The role and behaviour women is one of the most difficult and delicate components of good historical fiction. Few aspects of past societies are so consistently mishandled and misrepresented as the role of women. Some novelists, particularly the writers of historical romance, find it impossible to recognize that women did have attitudes different from those common today with respect to men, fathers, husbands and sex itself. Other writers are determined to portray women of the past as oppressed, underprivileged, weak or brainless.
A good historical novelist looks at the specific period and society in which the novel is set very carefully. He/she researches the role and, to the extent possible, known attitudes of women of the period and ensures that his/her characters operate within the norms of the society in which they live in the novel. Even gestures and language should be consistent with the social restrictions of the period. Because of the importance of this aspect of historical fiction, I have decided to devote three entries to the topic, each focused on a different context. Today I am looking at Nazi Germany.
When interviewing women who lived in Nazi Germany, I was told again and again that “we weren’t like girls nowadays.” The women repeatedly complained that modern portrayals of Nazi Germany ignored fundamental cultural rules - simple things like women not smoking, not swearing, not wearing make-up, not talking about sex and not sleeping around. I was consequently very careful to make the female characters in my novels set in Nazi Germany conform to “the rules.” I also try to explain these rules to my readers.
In the first example, from An Obsolete Honor, Alexandra, a young woman with a law degree, is talking to her younger brother Stefan about her job as a secretary with the German General Staff and her fiancé, a German staff officer and baron.
"Mother says I’m marrying ‘under false pretences’ if I let Philip think I’m a good housewife, when all the time I can hardly fry an egg. She wants me to settle down and learn to cook properly and all that.” Stefan rolled his eyes sympathetically. He knew how hard Alix had struggled to avoid being turned into a housewife. “So I wrote to Philip,” Alix continued, “and said: Look, I’m a terrible cook and housewife. Do you still want me?”
Alix grinned at her younger brother. “He said: if he was concerned about cooking and cleaning, he’d hire someone – but he didn’t intend to marry them.”
When he finished laughing, Stefan remarked, “Money is wonderful. I hope we win the war, or it might not be that simple.”
“I’ll worry about that tomorrow.”
“You’re right: enjoy the war, the peace is going to be terrible!”
One very important aspect of this exchange is that although Alexandra doesn’t like the expectations of her mother and society, her ‘rebellion’ is within the realm of the possible. She has a law-degree, which she can’t use. She is working in a secretarial job, and trying to make the best of it. And, although not explicit in the scene above, the reader knows she is still a virgin. Alexandra is a “good” girl rebelling only as far as her family, her society – and her fiancé – allow her.
In the next example, also from An Obsolete Honor, the young medical student Marianne encounters a different reaction from her fiancé with respect to her non-conformist behaviour, in this case membership in the non-Nationalist Confessing Church.
“When we marry, you’ll have to give up the Church,” Peter told her.
"Why?” Marianne demanded sharply, turning back.
“You know the Leadership disapproves of religion. It would be disastrous for my career if you were a practicing Christian – much less in the Confessing Church!”
“Well, then, maybe we shouldn’t get married after all!” Marianne decided.
Peter was flabbergasted. “Marianne! You can’t mean that!”
“I’m not going to give up the Church for you or any one!”
She opened the door and ran down the steps without a backward glance...
But Marianne has already slept with Peter so she soon realizes she cannot maintain her stance....
In the exchange below, I return to Alexandra and her brother but much later in the novel than the excerpt above, Alexandra tries to make Stefan, who is now dating himself but does not want to commit himself to marriage, to see things from a woman’s point of view.
“You’re right,” Alix stated with a shrug, sitting upright and leaning against the back of the bench. She fixed a cold gaze at him. “Of course, you’re right. How could we women dare to ask for anything in times like these? Your sacrifice is greater, your fate more bitter. Everything you face is more heroic and more tragic.”
Stefan felt no better than before. He wasn’t even sure whether she was sincere or sarcastic. Alexandra wasn’t sure herself. “It’s not that,” Stefan started lamely.
