04/22/2013 09:14 am ET Updated Jun 22, 2013

Remembering Women Who Broke Free

The following is an edited version of a talk on why I find women of the past so compelling, and the differences between telling their stories in both fiction and nonfiction.

LAST WEEK I attended former British Prime Minister Baroness Thatcher's state funeral in London. It was an extraordinary event that managed to combine both a celebration of her achievements and a sadness in her passing. As I sat there, her coffin only a few feet away, I, as a writer of stories of ground-breaking women in history, couldn't stop thinking that whatever anybody's politics, she was the first woman British Prime Minister and that, in becoming so, she had shattered a glass ceiling inches thick. For that alone, in my view, she deserved a funeral to show the nation's appreciation.

There is something deeply compelling about people who break boundaries and rules, as the then Mrs. Thatcher did. Every day we are confronted with social expectations of what we should and should not do. Many of us wonder, even if fleetingly, what would happen if we just didn't comply: not just what would happen today, but tomorrow, and on -- how would it impact our lives? What would happen if I sold up and went to the other side of the world? What would happen if I had an affair? And when we come across a story of somebody who did break free, we devour their stories, thus living their alternative life choices vicariously, feeling their heightened emotions. For more often than not, it is when people are pushed to the limit that they find themselves saying 'no' -- or 'yes.'

As a writer, I have indulged myself thoroughly in vicarious rule-breaking. I am not going to call it vicarious misbehavior because, quite frankly, the historical rules I write about, the rules that bound women, needed breaking -- though not always to the extent that they were. In one of my books, The Bolter (a great-grandmother of mine), perhaps overstated the case for sexual equality both in and out of the bedroom with her five divorces and innumerable lovers.

Yet this isn't a case of voyeurism. My fascination with women who broke the rules is an instinctive interest that I, as a woman, have with the women who made my life today what it is. They didn't achieve this by accepting the status quo. What they did do is take hedge-cutters to the briars of social rules that hemmed women in. And change wasn't always brought about by single historical figures making strides: all of the single steps forward taken by unknown women add up to a great many.

The stories I have written have been both historical fiction and nonfiction. The two offer very different platforms for recreating history, but the results come very close to each other: both are dramatic, both are informative. However, as close to each other as they may be, there is a dividing line between the two.

I started by setting out to write fiction. Two of my great-grandmothers had led very different, but equally interesting, lives. The Bolter, (Idina Sackville) as I have mentioned, broke gender boundaries, behaving sexually as only men were permitted to do. Lilla, of Lilla's Feast, pushed her way through class boundaries, became a businesswoman when few women worked, and hidden in her cell, broke the rules of the WW2 Japanese internment camp in China that she was in by writing a morale-boosting cookbook. I thought that researching their stories would provide me with inspiration for novels about women like them. I was right, but not in the way I expected.

In researching The Bolter and Lilla's Feast I discovered such a wealth of information that I was urged to so this agents and editors to write them as nonfiction. I protested: my imagination was bursting with the searing emotions of their heartbreak and loss. Surely fiction would better enable me to convey this?

Try nonfiction, they urged, put the energy of that imagination into bringing the facts to life. I did, and was lucky. I started with Lilla's Feast had hundreds of family letters to go through and quote from -- they were full of emotion and tears. At other times the bare facts of the challenges of her life and the wars she was caught up in were emotionally piercing in themselves. It did not take me long to discover that nonfiction could be written just as movingly as fiction.

Yet when it came to writing The Bolter, my second book, I could hear in my head the conversations that must have happened in the highly-charged meetings and confrontations. Again I was told to write straight nonfiction. I agreed, but submitted a synopsis of the rise and fall of an industrial dynasty -- fictional, but very much inspired by the historical characters I had come across and glimpsed in my nonfiction research. These were people for whom I didn't have letters, diaries and photographs. They played just as great a part in social history, but their stories could not be written without my imagination filling the gaps. The Bolter and Lilla's true stories had indeed inspired me to write novels about women like them. This time it was my editor's turn to agree, and she contracted me to write two novels.

As I began to write historical fiction I felt I was flying. I could choose any point of view from which to tell history. I could mold the plot to best portray the period and changes I wanted to write about, and sentiments and longings could be revealed as I wished. But starting with a blank sheet was like peering over the edge of a cliff. What I needed, even in a novel, was to build factual walls against which my imagination could bound.

Perhaps it was the legacy of writing nonfiction, but I was unable to veer from the accuracy of real events. But what I could now do was choose the events I found the most interesting, and interweave characters and stories of my own creation -- albeit firmly realistic of the times. Indeed to me they felt, and do still feel, so vivid that I forget that they are not real people. I keep thinking of Park Lane's suffragette, Bea, housemaid, Grace, and their struggles for independence -- and wonder what has become of them after the end of the book. But in a way they are real: women just like Bea and Grace were part of the female cohort who, hedge-cutters in hand, together cleared the ways through the briars along which we women walk today.

However briars still stand in between these paths. Indeed, the Planned Parenthood debate has shown how quickly women's rights can be pushed back and those paths become overgrown. And those 'briars' that remain and are regrowing are not only external challenges. As Sheryl Sandberg explains so well in her guide for women in business, Lean In, women are constantly being caught on the thorns of their own sweet-smelling roses of motherhood and domesticity. We need to push past, ignoring the pain. Baroness Thatcher did.

The above is an edited version of the talk that Frances Osborne will be giving at the National Arts Club in New York City on Tuesday April, 23rd. Her most recent book is Park Lane (Vintage, 2012).

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