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Bad Girls of the Ancient World with Stephanie Draven

I’m quite pleased to welcome Harlequin Nocturne author Stephanie Draven to the RSS blog. Stephanie’s debut novel, POISONED KISSES, released on the same day as BUTTERFLY SWORDS so I thought it would be fun to do a joint blog on a topic we both hold near and dear: bad girls in history.

Stephanie Draven writes Greek myth-inspired paranormal romance for Harlequin Nocturne. Her debut novel, POISONED KISSES hits bookshelves October 1, 2011. As Stephanie Dray, she has a forthcoming historical fiction series set in Augustan Age Rome, the first novel of which is entitled LILY OF THE NILE coming from Berkley Books in January 2011.

If you love heroes and heroines with a delicious dark side, I highly recommend POISONED KISSES. You know…the two books do appear conveniently on the same rack in the bookstore this month. 🙂

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Stephanie: Women who have been vilified in ancient history share a few common traits whether they hail from western or eastern culture. They were usually either warriors, seductresses, or sorceresses. Sometimes, all three!

These women didn’t quite fit into the social strictures of their times; they defied conventional mores and sometimes changed the world as a result. They’re fascinating, inspiring, and an everlasting example of how ancient attitudes about the role of women still influence us. We’re eager to introduce some of these bad girls to you today in the hopes that they will spark a discussion about heroines in fiction today.

Olympias. This Greek princess and supposed descendant of Achilles, met her husband, Philip II of Macedon, while being initiated into the mysteries of an ancient cult. She was always suspected, ever after, of sorcery and congress with serpents. Though she was the fourth of Phillip’s wives, he claimed it was a love match, and she appears to have believed him until he started marrying other women. When Philip married a seventh time, and drunkenly accused Olympias of infidelity, casting doubt upon the legitimacy of their son Alexander, she’d had enough. She packed up her things and left Macedon. Fortuitously, or perhaps not coincidentally at all, her husband was assassinated shortly thereafter, and Olympias was able to install her son Alexander on the throne. He would later go on to become Alexander the Great, ruler of the known world, but Olympias didn’t simply fade into the woodwork. She was an active, if not always welcome, participant in Alexander’s political regime. After her son’s death, though she was in her fifties, Olympias commanded an army in the field to preserve the throne for her baby grandson. What’s more, she won. For a short time, she was the mistress of Macedonia, at the zenith of her power. Eventually, she was defeated by Cassander and executed, thought to be far too dangerous to leave alive, but she leaves behind the archetype of a fiercely protective mother.

Cleopatra. As the consort of not one, but two Roman generals, Cleopatra earned a reputation as a seductress. She was foreign and exotic, and she worshipped all manner of strange gods. What’s more, her enemies believed she was capable of wielding magic. And if that weren’t bad enough, Cleopatra also made war. She’s come down to us as a familiar and iconic image. Everyone has heard about the infamous Queen of the Nile, and there’s a good reason for it. She was, and remains, the most powerful woman in the history of the world. Though we’ve since had powerful queens, the geographic scope of their authority has been smaller. We’ve also had women serve as prime ministers of important countries, but their powers were limited and sharply circumscribed. Cleopatra was not only the queen of Egypt in her own right, but in concert with her Roman husband, the biddable Marcus Antonius, she wielded unprecedented power. Until the Battle of Actium, she was poised to rule the entire world. But for some bad weather and a wildly successful propaganda campaign against her, the world might be a much different place today.

Jeannie: There are some pretty illustrious “bad girls” over in the ancient East as well. These are two of my favorites ladies and ones who very much inspired my heroines.

