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Historical Fiction

Period Dramas: Presenting a History of Menstruation for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival

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My periods have shaped much of my life, determining what I am able and unable to do each day. They are personal and political, providing a deep insight into beliefs, feelings, medicine and coping mechanisms of the past.

Growing up, I thought TV period dramas would be based on menstruation, and was devastated to discover that periods did not feature on screen. It astounded me that ‘so much embarrassment, awkwardness and shame surround[ed] a natural bodily function’.[1]

Thus, the seed for my recent Edinburgh Fringe show, Period Dramas, a comedy about the history of menstruation, was planted.

Despite recent progress with Rayka Zehtabchi’s Period. End of SENTENCE and Disney’s Turning Red, societal taboo remains, highlighted in the unwillingness to even say ‘period,’ with 5,000 euphemisms for menstruation.

On average, people have 10.5 periods every year. I use this fact in the show, introducing each period (pardon the pun) with a calculation of how many periods we were heading back in time. For the Victorian part of the show, it came to 1,943 periods. It is menstrual maths!

My seemingly odd route from history degree to drama school, has always made sense to me. It is people who I am fascinated by – how they think, feel and interact with one another – and both history and theatre are a study of humanity.

The relationship between history and drama, however, seems to be a tumultuous one, marked by debates on whether entertainment or historical accuracy should take priority. In a world where Hamilton and Six have stormed the box office, the debate between accuracy and entertainment that has ‘really divided the historical community’. [2]

Terry Deary, of Horrible Histories, sits firmly in the entertainment camp, arguing ‘history is itself a fabrication’.[3] Similarly, Lucy Worsley suggests ‘it’s drama, it’s fiction. It’s not a means of expressing knowledge…but for expressing wisdom, truth about human nature’.[4] Alternatively, historians such as Dr O’Connell argue that ‘dramas do have a responsibility’ to maintain historical accuracy.[5]

I sit with Worsley here, but Period Dramas had precise aims: tell the history of menstruation that all too often gets pushed to the side, bringing menstrual issues into more prominence and critiquing society. Thus, Period Dramas needed to be rooted in the sources and history was the starting point.

Initially lacking form, I was inspired by Bryony Kimmings’ advice that form comes from subject. Approaching historical research before finalizing a structure was almost easier because there was no attached format that I needed to stay true to. I simply started with the research and went from there, examining Jane Sharp’s The Midwives Book (1671),[6] along with the Kahun gynaecological papyrus,[7] works from Sara Reid[8] and Patricia Crawford,[9] and The Vagina Museum’s History of Period exhibition.

The challenge came in selecting what to include, a difficulty recognised by historian Carys Brown on discussing Queen Anne at The Theatre Royal Haymarket, who described the need to make ‘definite choices’[10] about thoughts, feelings and characters, but also about what to include and what to leave out.

My choices were based not only on what information stood out, but also easily recognisable periods of history, or those which saw interesting changes in the handling of menstruation.

I then chose cabaret as the format, allowing me to cover more ground quickly with each act focussed on a specific era. This solved my structure question – as Greg Jenner pointed out ‘history doesn’t fall into three-act structures.’[11]

My first hook was the Boy of Bisley: the theory that Elizabeth I died aged ten from bubonic plague, was buried in Bisley and replaced by a boy – explaining why she remained unmarried and childless.[12] This rumour inspired the first realization of Period Dramas – a drag, rap and lip sync act framing how Elizabeth I dealt with menstruation. As the so-called virgin queen, Elizabeth’s fertility was deemed a matter of state and her menstruation was monitored, leaving a useful historical record of Elizabeth’s menstrual cycles.

It seemed apt to use drag, traditionally posing a challenge to heteronormative constructs of gender and sexuality, for an act centring on Elizabeth I. Her rule was characterised by a binary idea of gender, famously stating at Tilbury, ‘I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king’.[13]

Using cabaret removed the boundaries of ‘traditional’ theatre, whilst its ability to subvert helped to critique society and challenge taboo. It also allows increased access with the MC character guiding and opening up a dialogue with audiences.

