Monday 20 February 2012

'An Unsuitable Job for a Woman?' by A. L. Berridge

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.


Anonymous said...

Very intersting post. It made me think. It does seem very unfair that this is the way it is. One day it may all change, very best of luck with the book.

H.M. Castor said...

A fascinating post. And I am, I must say, SO impressed by the depth of your research. Is there a general assumption, do you think, that ANY woman writing historical fiction is writing romance... because that is *women's* historical fiction, while *men's* historical fiction is about war? I must admit I found that 'Mask of Zorro' response deeply depressing (and yet not surprising). Ditto your experience of the local paper as a child. All power to your elbow, Louise!

alberridge said...

Thanks for your comment, Anonymous, and for your good wishes. I do think things WILL change. A generation ago I don't think there were any women writing in this field, but now I know of at least four others.

Little by little we will change the world!

Theresa Breslin said...

Another point to ponder is why some male authors of historical 'romance' use a female pseudonym...

alberridge said...

Thanks, Harriet. Unfortunately I don't think my research is unusually rigorous for this field - it's one area where it's absolutely essential to have the exact details of weaponry and to know precisely how they were used. The men always include these things, and I have to do it at least as well.

Also, I confess I'm actually interested in it. It's not really just geeky, it's to do with how people feel and a story develops. At the Battle of Inkerman the British troops had to struggle with damp powder in their rifles, and the shock of it must have been terrible.

alberridge said...

Thanks for commenting, Theresa - and that's a stonkingly good point too. Men writing romance encounter exactly the same prejudices, and I can't see a single reason why a man can't write about relationships.

The pseudonyms work both ways too. 'Robyn' at least sounds male, and Manda Scott and I both use initials rather than our Christian names...

Mark Burgess said...

Louise, it's depressing that you've encountered this sort of attitude - though I'm not in the least surprised - but wonderful that you are writing about war. Bring down the barricades!
I've never understood that thing of writing only about what you know; the whole act of imagination is thinking yourself into somewhere else, after all. So long as the writing is 'true', that's all that matters.

adele said...

I think this is most interesting and I actually see no reason on earth why you can't cross the genres and the genders. In other words, Tolstoy can write Anna Karenina and Flaubert can BE Emma Bovary and theoretically, I don't see any reason why a woman can't be Alexander the Great, or his horse, as Katherine Roberts so excellently was, and so on and so forth. I think the ONLY thing that's needed is the interest and desire to write about those kinds of people in those situations. Celia's soldier in THIS IS NOT FORGIVENESS is most convincing to me. I also see no reason for a man not to write a brilliant obok set in a convent. We can imagine. And now with so many young women actually serving in real wars, this may all be about to change from a 'factual, I was there' point of view!! But really fascinating.

alberridge said...

Hi, Mark - and many thanks for commenting. It's good to have a male voice in the discussion!

I do agree about the weakness of the 'write what you know' argument, and would seriously doubt many of those who write 'serial-killer' novels have real experience of what they describe. However, arguing against myself, I do think there's more of a case to be made for war. The number of people who've been serial killers is statistically insignificant, but there were (and still are) many people out there who have intense and personal experience of war. A part of me still feels it an impertinence to tell such people what their experience was like!

My defence, I suppose, is that I don't. I say only what it was like for MY characters - and they, of course, can experience exactly what I choose.

Interesting and thought-provoking comment anyway - thank you!

alberridge said...

Hi, Adele - and thank you for such an encouraging and empowering comment.

It's a tricky one, this, as I agree wholeheartedly that women can 'write men' and men can 'write women' - Flaubert is the example I always use too! But I feel it's more than that with the war thing, as if these are a special kind of men in a special kind of community, which is why I made the comparison with nuns.

I think it's because there's so little 'overlap'. When writing the opposite gender we have our own experience of them to draw on - but no man has experience of a closed community of nuns, and no women have experience of what a man is like when he's alone with other soldiers and there are no women in sight. It's like imagining the sound of that tree falling in the forest when we're not actually there to hear it.

Or at least I THINK it is... :)

Eve Edwards said...

I sometimes wonder if we would not be better off with neutral candidate numbers rather than names on books! This 'women don't do war stuff' is so disappointing in the 21st century. And of course there is no reason why you can't do a serious war romance - soldiers have love affairs too and there are many excellent books out there that explore this theme by men and women. Thanks for raising this and good luck with the research.

PS Only watch Mask of Zorro if you want a good laugh - terrible over-acting!

Pauline Chandler said...

I've written about female warriors in several history-based stories, but my girls fight only because they must to defend home and family from a determined enemy. Killing in battle is always seen as a terrible,inevitable outcome. Mariane in 'Warrior Girl'(about Joan of Arc, who wept for the men she killed) makes the point that a soldier must 'kill or die.'

adele said...

It occurs to me that the other situation where men are alone with one another, is PRISON. I've just read THIS IS HOW by M. J. Hyland and you would swear she was a man if you didn't know. A very strange and intriguing book with a very interesting first person narrator and what feels like a VERY authentic view of prison life.

alberridge said...

Eve - thanks so much for commenting. I think you're right about neutral numbers - but suspect it would all fall down horribly the moment we started promotion. I use initials, for instance, but the 'she' in my publisher's blurb is still a bit of a giveaway, and I suspect the picture is too...

Hi, Pauline, and thank you for joining in.

I think you're on pretty safe ground with women soldiers, and I've never encountered any opposition to female writers tackling such a subject. If they're also only fighting in defence of home and family, that too would be sufficiently close to the traditional gender roles not to be a problem.

