Warriors, pirates, murderers and queens…
Throughout history, women from all walks of life have had good reason to be cranky. Some of our most memorable historical figures were outspoken, dramatic, brave, feisty, rebellious and downright ornery.
Cranky Ladies of History is a celebration of 22 women who challenged conventional wisdom about appropriate female behaviour, from the ancient world all the way through to the twentieth century. Some of our protagonists are infamous and iconic, while others have been all but forgotten under the heavy weight of history.
Sometimes you have to break the rules before the rules break you.
This review is presented as part of my commitment to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015. I was a contributor to the Pozible campaign that partially funded the production of this book.
Cranky Ladies of History is an anthology edited by Tansy Rayner Roberts and Tehani Wessley, published by Fablecroft Publishing. Publication of the anthology was supported by a crowdfunding campaign on Pozible and by a Tasmanian Arts Crowbar Grant.
When I first heard about the crowdfunding campaign for Cranky Ladies of History, I rushed to fund it. Not only was I going to be on board with any anthology edited by Roberts and Wessley, but the theme had me at “cranky ladies”. I opted to fund at the level which gave me the hardcover edition, which is a truly beautiful book. Kathleen Jennings has created yet another utterly gorgeous cover, not to mention the internal illustrations in the book, which are all amazing.
I have to admit upfront that I am not the most thoroughly read in terms of history or historical fiction, and as such, many of the cranky ladies depicted in the stories were unknown to me. As I started to read, I found myself wishing that each story had been prefaced by a small biography of the woman in question, but as I read more, I found myself glad that none had been provided. There was a small thrill of recognition in seeing the women I recognised, and it was quite lovely to come to the ones I wasn’t familiar with without any prior assumptions. Every one of the women was fascinating, and I suspect that there is going to be a lot of reading about their histories in my future.
I went into this anthology expecting a particular kind of woman to be represented: the woman who fought for good, and perhaps broke social norms in order to do so. I was pleasantly surprised that there was, in fact, a wide range of “cranky ladies” presented (and honestly, I shouldn’t have been, given the editors and authors involved). The fighter for good and breaker of social norms was there, as well as the warrior, but there were also darker levels of “crankiness” presented, for example, Countess Bathory, who can in no terms be described as good, but was certainly a cranky lady of her time.
I’m not going to talk about all of the stories in depth, but don’t take this to mean that they’re not all worthy of your time. These are simply the stories that have particular resonance for me in terms of my reading taste.
Partway through reading, I tweeted that Kirstyn McDermott’s “Mary, Mary” had instantly become one of my favourite short stories of all time. Now, having finished reading the anthology, I stand by this. Mary Woolstonecroft, feminist, writer, and mother of Mary Shelley (she died ten days after giving birth to the second Mary) is the focus of this story. McDermott’s prose is gorgeous and lush as always, and there is a clear empathy for both Marys and for the plight of all women of the time. I loved the inclusion of the possibly-supernatural Grey Lady in this, too. I think this is possibly one of McDermott’s strongest short stories to date.
Deborah Biancotti’s “Look How Cold My Hands Are” concerns the aforementioned Countess Bathory. Bathory is said to have been one of the most prolific serial killers in history, who tortured and abused hundreds of young women. Her punishment was being immured in her castle, and she remained walled up for the last four years of her life. Biancotti, as to be expected from her body of work, does not shy away from any of the horror of Bathory’s actions, and renders the Countess a very believeable and truly horrible figure. There is no redemption for Bathory, and yet Biancotti manages to convey a sense of the Countess’ belief that her actions were just.
The third story I’m going to mention is Amanda Pillar’s “Neter, Nefer”. A brief caveat: I’ve worked with Pillar as my editor, a role at which she is brilliant. Here, we get to see that she’s also a brilliant writer. I’ve always been fascinated by Ancient Egypt, so it’s little surprise that I was drawn to this story on that basis alone, but I utterly loved the way Pillar approached the story of the female pharaoh Hatshephut. The story is told from the perspective of Hatshephut’s daughter Neferure, and reveals so much about women in Ancient Egypt, and describes a fascinating mother-daughter relationship at the same time. I would throw great wads of money at Pillar to have this expanded into a full novel.
It would have been very easy for editors to fall into the trap of choosing stories and protagonists who came only from a Eurocentric background in developing an anthology like this. Wessley and Roberts–as I would expect from them–do not fall into this trap. The collection is cleverly bookmarked by stories that reference Anne Boleyn, but we travel much of the world in between these two. We have stories about cranky women from Central Asia (Foz Meadows writing about Khutulan, warrior who challenged any man who wished to marry her to defeat her in wrestling; loss meant forfeiting horses to her. She is said to have won 10,000 horses in this fashion), China (Joyce Chng writing about Leizu, the Chinese empress who discovered silk), Australia (Sylvia Kelso, writing about Lilian Cooper, first female doctor registered in Queensland) and Iceland (Lisa L. Hannett, writing about Hallgerðr Höskuldsdóttir, Viking woman who suffers from terrible luck), as well as many more, including a great many awesome female pirates (and I would also pay money for a Cranky Lady Pirates sequel!).
It bears repeating that all of the stories in this book are excellent, not just the ones I’ve singled out above. Reading this anthology, it made me realise just how many of the female stories are left out of traditional history as its taught, women most often relegated to the margins as daughters and wives, their own stories forgotten. I’d like to think that somewhere in the past, these women are looking up and thanking the authors and editors for shining a light on them in all of their glorious crankiness.
Highly recommended, even if you don’t usually enjoy historical fiction.