‘Herstory’ to Postmodern Histories: History as Dissent in the 1980s

  • Diana Wallace


The 1980s saw the beginnings of a renaissance in the ‘serious’ or ‘literary’ woman’s historical novel, a stream of novels which broadened into a veritable flood in the 1990s. This was part of a general resurgence of interest in the historical novel also marked by the popularity of male writers like John Fowles, Umberto Eco and Peter Ackroyd, who were reworking the genre in ways which were formally, if not politically, radical.1 While these male-authored historical novels frequently elided the female, either erasing women altogether or presenting them as the enigmatic ‘Other’, women’s historical novels were politically driven, refashioning history through fiction as part of the urgent need to tell ‘her story’. Women’s history had to be recovered and reconstructed before it could be deconstructed.


Historical Narrative Double Sexual Standard Woman Writer Economic Individualism Historical Fiction 
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  1. 1.
    The film of John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969), directed by Karel Reisz and released in 1981, stimulated renewed interest in Fowles’ novel and contributed to the 1980s interest in the Victorian period.Google Scholar
  2. Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1980, published in English translation in 1983) was important in helping to make the genre of historical fiction respectable again (see Rozett, 1995, 145). Eco’s novel has almost no women characters. Fowles makes Sarah Woodruff the enigmatic ‘Other’ of his novel, the object not the subject of history and of the male gaze.Google Scholar
  3. While Ackroyd’s novels portray male homosexuality, as in The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (1983), they show a similar lack of interest in women’s history.Google Scholar
  4. 3.
    See, for instance, Paulina Palmer (1989) and Patricia Duncker (1992). This is particularly noticeable in Anne Cranny Francis’ Feminist Fiction: Feminist Uses of Generic Fiction (1990) which examines several genres, including romance, science fiction and the detective novel, but not the historical novel. Lyn Pykett (1987) is one of the few critics to discuss women’s historical novels in the 1980s.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    See Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse (1978), where he argues that historical narrative can be emplotted according to the literary tropes of romance, comedy, tragedy or satire, and that each of these accords with an ideological implication, here respectively, anarchist, conservative, radical and liberal (1985, 70).Google Scholar
  6. 8.
    The Nag Hammedi gospels were a major source for Roberts’ novel. Their potential interest for feminist theorists had been explored by Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels (1979).Google Scholar
  7. 10.
    See Pierre Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production (1978). Gregory’s secondary material includes Arnold Kettle and Raymond Williams but not, for instance, E.P. Thompson or Marx himself.Google Scholar

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© Diana Wallace 2005

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  • Diana Wallace

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