New feature: The revolution is in you

// 4 May 2011

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Chloe Stopa-Hunt looks back to the historical figure of Lucile Duplessis from the French Revolution and considers how she has been ‘put back’ into history by modern writers

luciled.jpgIn the flourishing, highly bankable genre of historical fiction, women are a big deal: they write books, they read books and they are often the most prominent characters within those books.

It’s a genre that combines pop culture with established literary success. Scarlett Johanssen stars in the Hollywood blockbuster adaptations, while Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall), Sarah Waters (Tipping the Velvet) and AS Byatt (Possession) jostle for various literary accolades.

Historical novels run the gamut from slippery bodice-rippers to the postmodern ‘neo-historical fiction’ which has taken off over the past couple of decades, which usually replaces conventional romance with a more critical engagement with fictional and factual texts surviving from the author’s period of choice.

Any period will do for a bit of spicing-up. Ancient Rome, Tudor England, or Sarah Waters’ seedy, sexy Victorian London: all have been shaped in our imaginations by best-selling works of fiction. Compelling as revolutionary France is from a feminist perspective, however, it has received less attention, in part because its political complexities are daunting, with new factions rising and falling day by day. But Marge Piercy, introducing her novel, City of Darkness, City of Light, set during the period, identifies it as an era that calls for feminist analysis, and in particular for comparisons with the present day:

We have had no shortage of revolutions in our time that did not fulfil their promises. Women have fought again and again in causes, that, when won, have not given us the freedom, the benefits we expected.

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