Some writers incorporate history into their work comfortably. They show us invented worlds that are both real and fascinating. Marie Brennan is one of these writers and I never refuse an opportunity to read her work. Today she’s going to talk about the women who aren’t in people’s good books. Gillian
When something like Women’s History Month comes up, the natural impulse is to celebrate the admirable women of the past: the rulers, the scientists, the activists for social change. Or the unsung roles that keep the world functioning, like mothers and teachers.
We don’t generally talk about the bad ones.
By that I don’t mean the prostitutes (though them, too). I mean, more generally, the women whose deeds weren’t admirable. The despots, the traitors, the criminals. We have an undeniable fascination with the male evildoers of the past, why they did what they did, how they achieved it, unpicking what makes them so fascinating to us today . . . but it feels like we’re letting the side down if we talk about bad women. Especially at a time like this.
But women’s history isn’t only made up of the good stuff. We may have always been warriors and queens, but we’ve also been thieves and murderers. And as with the admirable women, only the truly exceptional ones tend to be remembered: on the one hand, Elizabeth I, and on the other, Elizabeth Bathory. (Though the historical research I did for Midnight Never Come prompts me to acknowledge that Elizabeth I had a vile temper, and often took it out on those around her. It doesn’t put her on par with a mass-murdering Hungarian countess, but she also wasn’t a plaster saint.)
This is on my mind right now because of a discussion some friends have been having about female anti-heroes and how audiences react to them, and because of the research I did more recently for a different novel, The Mask of Mirrors. That one’s co-written with my friend Alyc Helms (and coming out under a joint pen name, M.A. Carrick), and we divvied up the preparatory tasks: while Alyc was busy inventing a system of magic based on sacred geometry, I was reading about historical crime. Including the autobiography of Sophie Lyons, WHY CRIME DOES NOT PAY.
I put that title in all caps rather than italics for a reason: because Lyons herself tells you, over and over again, that CRIME DOES NOT PAY. Except . . . it does, over and again. Criminals are just amazingly bad at holding onto the money they acquire, so that one week they’re rolling in dough, and the next they’re casing a new target because they’re down to their last dime. Sophie Lyons was a con artist in New England and eastern Canada in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, working with (and in several cases, marrying) a variety of pickpockets and bank robbers, becoming so successful if the Federal Bureau of Investigation had existed back then — well, she might not have made their Ten Most Wanted list, because she never killed anyone. But authorities in a number of jurisdictions were very eager to get their hands on her.
And it’s not just Sophie Lyons. Her her mother was a notorious shoplifter — which feels a bit to me like noting that Ada Lovelace was the daughter of a skilled mathematician, Annabella Milbanke. Not quite as laudable of a lineage, though. Lyons was also a protégé of Fredericka Mandelbaum, better known as “Marm Mandelbaum,” a New York fence who’s estimated to have handled anywhere between one and five million dollars’ worth of stolen goods. Mandelbaum had a side line in blackmail, and even ran a “school” to train up young criminals. There was a whole social world of these women: Queen Liz, Kid Glove Rosey, Black Lena Kleinschmidt, Big Mary and Little Annie, and even someone nicknamed Old Mother Hubbard, after the nursery rhyme. All mostly lost to the mists of history, just like the women of the Bluestocking Society. If, you know, the Bluestocking Society had been engaged in picking pockets and conning people out of their savings, instead of writing literature and studying science.
We shouldn’t hold these women up as models to emulate, of course. We don’t want schoolchildren writing essays about how they hope to grow up to be like Marm Mandelbaum. But equality means the bad as well as the good: if we’re fascinated by the criminal men of the past, if we want to read about their exploits, then women deserve that attention, too. And the field of fictional con artists should not be limited to men like Locke Lamora; female characters should get to be anti-heroes sometimes, too.
Like any proper Victorian tale, Sophie Lyons’ tale ends with moral — CRIME DOES NOT PAY — and a tarnished halo on her head. After finally giving up her (extremely lucrative) life of crime, she dedicated herself to rehabilitating juvenile delinquents and providing assistance to reformed criminals. Alyc and I aren’t going that far with our con artist protagonist, but we’re fully aware that the entertaining trickery of that profession is a mask over the harm they cause people. That tension is an interesting one to play with. Because in the end, most women aren’t plaster saints or countesses bathing in the blood of their victims. We’re complicated people, with complicated origins, who sometimes do good things and sometimes do bad ones. And either way, we can hope that we have the opportunity to learn and change.
Hope for it — or demand it — or steal it out from under someone’s nose.