Old woman pouring tea, unknown artist, 19th century, OP582
by Black Country Museums. Creative Commons license.

You want to write a women’s fiction novel set in Victorian or Regency eras, or before, and your protagonist is an unmarried, independent woman, or at least independent in spirit if not entirely in body. To stay true to the historical frame, how do you write a female who has agency — having at least a smattering of self-determination, living partially free of the reins of a male? As historical fiction writers, we aim to stay true to the times while producing a good read for our (mostly) women audience, hopefully showing female empowerment, revealing the bravery, creativity, and perseverance of women who triumph despite the social constraints we all know wove around them like a web.

The fact is, women have always found spaces in which to practice agency, and it’s our job as writers to show that while the scullery maid in the manor did not head off to the Barbados to practice reflexivity and contemplate her self will, she did have an inner life, and, when she could, an outer life of her choosing. Maybe her agency only expressed in her gaze upon others, her private thoughts, her one afternoon off a week, or her low chuckle with a comrade shared in the shadowy corners. It’s something intriguing for writers of historical fiction to probe.

But, now and then, you find extraordinary women from the past who managed more, who broke from the rules and expectations of their society. Here is one: Anna Maria Garthwaite. She is beautifully written about in the blog This Spitalfields Life, which I highly recommend for any researcher/writer interested in London past and present. Garthwaite is a fascinating example of female agency in the times, a topic of hot debate among the writers and scholars attending the Historical Novel Society Conference last week (June 21-27, 2021), in San Antonio, Texas/USA and online. How, we asked, do we write female characters who have enough movement, if you will, that they are capable of shouldering the role of protagonist in the novel?

At any rate, Anna’s story is delightful! The Spitalfields blog writer — The Gentle Author, as he goes by — generously shares not only her history but also photos of Garthwaite’s home as well. And, as I mentioned at the conference, in addition to such blogs, Listservs, especially academic ones, are FABULOUS research resources, chock-a-block with specialists answering questions from A to Z in your chosen time period. For example, I use Victoria_19th Century Listserv, Indiana U, https://list.indiana.edu/sympa/arc/victoria/2021-06/

Here’s a great article from the University of Iowa on how to get started with the right Listservs for your purposes.

Express your agency. Write on!