Putting a new spin on Roman Women
Today is a first for me. So far, everything posted on this blog has been written by yours truly, but today I’ve thrown my doors wide to Ms Alison Morton, author of the alternative history books Inceptio and Perfiditas (just released). These books are set in a Roman Empire that survived its downfall, and interestingly enough, in Ms Morton’s remodeled Roman world, women are not relegated to the role of wife and mother – most definitely not. So, without further ado, I give you Alison! (Sound effect: loud applause)
In August, I was reminded at a conference about the Bechdel test which asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. Many contemporary works fail this test of gender bias.
In her 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf observed about the literature of her time what the Bechdel test would later highlight in more recent fiction:
All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. So much has been left out, unattempted. And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. They are confidantes, of course, in Racine and the Greek tragedies. They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that.
The Bechdel test has developed since its origin in 1985 to include the depth of the female characters’ stories and the range of their concerns. Several variants of the test have been proposed—for example, that the two women must be named characters.
So in an age still stumbling towards equality, it’s a good test to apply to one’s own writing. Are the women instrumental in pushing the story forward? Do they make decisions at the critical points in a novel? Historical writing should always be in context; societal dynamics of history cannot be altered by parachuting in a 21st century feisty young miss against all those norms even when writing a subgenres such as romance, historical fantasy or alternative history.
But as we know, writers write in the context of their own societal mores; we can’t help it, that’s what we are immersed in from babyhood. I remember the rather twee Ladybird history books of the 1960s; by our standards sexist and paternalistic, but at the time perfectly normal. Writing the same children’s history books now a historian would, I hope, take a startlingly different point of view. Maybe today we still can’t have feisty Roman empresses ruling openly, but we can explore the sources containing information about them and their influences with a more open mind-set. Berenice, the queen of Judea and Livia, the wife of Augustus, would be splendid examples of women of power to investigate.
In our modern historic fiction, we can transfer this openness into our stories and make connections between women characters that are unknown from the sources, but wouldn’t be impossible. Women acting together could become agents in the plot rather than the token ‘love interest’ or mother/daughter/sister of the male protagonist.
In my alternate history thrillers, I’ve taken this much further and developed a society descended from Roman dissidents where women rule, but men are not disadvantaged. Life in Roma Nova is much more nuanced than that. My female protagonist’s story starts in INCEPTIO in a standard Western society. When she is compelled to flee to her dead mother’s homeland in Europe, Roma Nova, she finds the Roman-infused culture unnerving, but in a strange way liberating. Other strong female characters surround her; her grandmother, cousin, female colleagues and friends all drive the action. The ‘love interest’ is male and an integral part of the story, unlike many female love interests in historical thrillers. Holding an alternate historical mirror up to the standard produces very interesting reflections.
In PERFIDITAS, the second story, our heroine is well-integrated into her new society and takes a leading role. But treason is in the air. Tough as she is, she is floored by the betrayal of both Roman values and her emotional core. Whether she has the resilience to pull herself out of it and save her country is something you’ll have to read the book to find out…
Alison’s second book in the Roma Nova series, PERFIDITAS, was published a week ago in paperback and ebook formats. She’ll be launching it at Waterstones Tunbridge Wells on 6 November. Do go along!
What’s PERFIDITAS about?
Captain Carina Mitela of the Praetorian Guard Special Forces is in trouble – one colleague has tried to kill her and another has set a trap to incriminate her in a conspiracy to topple the government of Roma Nova. Founded sixteen hundred years ago by Roman dissidents and ruled by women, Roma Nova barely survived a devastating coup d’état thirty years ago. Carina swears to prevent a repeat and not merely for love of country.
Seeking help from a not quite legal old friend could wreck her marriage to the enigmatic Conrad. Once proscribed and operating illegally, she risks being terminated by both security services and conspirators. As she struggles to overcome the desperate odds and save her beloved Roma Nova and her own life, she faces the ultimate betrayal…
What others have said
“Sassy, intriguing, page-turning… Roma Nova is a fascinating world” - Simon Scarrow
“Powerful storytelling, vivid characters and a page-turning plot” – Jean Fullerton
“Scenes and characters are sometimes so vividly described that I felt I was watching a movie.” – Sue Cook
And here’s a trailer with some exciting music:
Alison Morton is the author of INCEPTIO, an alternate history thriller published by SilverWood Books in March 2013
Shortlisted for the 2013 International Rubery Book Award B.R.A.G. MedallionTM honoree
Next in series PERFIDITAS due out on 17 October 2013
You can read more about Alison, Romans, alternate history and writing here on her blog at www.alison-morton.com
or on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/AlisonMortonAuthor
PERFIDITAS page: http://www.facebook.com/Perfiditas