Accessibility was incredibly important to me, as I did not want to alienate audiences by assuming any prior historical knowledge. Part of my process involved scratch nights and audience feedback forms to ensure the information and facts were presented clearly and in a non-academic fashion. As Worsley says history should not be an ‘insular conversation between academics’ rather a ‘dialogue with wider society’.[14]

I agree. I firmly believe the history of menstruation is key to understanding and critiquing the taboos that exist in society today.

From a historian’s perspective, periods permeate the political and the personal, providing key insights into the politics of the day and personal choices on how to manage them. In the diary entries of Samuel Pepys to the medical records of royalty and the views of Hippocrates and Aristotle – we can learn much from this history.

But more than that, this historical insight and storytelling is key to eradicating the cycle of shame that currently dominates our society, both for those who menstruate and those who do not. According to Plan UK, 64% of 14–21-year-olds have missed school due to period stigma, shame, pain, and poverty. This needs to change. As Greg Jenner pointed out, half of all 108 billion people who have ever lived, menstruated in some capacity. If that does not make this topic seem critical, then I am not sure what will.

Heather Milsted received her History BA from the University of Warwick in 2018 and now works as an actor and writer. She has recently returned from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where she was performing her one-woman show about the history of menstruation, Period Dramas. This is due to tour in 2023. She tweets @HeatherMilsted and @PeriodDramass (Website: https://heathermilsted.wixsite.com/actor)


[1] Jupp, E., 2015. Periods: the menstruation taboo that won’t go away. [online] The Independent. Available at: <https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/we-need-to-talk-about-periods-9638267.html> [Accessed 11 September 2022].

[2] Leatherdale, D., 2016. How acceptable is artistic licence in history entertainment?. [online] BBC News. Available at: <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-36596885> [Accessed 12 September 2022].

[3] Ibid.

[4] Tate, B., 2016. Lucy Worsley: ‘It’s a really exciting time to be a historian’. [online] The Telegraph. Available at: <https://www.telegraph.co.uk/tv/2016/12/07/lucy-worsley-really-exciting-time-historian/> [Accessed 19 September 2022].

[5] Leatherdale, 2016. How acceptable is artistic licence in history entertainment?.

[6] Sharp, J., 1671. The Midwives Book, or the whole art of midwifry discovered. Directing childbearing women how to behave themselves in their conception, breeding … and nursing of children, etc. [With plates.]. London.

[7] Quirke, S., 2002. The ‘Kahun Medical Papyrus’ or ‘Gynaecological Papyrus’. UCL: Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, [online] Available at: <https://www.ucl.ac.uk/museums-static/digitalegypt/med/birthpapyrus.html> [Accessed 11 September 2022].

[8] Read, S., 2013. Menstruation and the female body in early modern England. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

[9] Crawford, P., 2016. Blood, bodies and families in early modern england. TAYLOR & FRANCIS.

[10] Brown, C., 2016. History on stage: Queen Anne. [online] Doing History in Public. Available at: <https://doinghistoryinpublic.org/2016/01/28/history-on-stage-queen-anne/> [Accessed 17 September 2022].

[11] Jenner, G. and Greig, H., 2016. Poldark and Historical TV Drama. [podcast] History Extra. Available at: <https://play.acast.com/s/historyextra/poldarkandhistoricaltvdrama> [Accessed 16 September 2022].

[12] Hurstfield, J. (1975). Queen and State: the Emergence of an Elizabethan Myth. In: Bromley, J.S., Kossmann, E.H. (eds) Britain and the Netherlands. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-010-1361-1_4

[13] Levin, C., 2013. The Heart and Stomach of a King: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power. University of Pennsylvania Press.

[14] Tate, B., 2016. Lucy Worsley: ‘It’s a really exciting time to be a historian’.