Lady Sun was an influential figure of the 3rd century during the Three Kingdoms period. Her given name is not recorded in historical records, however in legends she was called Sun Shangxiang. In the famous Chinese epic, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, she was named Sun Ren. Lady Sun was the daughter of warlord Sun Jian and had five brothers. Trained in martial arts from an early age, she was known for being a tomboy and is typically depicted with a sword. She was married to warlord Liu Bei to secure an alliance, but it’s said that he was always a bit frightened when he came to visit his wife due to her unpredictable nature and her female attendants who also all carried weapons. Consequently, here were no children from the union. In addition, Liu Bei’s officers had to keep watch on her or else she’d run rampant in the capital. Ai Li of Butterfly Swords was inspired in part by Lady Sun. For all of Ai Li’s fire, she’s actually a much tamer version of this ancient swordwoman.
Yang Yuhuan was commonly known as Yang Guifei, or Imperial Consort Yang. She lived in the height of the Tang Dynasty in the 8th century. Legends say that the Emperor Xuanzong caught a glimpse of her bathing among other palace ladies and became smitten. After the Emperor took her as his consort and elevated her to the highest ranking of Guifei, he also started promoting members of her family to exalted positions within the court. Usually depicted as a skillful politician as well as a seductress, she formed powerful connections with the head eunuchs as well as the warlord An Lushan. When the warlord rebelled and invaded the capital, the Emperor’s retainers blamed Yang Yuhuan and her family for the collapse. As the Emperor and his court fled the capital, the imperial soldiers demanded Consort Yang’s death. Tragically, the Emperor ordered her strangled and they buried her body in an unmarked grave on the side of the road. It was said that he was so heartbroken, Xuanzong had no more taste for ruling and abdicated his throne to his son soon after. She’s immortalized as one of the Four Beauties of China, usually depicted together in panels. Consort Yang is also known for bringing down the Golden Age of the Tang Empire with her beauty. I always thought it was mighty convenient to exonerate an entire imperial court, including an Emperor, to lay the blame on a single femme fatale.

Who are your favorite bad girls of history? Do you think history has a way of vilifying notable women?

46 responses to “Bad Girls of the Ancient World with Stephanie Draven”

  1. Kelly Fitzpatrick says:

    I love the bad girls. Short skirts. High heels. Plunging necklines. Attitude.

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    • Jeannie Lin says:

      Funny how there was a lot of talk about how bad girls dressed even back in the day. At least in the case of Cleopatra and Yang Yuhuan. Or what they didn’t wear. 🙂

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  2. Tamara Hogan says:

    I definitely think history vilifies notable (and powerful) women. The reality is that for long periods of time, history has largely been written by men – men concerned with preserving power. Sadly, this means that much of our history has been lost to the sands of time.

    One of my favorite books EVAH is “The Mists of Avalon” by Marion Zimmer Bradley. In this book, Bradley writes about the Arthurian legend through the eyes of its female characters – particularly Morgaine (the “treacherous” Morgan Le Fay) – treating Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table as secondary characters. In Bradley’s deft hands, the Arthurian legend becomes ever more complex, exploring the political, cultural, religious and gender dynamics of the time through previously marginalized characters such as Gwenhwyfar, Viviane, Morgause, and Igraine. The book is an absolutely stunning accomplishment. I bow down.

    One of my favorite sayings is by Harvard professor and historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich: “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” Congratulations on your releasaes, and keep on writing about those bad girls. Where would we be without them?

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    • Elise Hayes says:

      And for readers of children’s fiction, I LOVE how the “Magic Treehouse” series has rehabilitated Morgana le Fay, making her into the good sorceress who saves books and is very wise.

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    • Jeannie Lin says:

      Ah! I never knew who originated that quote!

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    • OMG, I love Mists of Avalon. It was the inspiration behind my forthcoming LILY OF THE NILE which is simply set in a more ancient time.

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      I love Marian Zimmer Bradley’s take on the Arthurian stories. I read these decades ago, and they really changed my whole take on the stories. I love the Arthur stories, but in most of the iterations the women are just whimpy — especially Guinevere. But then, when I read Bradley, it dawned on me that up until that point, I’d been reading the versions written by men!

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    • Jeannie Lin says:

      I must join in the Mists of Avalon fan club. I devoured that tome–it’s too grand and big to just be called a book.

      Though I’m always finding that Stephanie and I have very similar tastes in reading which is probably why I enjoy her writing so much.

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  3. Elisa Beatty says:

    Delicious post! It is fascinating how, cross-culturally, female power is often connected to EITHER magic or gender-bending warrior behavior, or both (Joan of Arc comes to mind).

    And I’m delighted that your books are turning all that power into a GOOD thing. (I STILL don’t have my copy of BUTTERFLY SWORDS, Jeannie!!! The ‘receiver’ at my local Barnes & Noble was out sick for a couple days at the send of September, and they got all backed up…computer says they have TWO copies, but none of the clerks could figure out where they were. aargh!!! Hopefully today!!)

    And Stephanie–how fabulous that you have books coming out set in Augustan Rome! One of my favorite, favorite periods ever! I’ll be looking for them!

    Good luck and many, many sales to you both!

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    • Thank you, I’m so excited about all of it. My guess is that gender-bending warrior behavior was the expression of female power that men most recognized, but that the magic/seductress angle was the one they most feared.

