Author, Sylvia Izzo Hunter, joins us today to talk about Accomplished Women: Female Magic Users in the World of THE MIDNIGHT QUEEN
My review coming later this week!
The setting of THE MIDNIGHT QUEEN owes a great deal to the cultures of Regency England and the pre-Christian Roman Empire — neither of them exactly known for empowering women. In the next paragraph I’m going to oversimplify drastically here, and probably say a lot of things that everybody already knows; please bear with me.
In ancient Rome, fathers had absolute legal power over their families, spouses included; daughters were often essentially given numbers instead of names (for instance, Julia Quinta for the fifth daughter of a man named Julius). Of course, this doesn’t mean that there weren’t some socially and politically powerful women in Roman society … but they didn’t necessarily acquire and exercise power in the same way that men did. Similarly, the novels by and about women in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England that we’re all familiar with tend to be (while not necessarily what we would now categorize as “romance”) stories about marriage — looking for husbands, finding them, keeping them or coping with them — because the legal and social regime of the time made most women legally and financially dependent upon men. Again, there were powerful women in Regency England, but their power didn’t often look like men’s power. (In both of these societies, one way to become a legally and financially independent woman was to be widowed — but because fathers and husbands had the majority of control over marriage settlements, such independence wasn’t a guaranteed outcome.) Men may have been deliberately trying to keep women “in their place,” or they may have genuinely believed that women weren’t as clever, as capable, or as strong as men, or they may just have gone along with The Way Things Were for lack of motivation to change things, but whatever the motivations behind these legal and social regimes, the effect was to drastically narrow women’s possibilities.
So that’s sort of my conceptual framework for female magic users in the world of THE MIDNIGHT QUEEN. Here we have a society that’s missing one of the Western world’s longest-standing arguments against gender equity — the traditional Christian belief in “original sin” — so there’s not this underlying belief that women are inherently somehow dangerous or bad, but it’s still absolutely a strongly patriarchal society, and there is still absolutely a belief that women can’t do everything men can. There’s a hierarchy. They’re weaker, less reliable, less rational. The existence of magic adds a new wrinkle, because while women can and do have as much magic as men, when a woman has very powerful magic (which is rare among both sexes), it’s perceived as very threatening by (the majority of) the men around her. Women are irrational, emotional creatures! They can’t possibly handle powerful magic with their weak lady brains! For these men, there’s just one thing that a woman with a lot of magic might be good for, and that is to pass the magic down to their offspring (by which they really mean their sons). So in some ways very strong magic becomes a liability for women as much as (sometimes more than) an asset.
Now, it’s perfectly normal and acceptable for women to use magic in this world — as long as it’s low-key domestic magic. A large proportion of the population, both men and women, have some level of magic, general or specific or both; there’s no social stigma associated with a woman’s using magic to “call light”, to light a candle or light a fire, to mend a piece of clothing, to create a decorative illusion. Think about how young ladies in Jane Austen novels are encouraged to develop “accomplishments” such as — depending on family finances and social status, of course — singing, playing the piano or harp, embroider, draw, learn foreign languages, and so on, provided that these “accomplishments” are deployed only for purposes of domestic entertainment. One thing I wanted to explore in this series was the experiences of women who can’t or won’t confine themselves within those parameters.
There’s one exception to the semi-formal ban on higher magical (and other) education for women, which is that women can be Healers. In fact, healing magic — which you are either born with or not, and which only a small proportion of magic users possess — is sufficiently rare and sufficiently necessary to society that, if you are known to have it, you are a hot commodity. As you can imagine, that’s both a blessing and a curse. Hey, here’s a valuable career you can have! Oh, sorry, did we say can have? We meant will have, whether you like it or not. (Class privilege operates here, of course: If your family is powerful and/or wealthy enough, there’s a possibility they can get you out of it.)
Note that there are nontrivial geographical and cultural variations in attitudes toward women and magic. The strongly patriarchal culture of the post-Roman Kingdom of Britain is a bit of an anomaly in the region, actually — in book 2, for example, we’ll spend much of the story in a neighbouring kingdom where women have much more parity with men, in academic magic as well as in some other areas of life — and even within the kingdom (which has accreted through mergers and hostile takeovers over many generations), there are variations. There’s also a bit of a historical mystery (which will be explored later in the trilogy) around this subject: there used to be a college for women in Oxford, and it was closed down a couple of centuries ago, but we don’t yet know exactly why.
I’ve given women a couple of advantages over their sisters in real Regency England, both because I felt that the worldbuilding demanded it and because I wanted to see what would happen. First, divorce: an epic social disaster and fate to be avoided at all costs in real-world nineteenth-century England, not infrequent and perfectly socially acceptable in the world of TMQ, and therefore a real option (although, depending on how you got married, not necessarily easy to obtain). Second, reliable, legal birth-control options. Again, not every woman would have access, and not every woman would avail herself of it, but the fact that it’s a possibility does, at the very least, produce some changes in the landscape of sex and marriage.
Sylvia Izzo Hunter was born in Calgary, Alberta, back in the days before Star Wars, and started making up stories at approximately the time she learned to talk. A couple of decades ago she moved to Toronto, Ontario, where she now lives with her husband and daughter and their slightly out-of-control collections of books, comics, and DVDs. She studied English and French literature (with a particular focus on medieval and Renaissance poetry and drama) at York University; she has since discovered that her mom was right: in order to be a functioning grown-up, you really do need to know how to do math.
Over the course of her working life Sylvia has been a slinger of tacos, a filer of patient charts and answerer of phones, a freelance looker-up of unconsidered trifles, an Orff-singing stage monk, and an exam tutor, but has mostly worked in not-for-profit scholarly publishing, where she started out making lots of photocopies and now gets to make XML and EPUB files (which is more fun). She also sings in two choirs (including the Orpheus Choir of Toronto), reads as much as possible, knits (mostly hats), and engages in experimental baking.
Sylvia’s favourite Doctor is Tom Baker, her favourite pasta shape is rotini, and her favourite Beethoven symphony is the Seventh. *Bio taken from author’s website*