“What is it then? You want to have your cake and eat it too, don’t you? You want Klara to love you and give you all she has – without complaint, without jealousy, without making the slightest demand or receiving the slightest payment – not even in the form of empty promises. You want to be free to go out with your comrades, and free to flirt with other girls, and yet be certain of Klara’s unconditional love for you. And you think you can justify it all because an unjust regime is making unfair demands on you. But it’s not the regime that pays the price, is it? It’s Klara – and she’s as much a victim of the regime as you are yourself.”
Stefan looked down at the gravel and scuffed it with his boot, his thoughts in turmoil.
“It’s most unfair to girls like Klara,” Alexandra continued, “girls who have never wanted anything else out of life but love and marriage. With every day of this slaughter there are fewer young men, less hope. Pure statistics condemn her and millions like her to a fate that is hardly less dismal than that of their slaughtered would-be husbands – only the woman’s agony is long and drawn out. Don’t you remember the old maids that populated every family gathering, every cafe and every train compartment as we were growing up? Didn’t you ever stop to think how empty, pointless and miserable their lives were? Maiden aunts with tiny incomes. Ladies’ companions, governesses, needlepoint stores and copy work.”
The last of my examples for this entry is, I think, self-explanatory. From An Obsolete Honor:
M. St. Pierre glanced over his shoulder at his wife, whom Dieter could hear hissing at him in a flood of furious, hate-filled French. But then he signalled Dieter into the formal parlour with its overstuffed furniture and patterned wallpaper. He closed the door behind him and demanded: “What do you want? We are conquered. You know you can do as you please. Do you want my approval as well? Well, you can’t have it! Yvette was like a daughter to me. Gabrielle – well – what can you expect of a girl like that? If it hadn’t been your friend the Baron, it would have been someone else sooner or later. But I wanted something better for Yvette.”
Dieter was offended despite himself. “I come from a good family, Monsieur. My father is a respected veterinarian. My mother was a nurse in the last war, and I am an officer, Monsieur--”
“So was Yvette’s father!” M. St. Pierre interrupted with a burst of fury. “He was an NCO, an honourable and brave man! He was wounded three times. He fought at the Marne, the Somme, at Ypres. He died fighting for his country, trying to prevent just this: an occupation by you Huns. And now his daughter – under my very roof – I am so ashamed!” M. St. Pierre broke off. He was so overcome by his own emotions that he could not even look at Dieter. He turned away and stared at his cold fireplace with the polished coal grate.
“Ashamed of what, Monsieur?” Dieter asked softly to his back. “That Yvette and I love each other? What is shameful about that? Our hearts wear no uniform. I would – and will – marry Yvette as soon as possible. This is not some cheap affair for me. Don’t confuse me with Christian v. Feldburg.”
M. St. Pierre turned back and gazed at him. “I know you are a decent young man. That’s why I tolerated it. I thought: ‘He’s a nice young man; he won’t dishonour Yvette. It’s good for her to have a little fun. She’ll only be young and pretty once, and there are so few young Frenchmen here. Why shouldn’t she go dancing? Why shouldn’t she be taken to expensive restaurants? But I trusted you not to go too far, Monsieur. I trusted you...” He broke off and turned away again. His hands were working, clenching and unclenching, not in rage but agitation.
Dieter, too, was clutching his cap in his hands in distress. M. St. Pierre had succeeded in making him feel ashamed. But he couldn’t undo what he had done. He didn’t want to. And nor did Yvette.
M. St. Pierre turned back and faced him. “You are frightened. I understand that. I know what it is to face death and horrible injury day after day.” He gestured vaguely to Dieter’s mutilated face and hands. “I know that there is no greater comfort than the love of a woman. I do not even know that I would have acted differently in your shoes. But I am no longer a young man, and I see too that Yvette will suffer for the rest of her life for this. A collaborator. An unwed mother. Who will look after her and her children when you are killed, Monsieur?”