Cranky Ladies of History
Cranky Ladies of History is an anthology of short fiction about real historical women who were angry and did things with that anger. Some of these things were spectacular, and some were just spectacularly appalling (looking at you, Erszebet Báthory) (but not looking too closely, because I really don’t want to provoke you), but it makes for a fascinating anthology theme, tailor-made for fans of Carrie’s ‘Kickass Women in History’ series. In the introduction, Tansy Rayner Roberts talks about the importance of celebrating women’s anger – something she characterises as both ‘deliciously rebellious’ and ‘empowering’:
The ability to express anger in a satisfying way has always been a privilege restricted to very few people in our society. Women’s anger is more socially acceptable than it used to be, but we still have a long way to go about accepting and listening to the rage and unhappiness of those who are not rich, white, able-bodied and male.
So if you are wondering whether this anthology might just possibly have feminist tendencies, why yes, yes, it does. The editors were also intentionally intersectional, though they acknowledge that they weren’t able to get as much diversity as they had hoped for; nonetheless nearly half the stories feature women of colour, from Neferure to Sacagawea, and and there are several lesbian or bisexual heroines (I especially enjoyed Queensland doctor Lillian Cooper and her companion Jo Bedford, who seem to have been considered quite comfortably as a couple by everyone who knew them). Disability is less well represented, though Hildegard of Bingen is depicted as having her visions associated with grand mal seizures, and Mary Wollstonecraft probably suffered from depression. Also, there are a lot of older women in this anthology, and all of them are still doing the things they need to do without hesitation, and in some cases quite explicitly with less patience or hesitation than they might have had when they were younger (nobody ever accused Eleanor of Aquitaine of mellowing in her old age).
This all makes it sound very serious and literary, but the anthology is actually a huge amount of fun, as befits a project which started from a fairly delightful blog post by Liz Barr about Tsaritsa Sophia Alekseyevna of Russia, ‘would-be usurper, all-around cranky lady’. (Barr does, in fact, have the first story in this book, but it’s not about Sophia Alekseyevna.) In fact, one thing which impressed me about this anthology was that there really were no weak stories. Perhaps when you have such a strong central character a strong story follows naturally?
I also loved how the anthology was put together. The stories wandered gently between genres; some were strict historical fiction, others had a touch of fantasy, fairy tale, myth, or even science fiction to them, and all were ordered with a keen eye to the stories that surrounded them. One little detail that I found very satisfying was starting the book with a story of Mary Tudor and the fall of Anne Boleyn, and ending it with a story about Elizabeth Tudor, set during Mary’s reign, when Elizabeth was imprisoned in the Tower of London.
The cranky ladies follow a variety of avocations – we have Queens and Empresses like Ranavalona of Madagascar and Theodora of Byzantium; we have inventors like Leizu of China, pirates and privateers like Gráinne O’Malley, Ching Shih and Jeanne de Clisson, writers like Colette, Catherine Spence and Cora Crane, and warriors like Khutulun or Nora of Kelmendi. We have heroines like Lady Godiva and villainesses like Hallgerður (though the story does a nice job of questioning just how much of a villain she was – I feel like her tragedy was that she would have been an excellent male Viking, and this was not the right skill set for a Viking’s wife.)
You may have noticed the plethora of Wikipedia links in this review. This is because while the stories are fictional, their heroines are not, and as a result I found myself resorting to Wikipedia a lot while reading these stories, to find out more about the women featured. I majored in medieval history at university, and grew up on Rosemary Sutcliffe and Tudors and the English Civil War, so I knew who most of the Europeans were, but I was stumped for a lot of the others. Reading through this anthology thus became an exercise in reading a story, then hopping onto my phone or computer to look up keywords and see if I could figure out who it was about (this was not always immediately obvious), which was usually followed by me falling down an internet rabbit hole and not emerging for days.
I’m not going to try to review all the stories – there are 22 of them, after all, and that would make the review nearly as long as the book. But I want to highlight a few stories that stood out for me.
‘Look how cold my hands are’, by Deborah Biancotti, is about Erszebet Bathory, a Hungarian Countess purported to have murdered more than 600 young girls, and the inspiration for numerous vampire stories. The story is told from her viewpoint and is as creepy as hell, with a nice hint of the paranormal that may or may not actually be paranormal. You can tell from the start that something terrible is going to happen, but it takes a while to realise what that terrible thing is, because it’s not what you are led to believe. Erszebet is the ultimate unreliable narrator because she is absolutely sincere, it’s just that her worldview is… not quite the same as anyone else’s. I normally avoid horror stories, but this one is very compelling.
‘Theodora’, by Barbara Robson, is an absolute delight. It tells the story of Empress Theodora, a young actress and (probably) prostitute who caught the eye of Emperor Justinian and eventually married him. This one is especially fun, because if you have a passing interest in Byzantine history, you have certainly come across Procopius’s salaciously slanderous biography of Theodora, excerpts from which are interspersed with the story.
