Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Guest post from Susan Holloway Scott: Historical Queens and Reading Teens

Today Susan Holloway Scott is stopping by to talk about teen girls' increasing interest in historical fiction. Her latest biographical novel The Countess and the King, telling the story of King James II's mistress Katherine Sedley, was published this month by NAL. Her website is susanhollowayscott.com, and she blogs along with Loretta Chase at Two Nerdy History Girls.  Welcome, Susan!

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:

Dear Susan,
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!


  1. Fantastic post. Back 10 or 15 years ago, I was definitely the teenage girl in the corner with piles of Jean Plaidy and Margaret George books.

    I had assumed that most teenage girls today are far more interested in Twilight and Mockingjay but Susan makes some great points about the appeal of historical fiction. I would love to hear more ancedotal evidence about this trend.

    Do you think it would be cool/acceptable to walk around school with a book sporting a lady in a court gown and an historical title? It certainly wasn't when I was in school.

    I have three sisters in their teens and early twenties and unfortunately none of them read historical fiction!

  2. Anonymous8:37 AM

    This was so interesting - thank you.

    I liked the reminder that the nature of teenage girls' reading matter has always been open to censure, almost to such a degree that the very notion of their reading per se was some dangerous for them (and perhaps society).

    On a personal front it brought back very happy memories of reading 'royal' historical fiction, particularly by people like Jean Plaidy and Margaret Irvine (think that is the name) There were usually in very battered editions found in which ever holiday house we were renting that summer in France. For example, how would I know anything about Charles II sister, Minette, who was married off to Monsieur, the French kings younger brother?

    Certainly these things encouraged me to study history (and to write fiction, more importantly). I do hope today's offerings, with first person narratives and glam covers are be just as attractive to teenage girls. I had a friend who had a wall full of Plaidys and Seytons and we had a whale of a time discussing them - it was our own little secret society. We would have whooped with joy to discover Phillippa Gregory's take on Katherine of Aragon for example.

    The point made about the "I can relate to her" ness of royal heroines is fascinating. I always loved the idea of the personal being political - ie the whole destiny of the nation resting on whether you could like this person you are going to have to be married to. Or will your sister chop your head off before you have a chance to become rightful Queen? There is one Plaidy (?) about the marriage of William and Mary and I seem to remember being quite impressed by it, for dealing in a realistic, non-hysterical way with a difficult issue. I suppose as a teenager you do feel like the centre of your entire universe, the queen of your own court to speak, so it's easy to imagine being a princess faced with such problems. Growing up into a woman is very like becoming that "rightful queen of England" perhaps?

  3. Great post and I love the title "Historical Queens and Reading Teens".


  4. Great post. I used to read a lot of the standard teen girls fiction. Then, a couple of years ago, a friend sent me a copy of Twilight and told me I absolutely had to read it. I read it, was entertained, and then stopped reading teen fiction altogether. Something just snapped in me and I thought, enough is enough.

    I don't want to read solely for the purpose of being entertained. I switched over to reading nonfiction exclusively for a while, and have gradually found a balance again between fiction and nonfiction. I still read more nonfiction than fiction, but I'm becoming more familiar with literary fiction and figuring out which novels are likely to educate while entertaining at the same time.

    At this point I still haven't touched historical fiction. I think I'm a little jittery about it because, like you said, it's an easy transition between trashy teen novels and the more sophisticated historical fiction genre. But I'm getting there. I love that historical fiction is so educational.

  5. Marvelous post, Susan. I agree wholeheartedly and have first hand experience to offer in evidence.

    While doing a drop-in signing, a large group of older girl scouts (15-18 years old) overheard my conversation with the customer service rep, and rushed me once I started signing. Many among them were historical fiction lovers and were quite enthusiastic to encounter an author in the genre. What ensued was one of the most stimulating conversations on the parallels of current feminine circumstances with those other centuries. These young women were intelligent, insightful, intuitive, and goal-oriented...not a Brittany Spears/Lindsay Lohan wanna be among them. They bought every copy of both my books and were thrilled to have them signed. It was a great moment.

    I've heard from a few of these young women since, and am so pleased to say their interest in historical fiction continues and grows.

  6. Great post -- and so very timely! My 16 year old in-laws have been raiding my library and I find that it's my historicals they immediately go for.

    My theory is that it's these books have more sex than the average YA book but isn't so lurid their parents will forbid them to read it!

    However, I also suspect it's that there is some sympathetic solidarity with the characters, many of whom were teenagers when such momentous events occurred in their lives.

  7. I agree- as a librarian I've noticed a resurgence of interest in historical fiction from teenagers both male (Bernard Cornwell deserves a medal:) and female, and also in hybrid historical fantasy like Mary Hoffman's "Stravaganza" series. I've also been intrigued to notice in recent years a strong demand for Georgette Heyer's novels- not from the oldies, but from teenagers and from early twenty-somethings. They're enjoying some intelligent historical romance, with lively personalities, humour and entertaining banter as an antidote to soulless sex and violence, but without any religious agenda. My take is that historical fiction can provide an escape from the pressures of the modern world for readers of all ages.

