Saturday, May 24, 2014

Lady Crookback

An interesting post on disabled heroes and heroines in historical fiction from The History Girls. To quote:
Lady Mary Grey, youngest sister of the tragic Lady Jane was described by a contemporary ambassador as 'small, crookbacked and very ugly.' It is thought by some historians that she was born with the congenital scoliosis of her ancestor Richard III (possibly also suffered by her cousin Edward VI) and there is more than one reference to her diminutive stature, suggesting that she was, aside from her spinal distortion, remarkably small. It would seem that Lady Mary then was a woman with significant disabilities and yet one who inhabited the highest echelons of the court. It was this intriguing figure that inspired my novel Sisters of Treason.

My own daughter was paralysed as a baby and for many months we believed she would never walk. Happily she did, but that experience fuelled my desire to give a voice to one of history's invisible women and to articulate something of the kind of life she might have led as both court insider and outsider. One comes across the occasional  man with physical differences in historical fiction: Bucino the dwarf of Sarah Dunant's In the company of the Courtesan, George RR Martin's Tyrian Lannister and polio victim Tomas Ashton of Rosie Allison's The Very Thought of You. All these characters play a pivotal part in their respective narratives, with Ashton as a damaged romantic lead in the mould of Jojo Moyes's quadriplegic hero in Me Before You, Lannister as a key character and Bucino as the protagonist of Dunant's novel. But there is a distinct absence of women with disabilities at the heart of historical fiction. It seems that women are allowed flaws of character, and a prevalence of women with psychological challenges can be found, but bodily flaws seem to be taboo. Looking to the past for literary examples offers little. There is the wheelchair-bound Edith in Stephan Zweig's wonderful Beware of Pity and a number of tragic girls like Beth in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women and Love For Lydia Springs to mind too, who are defined by debilitating illness but it is hard to find empowered women who do not conform to the physical norm. It is for this reason that I chose to take that ambassador's grim appraisal at face value when creating the character of Mary Grey. I didn't want to tone down her disabilities or blur them in any way and felt it was important for her to live on the page as she was in life and allow her, in some small way, speak for all the invisible women of her time. (Read more.)

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