bunn (bunn) wrote,

Women in Sutcliff

Sutcliff  was rather ahead of her time as a woman writer (disabled woman writer at that).  There she is in 1950, the era of the housewife - making a living out of writing books.  OK, she's far from being alone - but I think it's fair to say she was still unusual.   And she was not writing romances, or detective novels or books that could be thought of as written for a female audience, but big exciting adventures full of soldiers and warriors and battles - and I think that *was* a bit groundbreaking. Sutcliff wrote the kind of books that might have been described as 'boy's books'.  And she did it astonishingly successfully, and under her own name : no coy initials to hide the fact that this is a woman author competing directly with the men on their own territory.

So much for Sutcliff the woman writer.  What about Sutcliff's handling of female characters in her books?

They tend to be independent, strong personalities.  There are some weak women in Sutcliff - Cottia's Aunt Valaria, in Eagle of the Ninth,  Alexios's useless weepy mother in Frontier Wolf,  possibly Ness's pretty sister in The Lantern Bearers - but on the whole, Sutcliff women tend to be pretty tough.  They may not be warriors, but they definitely make their own decisions and leave their menfolk in no doubt about that.

  Cottia,  Cordaella from Eagle's Egg,  Guinhumara and Helen the whore of Eburacum in Sword at Sunset and of course above all, Boudicca - these are not women to mess with.  Even Ness, who is forced into what starts out as a pretty loveless and forced political marriage with Aquila - that marriage looks rather different when you see it later through Artos's eyes. Artos thinks Aquila is totally besotted with Ness and my impression at any rate is that Artos thinks he's a bit henpecked...

Flavia from Lantern Bearers is a bit different, because her situation is SO dire - stolen at swordpoint from her burning home, and she's more sophisticated and Roman than most of Sutcliff's characters.   Oddly, she reminds me just a little of Regina from Dawn Wind - even though Regina is right at the other end of the social spectrum as a despised waif, whereas Aquila's sister Flavia is clearly an educated landowner  - both of them are people who don't really get much choice other than to do what men want them to.   Arguably nor does Ness, I suppose, but she doesn't strike me as being quite so helpless as those two - perhaps because we get shown in detail how broken her husband Aquila is, but we don't get the same insight into Flavia's husband.

Sutcliff's Roman characters tend to be male, and her female characters tend to be more British.  In fact, in Sword at Sunset this division is quite explicit, with Artos thinking of his British side as the 'woman's side' and his Roman side as the father's side, the male side.

  I don't think that's deliberate, but it's perhaps an unfortunate unconscious bias showing up there, with female characters being independent-minded but ultimately vulnerable and dependent: they may be feisty, but a lot of them are ultimately a bit doomed.   I can't quite imagine Sutcliff writing, say, about the Empress Theodora, or  Empress Livia, genuinely powerful women who shaped the world around them...

Though that said, of course, I have missed out Hengist's daughter Rowena, the golden witch in a crimson gown who enchanted Vortigern in the Lantern Bearers and in Sword at Sunset.  She's an invader, not one of the doomed defenders, and she's pretty lethal in her own way. But the tables are turned on her and she is shown dying in detail, in exactly the way that piles of invading male Roman characters aren't.   The same would apply to Sutcliff's Ygerna (who plays the Morgan Le Fay role in the Arthurian retelling,  Sword at Sunset) .

And now I think of her, how could I forget the wonderful Great Aunt Honaria in The Silver Branch?  She is definitely Roman, not British, with her Calleva townhouse -  definitely no representative of a defeated people and she's not any kind of enigmatic symbol of womanhood either.  But she does save both the heroes quite impressively...

I think Sutcliff's women do perhaps tend to be a little one-dimensional compared with her male characters?  Tthough no doubt this is  because she tends to write stories where men are the leading characters. Some of her women are strong, but maybe a bit distant?

I feel particularly uncomfortable about the motivation of Ygerna, because although she and her son Medraut are painted as out and out evil, it's not entirely clear to me WHY Ygerna is such a monster (it's clear why Medraut is: because Ygerna brought him up that way...).   I think it's a little unusual for Sutcliff's characters to be quite so one-dimensional - even Medraut gets a few moments of possible redemption - but Ygerna seems to me to be a traditional one-shade evil bitch, with no qualification..

I haven't read Flame Coloured Taffeta, which I believe has a female protagonist.   Most of Sutcliff's protagonists and viewpoint characters are male, and she seems comfortable writing from a male perspective - which of course she does very well, and it brought her considerable commercial success.  Arguably, Sutcliff wrote the male perspective that her audience (of both sexes) wanted to read.

I do want to give a special mention to  Boudicca.  Boudicca is horrifying, but I think she's also almost sympathetic.  I feel you can kind of see where she is coming from - and for a book about a mass-murdering torturer, that's quite some writing.   I'm always awed by Song for a Dark Queen, even though it's such a sad book.   It has a male narrator, of course.  Would it have been a better book with a female narrator?  I'm not sure it would.  I think Boudicca of all women is probably one where you can kind of use a little distance to look at her from.... 
Tags: books, eagle, writing

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