I have a particular soft spot for ‘Hallowed Ground’, by Juliet Marillier. It’s about Hildegard of Bingen, one of my favourite medieval women, and it is full of music, and theology, and reflections on age, and it’s just a very beautiful thing to read. I was similarly delighted by ‘Little Battles’, by L.M. Myles, which is about Eleanor of Aquitaine as an old woman shepherding her granddaughter, Blanche, across Europe to her wedding, and passing on her very pragmatic views of Queenship as she goes. I am not certain that these are the best two stories in the book, but they are my favourites nonetheless.
‘Charmed Life’, by Joyce Chng, is about Empress Leizu of China, who is credited with being the inventor of silk farming. Her story feels like the inner workings of a fairy tale – not the stylised bits, but the bits where the girl who grew up in a smithy needs to learn how to live in the world of the Emperor who marries her without losing herself. I enjoyed this very much.
For pure fun, there is ‘Bright Moon’, by Foz Meadows, which tells the story of Khutulun, daughter of the Khan, who will not marry a man unless he can beat her at wrestling. This is another one that feels like a fairy tale, but a much brighter one – Khutulun’s family relationships are unexpectedly warm, and she has so much determination and integrity. The ending is just right, too.
‘Vintana’, by Thoraiya Dyer, is about Ranavalona, a Queen of Madagascar in the 19th century, who fought the Christianisation of her country, and the encroaching European influence. What I especially liked here was the way that her religion was depicted, and the way that the main priest, while clearly believing in and fearing the Gods, also believes it is his job to help the Gods along with appropriate omens and miracles. One is left uncertain as to what was the action of the Gods and what was the action of the priest, and whether the priest’s actions are, in fact, the actions of the Gods if they allow him to do this.
A few outliers are worth mentioning. There is one poem in the book, ‘A Song for Sacagawea’, by Jane Yolen. I didn’t quite know what to make of it, but it did have a sort of ‘backwards and in high heels’ vibe to it, which I liked. There is also a very odd little Catherine Helen Spence pastiche called ‘Another week in the Future: An Excerpt’, by Kaaron Warren, which is strange and science fictional – evidently Spence wrote a futuristic utopia set in 1988, and Warren takes Spence’s time traveller forward a further 100 years, where things are significantly less utopic. I found this one strange and a bit unpleasant to read, but interesting nonetheless.
‘Mary, Mary’ by Kirstyn McDermott is a rather dark and eerie story about Mary Wollstonecraft, set in the last days of her life. It is desperately sad, because in many ways, Wollstonecraft’s life was desperately sad, but also rather beautiful, with some interesting paranormal elements and a splash of brightness at the ending.
And I can’t fail to mention ‘Due Care and Attention’, by Sylvia Kelso, because who doesn’t want a story about one of the first woman doctors in Australia rampaging around Queensland with her dear friend Jo, breaking the speed limit (driving at a full 18 miles per hour on a public street!), swearing a lot, and saving lives? I’d never even heard of Dr Lillian Cooper before – though apparently she has an electorate named after her in Queensland – and her lifelong companion, Mary Josephine Bedford, was also a notable philanthropist who campaigned against animal cruelty. I am 100% here for this excellent lesbian couple who managed to live long, happy and productive lives together, and who were so manifestly awesome that everyone around them kind of went, yeah, OK, they’re a couple, and treated them as they would a male doctor and his wife.
I am veering awfully close to writing about every single story that I liked, which is a problem, because I really did like everything in the anthology. So this is me dragging myself back from the brink while whispering in your ear that you really do want to read all the stories I didn’t mention, too, because they are all just so *good*.
What this anthology doesn’t have much of is romance, which is perhaps not surprising – when the theme of your anthology is women’s rage, you aren’t going to get happy endings all the time, and the ones you do get are unlikely to be romantic. But there are a lot of highly satisfying endings, nonetheless, from the women who achieve the things they set out to achieve and are very content with this, whether this includes a partner, or children, or both, or neither. And, while I love my romantic happy-ever-afters, it’s refreshing to read the stories of real life women who found personal fulfilment outside the traditional female roles, and who weren’t afraid to be cranky when they needed to be.
Essentially, if you are a bit of a history geek, and if you like feminism and mythology and fairy tales, and if you want to read lots of stories by women and about women and then find yourself spending the next week or three looking up articles about all the amazing and fascinating women whom you hadn’t previously heard of (and then about all the side stories you find when you read those stories, and then the stories that spring off from there…), you are really going to enjoy this anthology. It has humour, and sadness, and fierceness, and courage, and darkness, and the joy of discovery – I guarantee you that there will be something in there that will make you sit up in delight and go, wait, she did what?!
(And the answer is always, yes, she did.)