Arts Muse

History or His Story? Rewriting Women from the Archives

History becomes herstory: Cara Lee looks at how women’s lives are being rewritten into literature and on the stage.

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Image Credit: Disney Plus via AP

“Welcome to the show, to the historemix” is the resounding call of Henry VIII’s ex-wives in the musical Six, an all-singing, all-dancing spectacle reflective of a current movement in which the archives are brought to the present once more.  Hamilton is another prominent example. Following the story of Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers of America, the musical has been one of the highest grossing to ever be showcased on Broadway.

In some ways, Six is more important than Hamilton; it is part of a surge of women’s stories, being voiced in an effort to debunk the “traditional” telling of history.  By traditional, I mean male oriented.
Six breaks down the narrative of King Henry’s wives being insignificant, instead focusing  on the “ex” of in “ex-wife”.  During Ex-Wives, the first song of the musical, they claim “history’s about to get overthrown”.  Rather than being defined and trapped by  their marriage, each woman has her own story to tell and takes over the stage as both an independent woman and pop star.

Whilst history is taught in schools, it isn’t taught in a beneficial or just way.  We only know of each wife because of her relationship with Henry, and we only know about their differences because of the way the relationship progressed.  Their only tangible legacy is the rhyme, “divorced, beheaded, died.  Divorced, beheaded, survived”.

More necessary perhaps is the incorporation and promotion of women’s histories into literature – after all, musicals aren’t accessible or frankly appealing to everybody.  Winning the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction last year and being hailed as revolutionary for its revisionism, The Five, written by Hallie Rubenhold, is one example.  Rubenhold gives a life to the women murdered by Jack the Ripper, the unidentified serial killer prolific in Whitechapel in the 1880s.

Although The Five was a fascinating read, it’s also an example of the problematic nature of history. History is manipulated. How else can it be that 130 years later, we still know next-to-nothing about the women who were murdered, yet speculation has continued about the identity of the murderer?  How is it possible to create and propagate a narrative that centres solely around an unknown, not the victims?

Whilst the victims were known, there was little consideration towards them or their families.  The police attempted to fit the victims’ stories around their own prejudices: all five were assumed to be prostitutes, and conclusions were forged to agree with this, despite there being no evidence that three of the women ever were prostitutes.  Moreover, there was a feeling that the deaths were deserved if prostitution was the cause.  The fact that many women were forced into prostitution via homelessness and other hardships was ignored.

Rubenhold writes that, “it is for them that I write this book.  I do so in the hope that we may now hear the stories clearly and give back to them that which was so brutally taken away with their lives: their dignity”. Their lives now are composed entirely of parish and court registrations and birth, marriage and death records. Very little context; very little concern.

Hamnet, published earlier this year and written by Maggie O’Farrell, tells another important story; one of the impact grief has on domesticity.  Beautifully researched and beautifully told, O’Farrell creates a personality and a life for Shakespeare’s wife and children who have been utterly forgotten during history, despite their grief being the basis of one of the most famous tragic plays ever written.  Shakespeare himself has very little inclusion in the narrative – in fact, he is never named – making the story relevant to many families.  Their grief reminds us that life, and therefore history, does not just happen to the men we still know of and remember.

I finished my previous review of Hamnet by saying that, “we must also remember Hamnet, who served as the inspiration for one of the most influential plays ever written”, but in hindsight I would say we must also remember Anne Hathaway – named Agnes in Hamnet – simply for the fact that she was an ordinary woman, put under terrible circumstances.

The victims of Jack the Ripper and the wives of Henry VIII and William Shakespeare seem wildly different, but they have one thing in common.  Misogyny has fuelled the recording of history, and the almost total erasure and censorship of the women is the direct result.

It’s easy to say that their lives and stories are from different eras, and there were different attitudes to gender then.  True.  Misogyny was rife: women were seen as weaker and less important, so almost inevitably less space was given to them in the history books.  But now a revision is needed, and a change must be made in how we view history.  Censoring is one thing, but to accept and not question it is another thing entirely.

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