Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
English & Film Studies
Faculty of Arts
Dr. Andrea Austin
This dissertation contributes to a developing body of work on women’s historical fiction and its significance to feminist discourse. Building from Diana Wallace’s 2005 study The Woman’s Historical Novel: British Women Writers, 1900-2000, I offer a modified definition of “the woman’s historical novel” and a transatlantic consideration of several of the most popular titles in the contemporary period, including The Other Boleyn Girl (2001), Outlander (1991), A Great and Terrible Beauty (2003), and Scarlett (1991). Several studies have followed Wallace’s, notably Ann Heilmann and Mark Llewellyn’s Metafiction and Metahistory in Contemporary Women’s Writing (2007) and Katherine Cooper and Emma Short’s The Female Figure in Contemporary Historical Fiction (2012). However, these studies are often somewhat highbrow in their scholarship; they examine prize-winning texts by authors like Angela Carter, A. S. Byatt, Michèle Roberts, Margaret Atwood, and Sarah Waters, but often leave the relationship between popular culture and feminist politics in bestselling women’s historical novels undertheorized. On the other hand, while feminist critics like Imelda Whelehan, Susan Douglas, and Andi Zeisler have raised questions about the commercialization and dilution of feminist theory when it appears in popular fiction, film, television, and music, their studies have not addressed historical fiction in detail.
Since historical fiction is one of the most prominent genres of the twenty-first century, this dissertation brings together the discourses of feminist pop culture criticism and theories of feminist historiography to address the tensions between narrative pleasures and feminist politics in some of the most recognizable women’s historical novels of the past twenty-five years. I offer a reading of these novels that illuminates how contemporary writers and readers uphold the importance of feminist gains when they imagine the past, but also express longing for aspects of traditional femininity that have been made taboo by modern feminist discourse. My study considers the contradictions or tensions between the novels’ feminist themes, such as the importance of female autonomy, women’s education, and sisterhood, and the various pleasures these texts provide, such as romance, erotic content, reverence for traditional gender roles, emphasis on clothes and other material trappings of femininity, and a focus on affluent, white, heterosexual women. Interrogating the various feminist and anti-feminist discourses and ideologies present in these popular, middlebrow novels, I attempt to add complexity and nuance to existing understandings of women’s historical fiction as feminist historiography, and to consider how and why feminist discourse is shaped by nostalgia, romanticization, and exoticism in these texts.
Kennedy, Victoria, "Narrative Pleasures and Feminist Politics: Popular Women’s Historical Fiction, 1990-2015" (2017). Theses and Dissertations (Comprehensive). 1916.