I suspect it would even be acceptable if we wrote about those women who actually disguised themselves as men to serve in the army, as many did in the armies of Early Modern Europe, for instance. Women, it seems, are always allowed to write about women.

Imogen said...

All too true. I have been paid several variations on this compliment: 'I cannot believe that naval battle scene was written by a woman!'

alberridge said...

Adele - yes, of course, PRISON - that's an excellent analogy. I think the issues would be very much the same.

I'm going to have to read 'This is How' now - though I can understand why the author has again used initials to mask her gender. Did you know she was a woman before you read it - and do you think it makes a difference to how one reads it?
Appallingly, I think it MIGHT make a difference to me, which makes me every bit as bad as the prejudiced people I've been moaning about above. I'd normally approach a book on a subject so closed and secret with the assumption that the writer really knows about it, and probably has personal experience - but knowing she was a woman would preclude that from the start.

That's probably awful of me, and I need to re-examine my attitudes here. It might depend on the treatment, and the way the book was 'sold'. If it's just a straight 'novel', then there should be no problem, but I guess there's an assumption that books on closed communities (eg 'inside the IRA' memoirs) offer a glimpse of what really goes on behind the closed doors.

But I need to do what I want other readers to do - tell my assumptions to shut up, and read the book with an open mind. Many thanks for the recommendation!

alberridge said...

Imogen - I'm an ass! I should certainly have mentioned your war-writing, especially the brilliant opening to 'Anatomy of Murder'. Proof if ever it were needed that women can do this at least as well as the boys.

But patronising as it is, I confess to actually like getting those 'can't believe it's a woman' compliments. I hate saying it, but while anyone can judge my action sequences, the final arbiter of how well I write 'men' has got to be - well, men. My favourite online review is still one who referred to 'Honour and the Sword' as 'written by a bloke called A L Berridge'. RESULT!!!

Mark Burgess said...

Two novels in my 'To Read' pile. Will be leaving online reviews in due course... ;-)

alberridge said...

That's what so dangerous about this blog, Mark. My pile is already tottering, but now 'This is Not Forgiveness' by Celia Rees is smack on the top, followed by 'This is How'.
Does ANYONE ever get to the bottom of a 'To Read' pile?

Katherine Langrish said...

Fascinating post - and so are the comments. I understand the anxiety of any novelist to get things right: historical fiction demands historical accuracy as well as the emotional truth that all types of fiction demand. Reading and writing extend our own experience beyond the boundaries of the personal.

I read Siegfried Sassoon's 'Memoirs of an Infantry Officer' or Robert Graves' 'Goodbye to All That' or Wilfred Owen's poetry, partly because I love the writing, partly because they offer - they proffer - an attempt to share the inexpressible. This is what writing does. 'A raid on the inarticulate,' as T S Eliot says, 'With shabby equipment always deteriorating/In the general mess of imprecision of feeling'. Does reading 'Goodbye to All That' set me, as a reader, on a level with Graves the soldier? Of course not. Was his effort to write it, and our effort to understand him, worthwhile despite the inevitable impossibility of complete understanding? Certainly, yes!

No one of us - male or female -is ever in a position utterly to understand another individual, but
the sincere attempts we make as writers to understand and interpret foreign experiences are in my opinion not only worthwhile, but central to humanity.

alberridge said...

Katherine, I'd throw my whole post in the bin if I could only have written the last paragraph of your comment. That's it exactly.
Thank you.

ediFanoB said...

I think it is high time to involve a second male voice into the discussion.

Do we really live in 2012?
That was the first question which came up in my mind after reading your most interesting post.

There is still a way to go until we will reach égalité.

Does it matter if a book is written by a woman or a man?

Even women and men have different perceptions in the end it is the talent that counts.

When we talk about war we have a lot of people involved active and passive.
The soldiers at the front, generals far away from the front, civilians and, and, and. They all have a different perception. A general staying in a bunker during an air raid will never understand how a ten year old child felt in a simple cellar during an air raid.

I have been deeply impressed by THE HONOUR AND THE SWORD.
It was your talent, your empathy and your excellent research which led to this awesome book. Historical fiction at its best.

I think it was just a question of time to take the next step: To write about war. I need to be more precise to write about people in a war.

Your whole post reflect your intense
inner deal with the subject 'war' and its implications.

I'm pretty sure that 'Into the Valley of Death' will be on a par with anything and everything written by authors you mentioned.

alberridge said...

Thank you for commenting, Edi - and even more for your confidence!

I still think it's tricky. You're right that it's about different perceptions, but as a writer sitting comfortably away from the battlefield, I'm in the position of that general in the bunker - trying to imagine myself as the child in the cellar. I doubt it can ever be completely realised, but at least I think it's worth a try!

Leslie Wilson said...

Yes, it's amazing how many people assume, because I'm a woman, that I write 'romantic fiction.'

I think Katherine put it marvellously, and do totally agree with her. We are writers, and that surely transcends gender. Anyway, how many male writers have been in a war nowadays? Not all who write about it, for sure. It does worry me, this validation by actual experience. A man doesn't know what childbirth is like, even if they've been present. I've seen it from both inside and as birth partner, so I can testify to that.
Incidentally, I believe that Georgette Heyer's account of Waterloo in 'An Infamous Army' was at one stage on the syllabus at Sandhurst. Romantic fiction writer as military historian? Mind, she got it wrong about the Prussians - without them, Wellington would have lost.

alberridge said...

Sorry for such a late response, Leslie, I've been off air on a research trip. But thanks so much for commenting - and so wisely. The childbirth point is a clincher.

I didn't know that about Georgette Heyer, and it's a fascinating fact. Do you have a source for it at all so I can use it myself and try to look intelligent?