Female characters in Historical Fiction

Posted on 6th May 2016 by Sally Campbell & S. J. Parris
S. J. Parris is the author of Conspiracy, the latest instalment in the bestselling Giordano Bruno series of crime novels set in the sixteenth century. Here, she discusses female characters in historical fiction.

In 2012, S. J. Parris began her ambitious series of historical crime novels that centre on the character of Giordano Bruno. Bruno was a real-life sixteenth century Italian Dominican friar, scientist and spy, who was accused of heresy by The Roman Inquisition. Parris's novels reimagine his life on the run from the Inquisition as pacy and engrossing thrillers; the newest of which, Conspiracy, is out now in hardback.


One of the difficulties for writers of historical fiction is creating strong female characters who can play a part in great events without seeming anachronistic. Of course, it depends on the period of history but, in general, the further back you go, the more you realise just how much the public, political landscape was dominated by men, and what a tiny handful of women have actually been acknowledged for their contribution. If, like me, you write sixteenth-century thrillers set in the world of European espionage, it can seem even more of a stretch; it was so much harder for even wealthy women to travel freely or move undercover in the kind of circles where vital intelligence was being shared, so how do you create exciting roles for female characters while keeping them historically convincing?

You can imagine my delight, then, when I discovered, in the course of my researches into the French court of Henri III, the existence of the Flying Squadron. This was the nickname given to an elite group of aristocratic young women serving Henri’s mother, the formidable Catherine de Medici, who was the real power behind the throne of her louche and useless son. With the country on the edge of a three-way civil war and the court riven with rival factions, all plotting to overthrow or assassinate the king, Catherine needed a means of keeping tabs on the most powerful men at court and their followers. She hand-picked the Flying Squadron for their beauty, brains and discretion. Ostensibly they served her as ladies-in-waiting, but their real work was gathering intelligence, like early Mata Haris, through the only (and most obvious) means available to them.

Despite her image as an austere, pious widow, Catherine understood the power of sex better than anyone. She deployed her girls with admirable precision, sending them to seduce various potential rivals for the throne (including the king’s own brother) and bring back whatever secrets they could persuade their lovers to blurt out. At least one major plot against the king was foiled by these women; the two conspirators were executed as traitors, betrayed by their careless pillow-talk.

Conspiracy, the fifth book in my Tudor thriller series featuring the real-life heretic and spy Giordano Bruno, takes place in Paris and unfolds around a series of high-profile murders that seem designed to cover up a dangerous secret. As Bruno is drawn into the investigation, he finds himself attracting the attention of one of Catherine’s Flying Squadron. While I’ve fictionalised the characters involved, many of the details are borrowed directly from the lives of real women, and it was affecting to explore how they might have felt about the role they were asked to play at court; how far they would have been able to put aside their own feelings for the sake of duty, and how it felt to enter into relationships with the intention of betraying your lover.

There have been a number of recent thrillers set in the near-past and featuring female spies – I’m thinking of Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth or Simon Mawer’s Tightrope, both gripping fictional explorations of the spying game from a different perspective. I hope Conspiracy will add to that genre and remind readers that smart, resourceful women have been playing their part in power games behind the scenes for centuries. 


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