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  4. I don’t think history has necessarily ‘VILIFIED’ notable women, but I don’t believe they’ve been given as much credit as they should’ve received. History is definitely slanted toward men.

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    • Shea Berkley says:

      I don’t believe history has vilified women either. We don’t hear much about women because women weren’t on the historians (mens) radar. Only the truly manipulative women were noted, or the truly altruistic.

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    • Jeannie Lin says:

      It’s so true that the role of women has been often downplayed. I do love seeing how women’s fiction is reviving many of these stories. Sure, the fictionalized stories may blow it up a bit, but I’m more inclined to believe there’s more truth in the gloried versions than absolute silence.

      In terms of vilification, I find it very interesting how historians have always been spin doctors — this is true for men or women. Roman Emperor’s who aren’t favored like Nero and Caligula had all their cruelties blown up by historians. In Vietnam, the tombs of Emperors who were not favored were left to literally crumble to dust whereas the tombs of Emperors who reigned before French colonialism look like palaces.

      After the Tang Dynasty, an Emperor commissioned a “New Book of Tang” which updated a previous historical work about the Tang dynasty. In it, they added cautionary tales of women who maimed or killed themselves due to excessive fervor. So fascinating why these stories would be added about women and not men and they would target a historical period where women were more independent and were daring enough to seize power.

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  5. Shea Berkley says:

    Love this subject!

    How about Marie Antoinette? Talk about getting a raw deal. I’m not so sure she was as bad as people say. But she paid a high price for her extravagances and inability to read the writing on the wall.

    Congratulations to the both of you! And may many sales follow.

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    • Jeannie Lin says:

      My husband and I are avid fans of the history channel. Now, definitely not saying that those accounts are any more accurate, but I did watch a show that looked at her journals and written accounts from her close friends that showed her to actually be charitable and socially conscious and less of a clueless aristocrat.

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  6. I knew about neither of Jeannie’s bad girls and I am fascinated to learn more. Thanks for having me here!

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  7. Hope Ramsay says:

    Well, my favorite woman in history is Queen Elizabeth I. I don’t think she’s viewed as a bad girl, like say Catherine of Russia — given that her title was the Virgin Queen. But that, in itself tells you something. QEI kicked ass. She was ruthless and held her power with an iron fist. And at the same time she did more to build England as an empire than just about any other monarch around.

    And that brings me to a interesting historical thought — that the English people seem to have a history of truly strong women leading them. Not just QEI, but Victoria and QEII, as well as Maggie Thatcher. And the history of this goes way back.

    I’ve been watching the History Channel series on the Roman occupation of Britain and they did a fascinating bit on Boudica (or Boadicea) Queen of the Welsh Iceni clan who staged an uprising against the Roman occupation. That woman was hell on wheels. And she had just cause, too, because the Roman brutes killed her husband and raped her daughters while she was forced to watch. As they say — Hell hath no fury…

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    • Rita Henuber says:

      I love Elizabeth also. she may have been called the virgin queen -because she never married- but think the name was not correct. She was thought to have lovers. once she married she would have to share her reign and even defer to her husband.

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    • Hope, I’m so glad you brought up Elizabeth. She was smart enough to figure out that she was being cast in the role as a bad girl (the ‘affair’ with Catherine Parr’s husband), and was able to refashion herself in the role of a virgin. Her persistence in not marrying had a big impact on how she was viewed and probably contributed to her success.

      Unlike Cleopatra, Elizabeth never insisted on commanding her own naval vessels, for example. She had a way of deferring to men even though she was in charge of them. It worked out very well for her, and I stand in complete admiration…but it says something about us that she had to do these things to stay in power.

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      • Stephanie, for me, Elizabeth I’s redefinition of herself is the most fascinating thing about her. Talk about forging her own path! That’s what makes her a “bad girl,” I think. She refused to follow the rules that existed to disempower women of her time.

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    • Jeannie Lin says:

      I am utterly fascinated about Elizabeth I. I think there’s a lot of conflicting info about her, some of it making her out to be harsh and dried up, where I’ve read that she also was quite charming and witty. I watched the Helen Mirren series to get inspiration on what sort of subtlety it takes for a woman to rule.

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  8. Rita Henuber says:

    History equals glorified storytelling and is colored by many factors. Sex, ethnic background and religion are the biggies. Take Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth the first. Depending on who wrote the book Mary is portrayed as a bit off her rocker or the poor abused rightful heir to the throne. Elizabeth has been portrayed as an evil plotter to take the throne away from Mary or the greatest ruler of England. I use this example because it was the first I got in trouble for challenging. If there are so many variables what is the correct one? Do we think of Cleopatra as how Elizabeth Taylor portrayed her or as she was shown in the HBO series Rome? I think that a lot of history is in the process of being corrected. Armed with reliable research the unusual historical – which I adore- will explode. Young women want to read about that take charge woman who made history and changed the world .
    Congrats to you both and here is too much success and many sales.

