Did you know that the first known novel was written by a woman? In 11th-century Japan, Lady Murasaki Shikibu published The Tale of Genji chapter by chapter to a readership of ladies-in-waiting. Its protagonist was not a woman, sadly, but it's miraculous that she was able to produce a literary work, given the restrictions on all women, irrespective of status and culture, at that time ... and for many centuries afterwards.
Literature, like many artforms, quickly became a male domain, and very few male novelists featured women as central characters. When they did, often the women were debauched (e.g., Moll Flanders) or debased (e.g., Tess of the d'Urbervilles). It took Jane Austen to put strong (within boundaries) women at the heart of the story, and then the Brontës and Eliot to do the same a little later, albeit initially under male pen names. (Of course I'm being somewhat reductive here, but you get my drift!)
So, "women's fiction" has been around since the 11th century, yet it is the male-centric Hero's Journey "monomyth", popularised by writer Joseph Campbell in the 1950s, that has come to dominate the contemporary teaching of writing and how to structure stories. In a nutshell, this is how Campbell describes the monomyth in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949): "A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on HIS fellow MAN." [Emphasis mine]. The journey looks like this (lifted from Wikipedia):
But does this monomythic storytelling structure serve female heroes? Does that even matter?
It matters (at least to me) because women are -- and have always been -- subject to certain social and moral pressures not historically faced by men. Their desires and goals as protagonists are often hampered by these factors. Simply put, women have been torn between private desire and social expectation and her journey is disrupted by that dilemma; whereas a male hero is free to go off on his journey without the obstacles put up by the patriarchy. Sure, you can squeeze women's stories into the model, which is often done with protagonists like Jane Eyre, but might there be an alternative?
I believe it would be better for women to have their own storytelling monomyth, one that respects and reflects their individual journeys toward their goals. This is why I have invited friend and scholar Dr. Stacey Simmons to share her research into the "Divided Woman" archetype and a new women-centred storytelling model called The Queen's Path in a special FREE event on March 20, 2022. It promises to be a thought-provoking session, one that could help you shape your women-centred novel, memoir, play or screenplay.
If you want to join this session, hop over to the Writers Workshop page and register today!
Lorna Partington Walsh, Wordsmith