"We're going to survive - our songs, our stories": Conservatism in Contemporary Feminist Historical Fiction

Activity: Talk or presentationOral presentationResearch


While feminist revisions have consistently made up a part of historical fictions, there has been a rise in frequency and acclaim of such rewritings in anglophone fiction since the 2010s. With Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad (2005) and Ursula K Le Guin’s Lavinia (2008) functioning as precursors, there has been a new wave of rewritings of historical and mythological material in the last decade, ranging from Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles (2011) over Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls (2018) to Katherine J Chen’s Joan (2022).

These critically acclaimed and commercially successful books are lauded as feminist interventions rewriting gender roles and giving a “powerful voice” to the silenced women of Ancient Greece (Seymour 2021). However, they are conservative in character, providing only limited emancipatory function. By consistently casting women as passive victims and men as active perpetrators, they corroborate rather than undermine dominating gender stereotypes and historiographical and mnemonic structures in the UK and the US, making use of the past in such a way that “history only makes sense because it offers familiarity in a familiar form” (Davies 2006, p. 31). A comparison with Le Guin’s Lavinia reveals fruitful alternatives to these clear-cut narratives that focus on making the past usable for the present.
Period17 Feb 202319 Feb 2023
Event titleHistorical Fictions Research Network (HFRN) Annual Conference 2023: Values
Event typeConference
LocationUnited KingdomShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational