Christine de Pisan: Dream fiction

Well wicked women

If she were a man, Lisa HIlton would surely be celebrated as the roving public intellectual she so clearly is


This article is taken from the October issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Metafiction can sometimes prove a tad wearing. “Yeah, OK,” the reader eye-rolls. “We see what you’re doing there.” In this little gem of a book, however, metafiction — and metahistory — are a delight. Behold: twenty-first-century professional writer Lisa Hilton creates a small and perfectly-formed dream fiction-cum-non-exemplary biography in which to discuss fifteenth-century professional writer Christine de Pisan’s dream fiction-cum-hagiography, The Book of the City of Ladies of 1405.

Sex and the City of Ladies: Rewriting history with Cleopatra, Lucrezia Borgia and Catherine the Great
by Lisa Hilton
TLS Books, £7.99

In Hilton’s witty essay, three of history’s most notoriously wicked women — Cleopatra, Lucrezia Borgia and Catherine the Great — manifest to demand admittance to said metropolis. Hilton rewrites their stories, favouring political prowess over the traditional sexual slurs; history wrestled back from misogyny, the personal no longer privileged over policy.

Meanwhile, we are asked why women’s histories continue to be told in relation to their bodies, by misogynists and feminists alike, not least at a moment when “the very definition of the ‘female’ body — who is or is not a woman; where ‘femininity’ resides — remains the object of passionate contemporary debate.”

Hilton continues, “What would history look like if its male protagonists were understood and judged in line with their sex lives, if the political decisions of Charles V or Louis XIV or Abraham Lincoln were read through the prism of gender? The idea seems ridiculous (not to mention boring).”

Segregation — whether for reasons of empowerment or disempowerment — feels like an anachronism. As Hilton asks her petitioners: “Are you sure you want to live in Christine’s city anyway?”

For a short sally, SatCoL closes with a big question: “Can ‘woman’ as a category be retired from historical practice? Paradoxically, one way to write certain women back into history might be not to write them as women at all.” Compare Hilton’s 2014 biography of Elizabeth I not as a female prince, but a European one; not an exceptional woman, but an exceptional ruler.

Whatever one’s feelings about this argument, Hilton wears her learning not only lightly but modishly, as if a playful Peter Ackroyd were also winningly au fait with matters fashion. Khaite cardigans make an appearance, as do YouTube’s Epic Historical Rap Battles, crackheads, Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” video, Catherine the Great’s “fluid” appearance, and the way in which “excessive domestic competence doesn’t play if you want a relatable protagonist” (which Hilton very much is).

Accordingly, the essay’s title refers both to the sex that she finds grounds for exclusion from The City of Ladies, and a certain Sex and the City, Grazia-wielding, zeitgeist-conversant breadth to her erudition that makes Hilton exactly the kind of company her illustrious heroines would want to keep. Think: a blue-stocking in Balenciaga knife pumps.

A further meta aspect one can read into all this is the treatment of Hilton herself. Were our heroine a hero, then this biographer, historian, novelist, thriller writer, librettist and cultural critic would surely be celebrated as the roving public intellectual she so clearly is. Instead, she is forever being interrogated about her sex life, as she has lamented elsewhere.

For if, as W.H. Auden noted, to the man in the street the word “intellectual” suggests “a man who’s untrue to his wife”, then “female intellectual” is still taken to mean “slut”. As in the Renaissance, the stigma of print — or the claiming of any sort of public voice whatsoever — remains accompanied by the assumption that women will be as free with their genitalia as they are with their words, meanwhile rape threats and black legends will be used to silence them.

Compare my own run-in with an online commentator who suggested that, having dared to publish, I be gang-raped to death using my own severed limbs, one of which should be deployed as a gag. As Joan Smith writes in The Public Woman: “If a woman insists on her rightful place in the public world, some men will assume that she’s publicly available” — a conflation of orifices that Christine would have been equally as conversant with, ever-present in the tales of Cleopatra, Lucrezia Borgia and Catherine the Great.

Not that Hilton is so lumbering as to weigh down her account with this sort of pained reflection. She’s far too busy being massively entertaining. One hopes this new imprint, TLS Books, will not fall victim to the Covid crisis. At 10,000 words a pop it’s terrific fun: long enough to allow the author to get his or her teeth into a subject, short enough for the reader not to be dragged back to the “ever-quickening culture of flipness and facility” from which it provides an escape (the words are retiring TLS editor Stig Abell’s). I love Lisa Hilton and I love this little book. More of both please, TLS Books.

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