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Fascism Fictionalised: Inter-war British Fascism in Popular Culture, 1932 to Present

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Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF)[1] never won an election or parliamentary seat and, from its foundation in 1932 to its proscription in 1940, struggled to break into the political mainstream. Though in the mid-1930s it had around 50,000 members and enjoyed the support of Daily Mail proprietor Lord Rothermere, it remained a vocal but politically isolated organisation. And yet, over the last few years, the stage and the small screen have played host to a series of new depictions of interwar British fascism. What lies behind the renewed interest in this abhorrent political failure? And, moreover, what does the return to British fascism’s past say about the present?

In answering these questions, it’s necessary to first look back over the history of depictions of British fascism on the page, stage and screen. The earliest fictional depictions of British fascism occurred in interwar literature. In the work of a number of liberal and left-leaning novelists, characters based on Mosley and his followers appeared as figures of fun or dire warnings of the shape of things to come. Classic comic depictions include Nancy Mitford’s Wigs on the Green (1935) and P.G. Wodehouse’s The Code of the Woosters (1938). Alongside these, Naomi Mitchison’s We Have Been Warned (1935), Margaret Storm Jameson’s In the Second Year (1936), and H. G. Wells’ The Holy Terror (1939) took the threat of fascism more seriously. However, these authors were less concerned with Mosleyite fascism as an immediate threat and more concerned with visions of a British fascist dystopia or Wellsian utopia situated in the near future.

The war changed the way fascism was depicted. It was reimagined solely as an exterior threat, perhaps aided domestically by traitorous collaborators, as in the 1942 Ealing Studios’ film Went the Day Well? This depiction of fascism as an invading foreign force continued in post-war alternate history films and novels such as It Happened Here (1964), Guy Walters’ The Leader (2003), and C. J. Sansom’s Dominion (2012). Works in this genre are conservative in their anti-fascism. They dismissed fascism on the basis of its un-Britishness, characterising it largely as a German import (or, rather, imposition).

The more recent depictions of Mosleyite fascism differ from earlier examples in the sense that they regard fascism as an urgent and indigenous threat rather than a foreign import or a subject for dystopian or utopian speculation. In BBC’s 2018 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders and the most recent series of Peaky Blinders (now available via Netflix), fascism appears as a danger on Britain’s streets.

The recent adaptation of The ABC Murders diverges from Christie’s 1936 novel. In this version, we find an older Hercule Poirot, a faded relic of murder mystery parties, haunted by memories of his experiences as a Belgian refugee during the First World War. As he investigates a series of grisly murders, Poirot wanders through a rain-swept and racist Britain, increasingly becoming a hostile environment for foreigners. As if to underline this point, on almost every street corner, Poirot passes posters bearing the BUF’s flash-and-circle insignia.

While actual BUF members never make an appearance in The ABC Murders, Peaky Blinders depicts an alternate history of the movement’s formation. The fifth series begins with the protagonist, Thomas Shelby, newly installed as the Labour MP for Birmingham South – the constituency neighbouring Mosley’s. In an attempt to undermine Mosley (played brilliantly by Sam Claflin), Shelby becomes his right-hand man.

The series’ creators have moved events around a little. They erase Mosley’s pre-fascist New Party entirely, depicting his jump straight from Labour minister to British fascist three years early in late 1929 immediately after the Wall Street Crash. These liberties are easy to forgive as Claflin and the series’ writers capture Mosley’s personality and ideas with chilling accuracy. The series takes place in a turbulent Britain, wracked by gang warfare and economic unrest. Mosley appears here as a populist, complaining about ‘false news’ and promising to put ‘Britain first’. In the series’ finale, with the backing of Winston Churchill and in cooperation with a gang of Jewish bakers, Shelby mounts an assassination attempt on Mosley.[2]

In addition to these, Brigid Larmour’s recently announced touring production of The Merchant of Venice plans to shift the setting of Shakespeare’s most problematic play from Renaissance Venice to the inter-war East End of London. Due to begin touring in September 2020, this version is set to sympathetically reimagine Shylock – long considered an antisemitic stereotype – as a Jewish shopkeeper and war widow. Set in the weeks leading up to the 1936 Battle of Cable Street, the play’s original protagonists are to be recast as wealthy Mosleyites.

