In Roaring Girls, Holly Kyte pulls back the curtain to tell the stories of 8 fascinating and powerful women. Introducing her bold and inspiring debut, Holly explains what inspired this book and where it all began…
September 2016. I was on a train, hurtling through the parched landscape of Andalucía in southern Spain, with my nose (as usual) in a book. The volume in question was Claire Harman’s excellent biography of Charlotte Brontë, a tale of passion, longing and ambition that was pulling me deep into the lives of Yorkshire’s literary goddesses – until, that is, a single, solitary paragraph stopped me in my tracks. In the late 1830s, Harman wrote, an heiress called Anne Lister lived just down the road from the Brontës in Halifax, and had set up home ‘with her lover Ann Walker in a lesbian relationship’. Anne Lister’s masculine ways were the tittle-tattle of the county, although the true nature of her relationships with women were ‘only made widely known in the twentieth century when [her] remarkable diaries were decoded and published …’ Wait. Hang on. What? Who on earth was this?!
Anyone who saw BBC One’s gorgeous costume drama Gentleman Jack this summer will know exactly who Anne Lister was and why she was so extraordinary, but in 2016 her name was on few people’s lips, and she certainly wasn’t occupying a primetime slot on Sunday-night TV. Those few snippets of her story were enough to reel me in – a door had opened on an area of women’s history that I had never heard about before, that wasn’t taught in schools, that was barely ever talked about. I was flabbergasted, delighted and desperate to know more.
It was the first stirrings of what would eventually become Roaring Girls: The Forgotten Feminists of British History, a book that brings together the life stories of eight remarkable women who broke all the gender rules of their day and, for their trouble, have long been relegated to the shadows. As I raided the cupboards of history for more Roaring Girls to stand alongside Anne Lister, I found more heroines than I ever expected – from notorious cross-dressing thief and performer Mary Frith, who appalled and enthralled Jacobean London, to rebel slave Mary Prince, who became the first black woman in Britain to publish her life story, to society beauty and domestic abuse survivor Caroline Norton, who fought to revolutionise married women’s rights in the nineteenth century. Here was the proof that not all women pre-feminism just put up and shut up and did as they were told. These women amazed, inspired and thrilled me with their determination to break free from the suffocating, stultifying roles society demanded of them.
I hope their stories show just how courageous, outrageous and downright magnificent women can be even when every social custom attempts to clip their wings. At a time when the cultural progress we thought we’d made appears to have taken several steps back, it feels important to be reassessing women’s history, to be reacquainting ourselves with our most daring and charismatic ancestors and championing difference and unconventionality wherever we can. For millennia, we’ve been told that the history of the world is the history of men. Now it’s time to change the narrative.