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A new breed of books is giving voice to the forgotten women of history and literature

If you ever want to test out your observation skills, there is a famous footage in which a gorilla walks across the screen. Did you see it? I didn’t spot it the first time. On a second viewing, it is startling to see what the human eye can look past when its focus is elsewhere.

So it is with literature. We look where the narrator asks us to look, focusing on a particular character at the expense of others. Of course, it is one of the joys of literature to be guided by a narrator, however reliable or unreliable, and to gain a new perspective on life. And not every character can take centre stage within a story.

But some writers are shifting the gaze of readers to characters which have been neglected in the past, bringing into the light intriguing women who have been dismissed by previous writers as minor players alongside legendary male characters.

And in this way, fiction might encourage readers to look beyond what has been presented historically and to see a more complete picture of the role of women in the past.

Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale centres on the often-overlooked role of women, both as resistance fighters and in the home, during World War II. The book reveals the importance of women in relaying messages and leading Allied Forces pilots who landed in occupied France to safety. While the book was a work of fiction, it is based on the story of a woman who rescued pilots in this way, risking her life.

It also revealed the role that women played at home in both protecting their neighbours and their children, creatively and bravely found food to stave off starvation, and the hardships they endured in an occupied country. It is a side of war that is far less well known than the battle on the frontline, but is also riddled with pain and loss.

Other works of fiction reveal how easy it is to look past and dismiss women in epic stories of battle and exploration, but how much is lost when this is done.

In Circe, Madeline Miller tells the story of the witch who played a minor role in Homer’s Odyssey. But in Miller’s book, Circe is thrust into centre stage, revealing a complex character whose experiences of being cast out of the home of her father, Helios, and banished to an island where she encounters different people of the sea.

The book also explores the development and refinement of her magical powers, and how they are used to help protect her and son.

So many Greek myths centre on the valiant hero, with women playing a secondary role, either tempting or serving warriors like Odysseus. Interestingly, the term misogyny comes directly from the Ancient Greek word misogunia.

In writing Circe, Madeline Miller said she aimed to address the imbalance in the representation of men and women in Greek mythology such as the story of Odysseus, in some ways helping to increase the visibility of modern women.

Renowned classicist Mary Beard has also spoken about the misogyny of Greek mythology, but says, “There is no way, absolutely no way, that I would want people to stop reading the Odyssey. But I want them to read it with their eyes open.”

In The Fish Girl by Marandi Riwoe, another woman dismissed in classic literature has become the central character, and in being made whole, has revealed a disturbing significance in her dismissal as a minor, although pivotal, character in W Somerset Maugham’s The Four Dutchmen.

Thrown aside as a “Malay trollope” in Somerset Maugham’s book, Riwoe imagines Mina’s journey from a small Indonesian fishing village to the home of a Dutch trader.

A sense of impending doom builds throughout the restrained and powerful novella, as Mina falls from the hands of her father into those of her new Master, completely powerless to alter her trajectory. The ending of the book is devastating, revealing that Mina’s story is more than worthy of the reader’s full attention.

By giving these characters the reader’s full attention, these writers are revealing what they might have missed – the gorilla crossing the screen or the women whose roles have been dismissed as unimportant. There is something satisfying and fair about this evening of the score – this modern reckoning. Finally, the women of the past are becoming whole characters who were sometimes strong, sometimes powerless, but more than just a supporting cast alongside the more famous and celebrated warriors. In fact, they are being remade into warriors in their own right.



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