  8. Chris Woodyard10:36 AM

    Please see this related article.

    I have this awful feeling that some publisher is going to start advertising that their Young Adult books are specially designed as Wholesome Literature, using the latest in scientific research about teenaged brains.

  9. Anonymous1:40 PM

    I started reading biographies at age 8, and back then there were precious few about women who weren't saints, nurses, or royalty. My segue into historical fiction involved some of the same subjects by Margaret Campbell Barnes, Jan Wescott, Norah Lofts . . . you get the picture. It was a way of getting inside the heads of other females who had "lived" far far away from the reality that was middle school. Hmmm, I guess I was ahead of my time! Happens a lot.

    Sarah Other Librarian

  10. I got huge pleasure out of reading historical fiction as a teen - both older books like Angelique and Forever Amber and also Margaret George and Barbara Erskine - so I'm glad today's teens are enjoying it too.

    I think Audra has a very good point - historical heroines are often in their teens when a story starts, whereas contemporary heroines are usually in their twenties at least. So yes, they are more relatable.

  11. I love the reactions here - many interesting observations - thank you so much for the forum, Sarah!

    I didn't catalogue my own teen-reading, but I seemed to have followed much the same course as everyone else: Georgette Heyer (because they were in my school library), Jean Plaidy, and Phillipa Carr. I also read older 19th c. books that were set in earlier times like Sabatini, Sir Walter Scott, and Dumas, and retired bestsellers by Frank Yerby and Zoe Oldenbourg. My public library had lots of those - but the real revelation was "Forever Amber" and Angelique. Georgette's heroines seemed pretty tame after Amber St. Claire...!

    I liked that point about many hist fict novels beginning with the heroines as teenagers. Not only is this "relatable" for teenaged readers, but (I'm guessing) it's also appealing because these heroines are actually beginning the big adventures of their lives - they're regarded already as adults, and not facing years more of high school and college before they're considered adults.

    I'm glad Chris Woodyard posted that link about the dangers of girl's susceptible brains being corrupted by the secret messages of vampire books like "Twilight." Nothing ever changes, does it? :)

  12. Thanks to everyone for responding, and to Susan for contributing her wonderful essay - I suspected the topic would get people talking!

    The point about teenagers in historical novels being regarded as adults was brought home to me in the novel I'm reading now (Maeve Haran's The Lady and the Poet), which begins when the heroine, Ann More, is only fourteen. Just 50 pages in, she's been banished from the schoolroom (as a woman, she'd already been spoiled by being formally educated to that extent) and has a choice of taking her aunt's place at court or finding a husband. It makes for an interesting comparison to the situation faced by today's teenagers; women had far fewer choices in life, yet they're adults for all intents and purposes at a much younger age.

    PG's and other royal women novels are very popular at my university's library... most have checkouts in the double digits, which is much higher than the usual for research books. College students don't seem in the least embarrassed by carrying around novels with gorgeously-gowned women on the covers.

  13. Loved this post, Susan. Thanks for linking me to it. I have been surprised how many letters I have received from teens about my books. At one booksigning a 12-year-old and her mother came to listen and the girl was so shy, she couldn't say a word to me as she presented her book. Her mother said she was addicted to historical fiction and loved my first two books. I whispered to her, "Do you know how much sex there is in my books?" looking at her innocent, young child. "Oh, yes," the girl replied overhearing me. "But yours aren't nearly as bad as Philippa Gregory's." I almost fell off my chair! I grew up with Georgette Heyer and a YA author I have never seen again: Violette Needham. "The Woods of Windri" sent me day-dreaming about being in a long dress and running around castles at the tender age of ten!

  14. Deb Holland7:40 PM

    Donna, Girl Scouts Rock!

    My daughter passed Sharon Kay Penman's "When Christ and His Saints Slept" on to another girl in my troop, and she loved it. Then I gave the young lady "Katherine" and will press "Desiree" on her next.

    Daughter did not enjoy Cecilia Holland's recent Eleanor of Aquitaine book, too much sex description for her. She thinks the vampire stuff is ridiculous and has not read it, but is a big fan of Harry Potter and Narnia.

    I started with Margaret Campbell Barnes and Margaret Irving, but Katherine was my read over and over again.

  15. While I had read some isolated books, I discovered historical fiction as a genre as a high school freshman (40+ years ago) and have loved it ever since.

    I am happy to say that I have just heard a similar report from the librarian at the school where I now teach. I am making the transition to an all-girls school this year and a discussion of whether the girls read and what they read brought up historical fiction in general and, at my school, Phillipa Gregory in particular. We also, YES!!!, actually have a Jane Austen club!

    I don't know if it ever went out of style, but historical fiction is certainly *in* style where I teach right now.