Searching for Miss Marple: Women in Historical Crime Fiction
Ten years ago, travelling in India with my husband, I visited the Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur. Originally built in the fifteenth century, and rebuilt in the seventeenth, this is an impressive building set on the top of a hill. The main courtyard of the fort was the place where all the business transactions, the legal disputes and the political strategy of the region took place. This area, we were told by our guide, was restricted to men. The women, who had no place in politics, lived in the rooms above the courtyard, in the harem, away from the decision making.
When we visited those upper rooms later, I wandered away from the guide and peeped through the windows down to the place of power. From below, the stone lattice work of the harem windows had rendered the women invisible. But from the harem itself, I had a perfect view of the courtyard. It was very easy to hear as well as see what was going on.
It struck me that the women who were officially excluded were, in fact, secret participants to everything that happened below. They were always present as the weighty matters were discussed, always aware of what was going on and, perhaps, able to influence events thanks to what they had learned from their hidden vantage point.
From that moment, I have always asked myself: ‘Where are the women?’ It is very easy to overlook women in historical accounts of important events, where men make decisions and hold the power. We readily assume that the women were off-stage, and therefore that they knew nothing and had little to contribute. This is a line of thinking that needs some challenging.
It needs challenging in historical fiction too. A quick glace at any ‘best historical fiction’ lists will show, in any given era, that detective work is done by men. I have read many historical crime novels and I have loved them all: from Brother Cadfael to Tom Hawkins, via Matthew Shardlake and Marcus Didius Falco. Some of them have women who work alongside them - wives, girlfriends or housekeepers - but it is the men, by and large, who are out in the world, being observant, facing danger with bravery, mixing with the good and the bad, overturning evil, and solving the puzzles.
If the murder, or mystery, is bound up with political or military life, then we might readily assume that the protagonist in a historical crime drama needs to be a man who can engage with other men as an equal. But so often, even in historical crime, the heart of the matter is really rather mundane and human. Murders happen because of greed, lust, envy, long-held desire for revenge, or the need to keep a secret. Murders happen because of people and their grubby problems. There is no good reason to keep women out of the thick of historical fiction just because we tend to view the past through the works and words of men.
People read historical crime because they love history as well as crime. The context can be rich with period detail and yet have a female protagonist. The perfect disguise for a sleuth after all is, surely, the person no one thinks of as important, the one who has nothing to contribute, who lingers on the edges of conversations. That person might well be a woman. For most of history, that is where women have been: on the edges, looking in.
Of course, there are female detectives in historical crime fiction. One of my favourite detectives is Miss Marple: old as well as female - and dismissed as mildly dotty by the characters around her. She is invisible, overlooked and thus underestimated. All the while, behind her knitting, she is observing and piecing together the clues that others fail to see.
In my own novels, set in the middle of the eighteenth century, the protagonist is a woman. I wanted to read historical fiction with a strong female voice, and, not finding it, I began to write it. My character, Lizzie Hardwicke, is from a polite and educated background, but she’s fallen into a world of vice and is operating as a prostitute in London. She can move among the powerful men – although it’s not her brains they are interested in – and she can walk with the lowest and meanest on the streets. She can observe from the side lines and she is brave, even recklessly so, when she needs to be. She has to be, in order to survive.
For me, she gives a small voice to millions of other (real) women down the ages who have walked unseen, and who yet have seen much; whose opinions have not been sought, whose intelligence has been disputed and whose bravery has been dismissed. And I think it would be fabulous if a few more female sleuths emerged in the world of historical crime fiction and brought some of those hidden women of the past out from the shadows and into the open courtyard. They might help us to remember that, in fact as well as in fiction, of course, the women were always there.
This piece was first published in a blog for Canelo, to mark International Women's Day.