Friday, October 9, 2015

Everyday Heroines

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned the Five Directions Press library panel on “Everyday Heroines.” Those of you who have read my novels, especially The Golden Lynx and The Winged Horse, are entitled to a quiet snicker here.

Sure, Sasha, the female protagonist in Desert Flower and Kingdom of the Shades, could be considered an ordinary person—if ordinary people routinely start training in exquisite but intense art forms at the age of four and rise to the pinnacle of their profession by the early twenties. Nina, heroine of The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel, is a graduate student in history—at an elite university, yes, but still a quite ordinary person in her own right. In the book, however, she is running around aristocratic London playing Lady Marguerite Blakeney, at least until she lands in the French countryside, where she has to adopt one persona after another, most of them members of the hoi polloi.

The Legends of the Five Directions series, though, mostly takes place at the highest levels of Muscovite and Tatar society. Of the recurring characters, only Grusha, the Kolychevs’ slave, can really be considered an everyday heroine. Everyone else—even the wicked Semyon—belongs to the lineage of khans, beys, or the tight circle of boyar families who wielded real power at the Russian court. Grand Prince Vasily III expanded that circle in an attempt to secure the place of his young son, the future Ivan the Terrible, but the number of qualifying lineages remained small. The Tatar preference for polygamy multiplied the number of direct descendants of Genghis Khan with each generation, but the insistence on charismatic authority that prevailed for so long on the steppe and in the khanates set those descendants apart from the mass. So Nasan, Ogodai, Tulpar, and their kin are also not everyday heroes.

Except in one sense. Like most of the premodern world, Muscovite and Tatar society imposed strict limitations on the choices available to all individuals—male and female, rich and poor. Women, especially, were confined to the domestic sphere, their influence on outside affairs restricted to pillow talk and its daytime equivalent or wielded indirectly through the birthing and education of children. Noblewomen called the shots within their households, managing others who did the work, but the tasks themselves differed little between noble estate and peasant cottage.

For men, too, birth determined one’s profession. Peasants farmed, artisans learned their fathers’ trade, merchants inherited their business, priests raised priests’ sons to succeed them, and noblemen went to war—every year, on command, to defend the state or attack its neighbors as required. When Fedor Kolychev ran off to become a monk, he did it in secret. His choice was unusual; noblemen usually stayed within the political and military role to which they were born.

And of course, by the standards of the day, no one—aristocrat or peasant—had a free say in whom he or she married. If anything, nobles had less say than peasants, who had a chance of recognizing their future spouses by sight. Aristocratic marriages determined political alliances, and marriage of a daughter to the grand prince (later tsar) was the $64,000 prize. Grooms sometimes had a say, brides hardly ever; parents on both sides made the match, and the young couple adapted as well as possible after the wedding. Such alliances have been common throughout the world, of course, not only in Muscovite Russia.

Social standing certainly affects one’s quality of life, and in general, it is more comfortable to be rich and respected than poor and downtrodden. But throughout history, membership in society has imposed constraints on both the high and the low. In that sense, even elite heroines face everyday problems.

Image: Konstantin Makovsky, The Kissing Custom, via Wikimedia Commons.

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