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  9. Thanks for introducing us to Olympias – I missed all these bad girls by limiting myself to European History in school. My favorite of those bad girls would be Mary, Queen of Scots. She took a lot of heat (I don’t really believe she had her husband killed – come on!) for things her advisors did, but people forget that her son unified England and Scotland under one crown.

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  10. I recently learned that “tomboy” is a term used to describe lesbians and/or female transvestites in some Asian countries. Jeannie, though I doubt this is what you meant by it, your use of “tomboy” to describe Lady Sun jogged my imagination, and recalled something I once read about Joan of Arc.

    It’s a rather difficult question to answer now, but I do wonder how many of these historical bad girls were gay. I don’t know enough about female homosexuality in ancient times to guess whether or not suspicions about such a thing would have lead to a powerful woman’s vilification. Accusations of witchcraft, perhaps, may have been a euphemism for something else? Or if a woman were thought to be a lesbian, would historians have had no problem just recording that suspicion as-is? Or was lesbianism not considered notable?

    The answers to those questions would obviously vary with region and time, perhaps within as little as a few miles or years. Lord knows that’s true in America, yet.

    (I should note that I don’t think a strong woman needs to be gay to be strong, nor that a gay woman needs to be strong to be gay!)

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    • Jeannie Lin says:

      That’s actually a very interesting point. I’ve only read descriptions of Lady Sun from translations into English, so I wonder if she was called a tomboy in order to claim, in truth or not, that she was lesbian. The accounts also often indicate that Liu Bei was afraid of her and they never had children. That doesn’t necessarily mean she was homosexual, but it could be emphasized to add fuel to the fire.

      One account has her being lovesick and throwing herself into a river after learning that her husband died, but there’s no historical record of this. It also doesn’t seem to mesh with the rest of the legend. There must be a nice women’s fic story in here somewhere.

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      • Does Chinese history seem to remember Lady Sun as a positive or negative figure? That is, is she a woman to whom young Chinese girls might aspire to be, if such ancient heroine-worship is permitted in modern Chinese culture? Or is she a cautionary tale?

        Or is she remembered more evenly — as a complicated, boundary-pushing woman who frightened warlords and armed her handmaidens?

        Saying that her husband was afraid of her and that they never had children seems to make Lady Sun a bit of a cautionary tale.

        Though, (and this goes back to Stephanie’s area of interest), I always admired the virgin goddess of the hunt, Artemis/Diana, above all the other cool mythological Greco-Roman females. I never took the butt-kicking, moon-howling, child-free tales of Artemis/Diana as cautionary, so perhaps such a thing is all in the perception of the reader?

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        • Jeannie Lin says:

          Hmm…I like how you’ve approached this question. I think her story is taken in different ways, however she’s one of the few heroic figures in Romance of the Three Kingdoms. I think she’s used to downplay her husband’s reputation and prop up her brother’s faction which she eventually rejoins. A lot of political intentions in that work.

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      • There must be a nice women’s fic story in here somewhere…

        Which you should write! I will pre-order it right now.

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  11. Gwynlyn MacKenzie says:

    Excellent blog, ladies.

    My thinking is that strong women were often villified in literature and history to dissuade other young women from following in their footsteps. Were a strong woman with an actual working brain praised, a male dominated culture would be hard-pressed to “keep the little woman at home.”

    The fear men have of strong women has never ceased to amaze me.

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  12. Addison Fox says:

    What a fun blog post!!! Congratulations and Happy Release day to you both!!!

    Addison

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  13. Lovely covers, ladies! Congratulations on your release, Stephanie, and thanks for visiting. I love reading about strong women, past or present;)

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  14. Hatshepsut is a favorite of mine from the ancient world. Hers is a fascinating story to read.

    More recently is Victoria Woodhull, the demonized suffragist, female presidential candidate, first female Wall Street broker and advocate of “free love” of over 100 years ago. Demonized, to boot!

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  15. Congratulations on your debut release, Stephanie! How fab to be able to celebrate it alongside Jeannie’s Butterfly Swords.

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  16. […] – Ruby-Slippered Sisterhood: Bad Girls of the Ancient World featuring Stephanie […]

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