Historical Queens and Reading Teens
By Susan Holloway Scott
One of the oldest forms of literary criticism has been deploring the books that young women read. From the instant that girls were first permitted to choose their own reading material, they apparently chose novels that were decried as being Very Bad for Delicate Young Females. While this might seem like a Victorian form of criticism, it’s still current today, and with the same scolding tone, too, only now it’s directed at vampires and gossip girls.
But I have news. While Bella and Edward continue to have their fans, as do Mockingjay and Harry Potter, there’s another kind of book that teenaged girls are choosing: historical fiction.
Now I don’t have hard facts and complex surveys to back this up. My conclusions are purely anecdotal – I’m a novelist and a mom, not a sociologist or statistician – and I’m basing this on what I’ve heard from booksellers and librarians, from my daughter’s friends, and from the girls I meet at book signings and on-line. But it does seem to be a growing trend, and a heartening one, too.
For some girls, the choice must seem a natural progression, from Little House on the Prairie to The Witch of Blackbird Pond to Jean Plaidy and Philippa Gregory. For them, the past has always seemed an enticing destination and a satisfying fictional escape.
But there’s another group of readers, too, one that’s just now discovering historical fiction. Some come by way of fantasy, making an easy transition from a princess in an alternative universe to one at the court of Henry VIII. Some are lured to it by the packaging of popular historical fiction. I don’t want to play the magpie-card too vigorously, but the current crop of historical novels is being beautifully presented. There’s always a young woman on the cover, and while she may be missing her head (I promise I’m not going there), she will be dressed in a gorgeous gown. Many teenaged readers think the traditional historical romance covers are cheesy beyond words, books aimed at their mothers or grandmothers, but these girls find the often-solitary ladies in their jewels and court gowns enticing indeed.
But what I think attracts these young readers the most are the stories themselves. New historical fiction is largely written in the first person, and that first person voice is usually the heroine’s. While these heroines live in worlds that are vastly different from the reader’s, there is still enough to relate to: difficult parents and handsome young gentlemen, dreams and worries about the future.
Most importantly, the heroines in historical novels are often compelled by circumstances to make difficult decisions with wide-reaching, even life-threatening consequences to themselves, to their families, and their countries. No matter the odds against them, these women are often resourceful, brave, thoughtful, and clever. They remain true to their loyalties and convictions, no matter the personal peril. In short, these historical heroines are strong women who appeal to modern girls. These girls understand and accept the dangers that women of the past faced, and they don’t shy from the harsher realities that were part of their lives; they like reality. While saving a kingdom from a conniving enemy may seem like an obvious escape from learner’s permits and SATs, the historical heroines also offer heady stories of women who dared and achieved – and got to wear the most awesome outfits while they did so, too.
If these readers pick up a love of history along the way, all the better. I’d like to share an email from a sixteen-year-old reader of my historical novels – sent, of course, via a text message on her iPhone:
I just wanted to tell you how much I have enjoyed your books!!! They are some of the best books that I have ever read and you have opened my eyes to a whole new part of history for me, I'm going to college next year and I'm hoping to major in history and I hope that there is a class on Restoration England :) because I would sign up for it in 2 seconds! Well, I love your books and I hope you keep writing more like them! (especially about Nelly [Gwyn], she's my favorite :p)
Many thanks, Dear Young Reader. I’d say the past will be in good hands in the future!
Having read Susan's thought-provoking post, I hope you'll comment with your own ideas on the subject. Have you noticed that historical fiction about royal women is finding a new audience among younger people? Did you read historical novels as a teenager? My own experience isn't dissimilar from one of Susan's examples -- my historical novel reading began with Laura Ingalls Wilder and proceeded through Jean Plaidy, by way of The Mists of Avalon and other female-centered fantasy novels. I don't recall there being much in the way of royal fiction when I was in high school (instead, I alternated between epic fantasy and Sweet Dreams teenage romances - anyone remember those?) but if the offerings were as plentiful as they are today, chances are I'd have been reading them!