These modern depictions are darkly introspective. Their creators manipulate the historical record and over-inflate the popularity of the BUF. But in doing so, they are really inviting audiences to ruminate on the state of present-day, post-Brexit Britain. In looking to examples of political authoritarianism, anti-immigrant xenophobia and racism (especially in the contemporary context of rising antisemitism) from Britain’s past, they are attempting to think through the present.

However, in an eagerness to make historical analogies, we might miss the specifics of the present. In Britain and throughout the world, the radical right in 2020 does not resemble the radical right of the mid-1930s. Fascists were not, as the creators of The ABC Murders imagined, present on every street corner in inter-war Britain. While this is still not the case in terms of their physical presence, radical right ideas and rhetoric are being mainstreamed now as never before. Through their journalistic fellow travellers and social media, the modern radical right have achieved a reach that far surpasses Lord Rothermere’s brief endorsement of Oswald Mosely in the mid-1930s. Recent fictional depictions of British fascism suggest we are reliving the 1930s; in fact, we are living through something altogether different and potentially worse.

Liam Liburd currently works as a Teaching Associate in Modern International History at the University of Sheffield. He completed his PhD entitled “The Eternal Imperialists: Empire, Race and Gender on the British Radical Right, 1918-1968” in February 2020. His broader research interests are in British political and cultural history, and the history and afterlives of the British Empire. You can find him on Twitter @DocLiburd

Cover image: Oswald Mosley and Diana Mitford, 1936. https://www.flickr.com/photos/150300783@N07/35638188926 [accessed 4 May 2020].

[1] The BUF was renamed the British Union of Fascists and National Socialists or just ‘British Union’/BU in 1936.

[2] Churchill’s appearance in the fifth series of Peaky Blinders as some kind of parliamentary anti-fascist waging a secret war against Mosley is perhaps the show’s most disappointing misstep. Before his time as the grand anti-appeaser, the real-life Churchill was an aristocratic apologist for Mussolini.   

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Bringing Nineteenth-Century Women to Life in Present-day Uruguay

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As a cultural studies scholar, my work on historical novels from Uruguay at first glance seems to stand out from a website titled ‘History Matters’. Whilst many consider historical fiction to be the frivolous sibling to the rigor and precision of historical research, what happens when history cannot provide any answers? What about people who were marginalised for their gender, sexuality, class and/or colour and could not leave traces of their lives? How do we access their past experiences when historically we know very little about them? It is in these recesses of history where, I argue, fiction can play a significant role. In other words, narrative imagination can function as an effective tool for studying and thinking about an inaccessible past.

One of the Uruguayan historical novels that features in my research is titled Untamed Love: The Women of Artigas (Amores cimarrones: Las mujeres de Artigas, 2011, translation mine). Written by Marcia Collazo Ibáñez, who is also a historian by profession, this highly successful novel traces the lives of six women connected to Uruguay’s ultimate national hero, José Artigas (1764-1850).

One of the leaders of the revolutions which began in 1810 against the Spanish Crown in the River Plate of South America, Artigas led and later governed the Banda Oriental region (present-day Uruguay). In 1816 Banda Oriental was gradually invaded by Portuguese forces, and by 1820 Artigas and his armies were forced into exile in Paraguay where he spent the last thirty years of his life.[1] Despite being defeated by the Portuguese, curiously, after Artigas’ death his actions and ideals were exalted to proclaim him the father of the Uruguayan nation, a position he holds until today.

