“I Hated Your Main Character!” – Dealing with Modern Sensibilities and a Medieval Setting

HERE BE MINOR SPOILERS FOR LA BASTARDA and LA REYNA – READ AT YOUR OWN RISK

Here’s my confession: every time someone tells me how much they hated Constanza, I laugh.  The reason is that I’m usually told this because people dislike how much of a pushover she is, how her entire life revolves around pleasing a man.  She doesn’t try to make her own destiny, she doesn’t have any of the feminist attributes our generation so adores.  She lives her life trying to please her father, her fiancé, her husband.

She is a relic of a bygone time, and it makes us uncomfortable.

I’ve been reading historical fiction for well over a decade now, and in that time, I’ve noticed a trend towards the heroine being more modern than she actually would have been.  I’m not saying that there aren’t records of women we would consider to be an early feminist, but I hate reading about how every woman in the Medieval and Renaissance eras either married for love, grew to love her husband, or took lovers on the side.  I hate reading about how every woman was a spy, a secret heretic, defying convention and having the freedoms we did.  If someone found out about her affairs, she would be forgiven because she was the most beautiful woman at court, the favorite daughter of an indulgent father, etc.

With Constanza, I wanted to play “the most beautiful” trope straight, then twist it.

She’s obedient.  She has daddy issues, she wants her father’s love and attention all for herself like any child, but not only does she have to share him with her legitimate siblings (and there are three of them), she also has nine bastard siblings and a country with which to compete for it.  Plus, she’s part of a society that does drill obedience into their children and especially their female children – kids were expected to “honor thy mother and father”, and women were expected to “love, honor, and obey thy husband”.  An unruly woman was seen as either a complete idiot or evil – Eve, Jezebel, and Delilah come to mind – so women with any sense of rebelliousness had it beaten out of them, so to speak, if not in actuality, then at least mentally.

I did my best to show Constanza being broken by her stepmother as a child, when she was caught eavesdropping.  Queen Juana doesn’t beat Constanza, doesn’t spank her, doesn’t physically harm her, but for the next couple of years, Constanza lives her life by this bland schedule that Queen Juana planned out.  She is taught submission through the hours of time spent on her knees in a chapel praying, the lessons in femininity that she is forced to learn instead of what truly interests her, and when we next see Constanza, she really is a changed girl.  She no longer cares about all of the things she used to do because she was forced to ignore them.

Constanza can still dream, and growing up, she sees women of the court change their entire lives overnight, because one day, they were someone’s daughter or ward, and the next day, they were someone else’s wife.  She sees marriage as this great escape from under her stepmother’s thumb, so when she is given the chance to marry at thirteen, she takes it gladly, and she’s willing to do whatever she must to please her husband to be.  It seems sickening to us that a girl that young thinks about her future husband, but how many of us spent time in our young teenaged years thinking, “When I move out, I can do X and I won’t have to do Y”?  It’s really the same thing.

And Juana de Cifuentes, the younger sister who tries to seduce a man at eleven?  Constanza hears future husband wants to get the girl into his bed and “get her with child” – at twelve or thirteen?  She was legally an adult at that point.  There was no adolescence in medieval times: children were expected to be little versions of their parents at a young age, and the mentality was really that the children were a blank slate, upon which the parents could impress their own values, which these kids then had to follow because they were being held to such a high standard.  We think it’s strange that a girl so young was thinking about sex because we think of an eleven-year-old and we think child, we think fresh out of or at the tail end of elementary/primary school.  We think of (to use an iconic moment in my generation, and to throw salt in an old wound*) the wide-eyed first years at Hogwarts, when that’s not how they were seen back then, at all.  Look at almost any “old” (pre-19th century) portrait of a teenager, and you will see them portrayed as an adult.  They will have a grave face, no smiling, without the trappings of youth, like toys.  They will be studying or partaking in the same things which their fathers and mothers would be doing at the same time: helping to run a home, or a family business; perhaps they would be seated with their own children, depending on age and (quite honestly) sex.

I wrote LA BASTARDA not only because I wanted to see more Spanish-based Historical Fiction, but because honestly, I was testing my own limit.  It took everything I had not to have Constanza fight back in some of those scenes; there was one time I just wanted her to plant her knee into her attacker’s groin and run, but that’s not what she would have done.  She was obedient, and she would do anything to be loved and keep that love, and sometimes that meant she would do things that would make my skin crawl.  She didn’t knee her attacker because she knew it wasn’t what her father would have wanted her to do.  She didn’t tell off her future husband for trying to have sex with her younger sister because, if he failed, she would still have to marry him.  The only time she takes her future into her hands, her stubbornness nearly ruins her entire plans.  She almost loses the ability to marry entirely, and it cows her.  The next time she has the chance, she takes it, no matter what.

I think that’s also why she’s become so bitter in LA REYNA.  She’s spent her entire life doing what was expected, and her husband is locked away, she’s no better than a prisoner, and there’s a real fear that she, João, and their child will be killed by jealous rivals.  She’s bitter because she followed every rule, married the man she was told to marry without complaint even though he murdered his first wife, and she’s still under suspicion from those whom she thinks should trust her the most.  She feels ill-used because she’s not one of the trusted confidants of the Queen, even though she’s one of the more important women of the court.  Everywhere she turns, in every action that isn’t “normal” or “proper”, Constanza sees an assassin and Death.

We cannot look at Constanza through modern eyes.  That’s just not how the story works.  She’s not Claire Randall/Fraser, a modern woman thrown through time, nor is she a 20th century woman’s brain in the skin of a 14th century woman.  She’s just Constanza.  She is a woman born during a time when women were to be seen and not heard, and she lives her life trying to find that balance between the shadows and the light.  We may not agree with some of her actions – as I said before, there were some scenes I wish I could have taken over, but it would have been excruciatingly out of character.  She’s a milksop, bland and boring and bowing to everyone’s will, but she’s a person underneath all of that.

Sorry, I just had someone tell me I should take LA B off of Amazon and burn every copy because Constanza was a disgrace to women everywhere.  I disagree: she’s a disgrace to us, because we are modern and we understand misogyny, but Constanza did not.  Constanza’s era saw women as the root of all bad things that had happened to humanity, and they sought to keep that self-destruction at bay by keeping women under society’s collective thumb.  That’s all.

(*Yes, I am 25 years old and I have still not gotten over receiving my owl.  DON’T JUDGE ME.)

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