I fell down a wiki hole this morning, but perhaps the guiding hand of the muse was upon me, because I ended up discovering the strange, and rather depressing story of Cherubina de Gabriak. In 1909 the literary magazine Apollon published 12 poems by Cherubina de Grabriak alongside an article praising her as a fantastic new discovery in Russian poetry. The male editors of the magazine seemed to fall into a kind of erotic frenzy. Both the editor Makovsky and one of the key contributors, Nikolai Gumilyov who later married Anna Akmatova, exchanged passionate letters with the poet, and in Makovsky’s case, phone calls.
Cherubina was a Russian speaking, impoverished aristocrat of French / Polish descent, a Catholic beauty apparently living in strict seclusion but harbouring dark secrets. She loftily refused any payment for her work.
The deception fell apart quite quickly. Cherubina was in fact a school-teacher, lamed by tuberculosis called Elizabeth Ivanovna Dmitriyeva. After some of her poetry had been rejected by Apollon, she visited a writer named Voloshin who knew the magazine editors well. He suggested taking on the personna of Cherubina and some of the themes on which she might want to write, and suddenly she was a new star in the literary firmament. After she was discovered, Gumilyov was so insulting about her (in crudely sexual terms according to some sources), Voloshin ended up challenging him to a duel. They both escaped unharmed. Most contemporaries believed the poems must have been Voloshin’s, though both he and Dmitriyeva said they were hers and later scholars agree. You can read the full story here. The crux of the problem seems to have been that when the editorial staff realised that Dmitriyeva was not as beautiful (or quite as aristocratic) as they had thought, they lost interest in her work.
It made me think of this article in the Daily Mail a couple of years ago. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/you/article-2479096/The-History-Girls-meet-women-building-bright-future-past.html
Now these women are all great historians, but what does it say about how their books are sold that they are all done up like models? Interestingly the quote in the article that jumped at at me was this from Lisa Hilton: “A couple of years ago, Dr David Starkey claimed that female historians, readers and viewers had reduced history to ‘soap opera’, implying that women couldn’t tolerate a more serious approach. This is simply offensive. Why is history involving men ‘proper’ history and history involving women considered a sub category? Women might have been marginalised in the past, but they were never unimportant.”
I agree entirely, but it’s somewhat at odds with the tone of the piece. Not I’m blaming the writers featured. Can you imagine how upset your (probably female) PR person would be if you turned down a feature in the Daily Mail?
Who was this article aimed at? Are readers really like the editorial board of the Apollon, unwilling to read female historians unless they come up to the aesthetic mark?
A couple of weeks ago Slate Magazine published an article about women writing non-fiction history in the US. The statistics are pretty depressing. Alison Flood from the Guardian asked me to comment (as chair of the HWA) on the position in the UK. I said that I thought the situation was better here in general, but that I felt women were not writing or not being invited to write the authoritative historical narratives, instead focussing on lost and marginalised voices (which is absolutely work which needs to be done). The article is here.
It was shared on facebook and on the HWA email chat thread, and the ensuing discussion was very interesting. Clare Mulley pointed out that the winners of the History Today awards were women, Nicola Griffiths reminded us of the research she did into prize winning novels which demonstrated when women did win prizes it tended to be for writing about men. Antonia Senior shared a piece she had written for the Times (now also on her blog, so you can read it for free). Others talked about the de-gendering of names (Manda Scott was persuaded to become M. C. Scott for a while, Shona MacLean’s historical crime novels are now sold under S. G. Maclean, and we all know about J.K. Rowling).
We are all aware of the thinking behind these marketing decisions. Men wont read books by women or about women, and if you are a woman writing a book which is deemed as ‘male’ - swords, male protagonists no romance - then your gender needs to be lightly disguised.
Some members also reported being told that women wouldn’t read historical fiction with a male protagonist, and one male writer said he’d written a book from a female viewpoint and was told women wouldn’t read him.
Then there were the stories of book covers which always had to have a sword and helmet on them if they were written by a man, and a woman in a wafty dress if they were written by a woman, no matter what the actual story was about.
I think because I write crime, my book covers have tended more towards blood spatter than dresses, but though the gender issues are more subtly expressed in the crime genre, I still think they exist. I was told one story of a meeting where an author complained there was a woman’s corpse on their cover, though no women were killed in the novel. They were told that ‘dead women sell books.’ Unpacking those four words needs a book to itself.
We are all victims of unconscious prejudice, readers, writers and judges alike and I do think the only way we can fight it is to examine and discuss those prejudices when they are pointed out to us. And I don’t think we can all shrug our shoulders and blame the publishers. They are responding to their research to try and sell as many books as possible and that’s a perfectly understandable way for a commercial entity to behave. But what’s the longer term solution? Aggressively market books by and about women to men? How would the industry do that, and who would take the risk?