So, what about the women connected to Artigas, one may ask? Although his grandmothers, Ignacia Carrasco (1701-1773) and María Camejo (1714-1772), and his mother Francisca Asnar (1743-1803) are sometimes mentioned in historical works, they are often side-lined to highlight Artigas’s noble and honourable actions. His wife, Rosalía Rafaela Villagrán (1775-1824), furthermore, was portrayed not only as a ‘mad’ woman due to her ill health but also as someone who could not understand his need to fight for self-determination. His other partners, Isabel Sánchez (dates disputed) and Melchora Cuenca (birth date disputed-1870), on the other hand, were deemed inconsequential by male historians who also glossed over the national hero’s possibly promiscuous behaviour.[2]

Published in 2011, when Uruguayans celebrated the bicentenary of Artigas’s heroic actions, Collazo Ibáñez’s novel Untamed Love is divided into six parts with separate sections devoted to each of his grandmothers, his mother and his most significant three partners. In each of these six sections, the novel follows a very interesting pattern, as history and narrative imagination co-exist side by side. After conducting thorough historical research, the author precedes each anecdote about the women’s lives with short quotes by mostly male historians, significant leaders and sometimes Artigas himself. Then she proceeds to describe what might have occurred from the women’s perspectives, sometimes questioning Artigas’s behaviour towards them. Indulging her readers in a counter-history, which is partly imagined, the author, in a rather feminist gesture, writes these women into history.

In the case of Artigas’s official wife, Rosalía Rafaela, although she has been often mentioned in history books, even school textbooks, there are no known archival sources from her hand, i.e. no letters nor a diary. The information we have on her is second-hand: letters her husband or other officials wrote and parish entries. In Untamed Love, on the other hand, Collazo Ibáñez uses a first-person narrative to describe Rosalía’s ‘madness’. The section on Rosalía in the novel begins with her interior monologue as she wakes up in a hospital bed and inadvertently overhears her doctors discussing the reasons for her illness and unfortunate situation. This scene, symbolic of historians talking about Rosalía whilst her response was only silence, counters patriarchal history as the author uses narrative imagination to portray Rosalía’s experience in the hospital.

One might ask, how does this work differ from any other historical novel? Untamed Love is not a mere fictionalisation of the past. That is to say, it does not depict historical types but instead fictionalises the lives of real, often marginalised people. In doing so, it engages with a recent sub-genre that Linda Hutcheon has termed ‘historiographical metafiction’.[3] In fact, as Untamed Love’s author Collazo Ibáñez first attempts to access these women’s lives through history, she points to gaps in historical discourses and utilises fiction to fill them. In this sense, history does matter, but when there are insufficient historical sources available, fiction offers a space to imagine how traditionally marginalised people, like women, lived their lives. That is to say, when history is not enough, fiction steps in.

Karunika Kardak recently completed her PhD in Hispanic Studies from the University of St Andrews and is currently an academic tutor at the Department of Spanish there. Her doctoral research focused on literature from the post-dictatorship period in Uruguay and studied issues of national identity and cultural memory in historical fiction. You can find her on Twitter @KKarunika.

Cover image: Portrait of José Gervasio Artigas, circa 1884.

[1] John Street’s Artigas and the Emancipation of Uruguay serves as a perfect introduction for Anglophone readers to Uruguay’s history and the national hero’s role in it. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959).

[2] See Isidoro de María, Rasgos biográficos de hombres notables de la República Oriental del Uruguay, 3rd edn (Montevideo: Imprenta Artística, de Dornalecha y Reyes, 1889); Luis Bonavita, Sombras heroicas (Montevideo: Impresora L.I.G.U., 1949); and Juan Alberto Gadea, El ambiente hogareño donde nació Artigas (Montevideo: Estado Mayor del Ejército, 1974).

[3] Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction (New York and London: Routledge, 1988), p. 114. See Jerome de Groot on historiographical metafiction in The Historical Novel (London: Routledge, 2010), pp. 119–21.

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