood and gore – and I’m afraid that’s what we gave them.
But it’s not the ‘gore factor’ that militates against us now. The Patricia Cornwell school of pathologists analyses mutilations to the human body even Jack the Ripper didn’t imagine, and no-one says women shouldn’t write crime. Nor is it the horrors, and no-one reading Karen Maitland’s ‘The Gallows Curse’ or Michelle Lovric’s ‘The Book of Human Skin’ ever doubts the ability of women to ‘write dark’. It’s just war.
And only real ones. We can write fictional or legendary ‘maybe’ wars, as in Rosemary Sutcliffe’s ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’, but real wars that people died in – no. There's perhaps a fair point there, in that such wars should never be trivialized or glorified – but why would a woman be more likely to do this than a man? No-one could read Louisa Young’s beautiful ‘My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You’ and fail to be moved by the truth and poignancy with which she conveys the real tragedy of war.
But there is a difference. We’re allowed to write about war as a background to a love story or a setting for a tragedy of human endurance; it’s only the day-in day-out action of it that’s not apparently our business. ‘Into the Valley of Death’ is my first full-scale venture into writing about war, and while it’s concerned with the pity and horror of the Crimea I can’t deny there's excitement and adventure too. Yet there’s plenty of that in the work of Bernard Cornwell, and I doubt many would question his suitability to write it. It’s just women who shouldn’t go there. Just us.
|The closest women should get to war|
It seems there’s a perception that women must always be dilettantes, that their involvement trivialises what should be a very serious masculine rite. I felt this first when researching for my novels set in 17th century France, and approached a local fencing club for help checking the choreography of my sword-fights. The very helpful Secretary duly forwarded my query to one of their experts, but I don’t think I was meant to see the reply. The man responded to the Secretary without seeing I was copied in, and all he said was ‘Tell her to watch “The Mark of Zorro”’.
Yet whatever one may think about that man (and trust me, I have), the fact remains that somewhere under the sexism is a real and legitimate point. War may at times seem a world of almost masonic mystery where women shouldn’t tread – but how would women feel if a man wrote a novel set in a community of nuns? War is different. There is a kind of unique brotherhood forged between men who stand under fire together, who face death and privation, who have to maim and to kill and stay sane. There is a kind of comradeship very different from that normally enjoyed by women, and if I can’t even acknowledge it then how on earth can I write about it? I do acknowledge it, I’ve talked extensively to modern day veterans to attempt to understand it – but why should I even try?
Perhaps because I write about people: my ‘men’ are as important to me as my ‘women’, and my interest is almost wholly in character. If we’re considering gender stereotypes, then there may be some truth in the idea that men are more interested in facts and women in emotions, but that’s a lousy reason for a woman not to write about an event when emotions can never be more heightened, friendships can never be more intense, and the personal stakes can never be higher. It’s a rotten reason for saying women shouldn’t write about war.
Why they should is another matter – and seeing how long this already is I’ll have to save it for another post. All I’ll say here is that if there’s one thing we History Girls all have in common it’s our ability to care about characters who lived a long time ago and went through experiences we will (hopefully) ourselves never know. Among many others, I care about men who were soldiers.
Is that so very wrong?
A.L. Berridge's website
'Into the Valley of Death' comes out May 2012.