Let’s hear it for the quiet girls

Sue Lloyd Roberts has died this week. For those of you who didn’t know her or her reporting, she was a pioneering journalist who secretly filmed and thus exposed human rights and other abuses in some of the world’s most brutal and dangerous regimes. There’s an excellent feature here on the BBC website, written by Lyse Doucet, one of the many women who’ve followed her into such vital work. Do check out the selected reports linked at the bottom of the piece.

Sue was also a Hildabeest; which is to say, she was a graduate of St Hilda’s College, Oxford. Through my work with the Alumnae Media Network, I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting her several times and hearing her astute and amusing insights as she contributed to Network events discussing careers in the media, including particular issues for women. While she was very clear on current gender challenges, she was able to point out that things have improved. As a new trainee for ITN, with all the analytical skills honed by her Oxford degree, ready to make her mark contributing to the nightly news – her first job was standing ready beside the camera with the glass of whisky demanded by newscaster Reginald Bosanquet as soon as the end credits rolled. Just that. Nothing more. A suitable job for a woman.

So how did she end up filming ground breaking reports from inside Burma, North Korea and Syria while her male colleagues ground their teeth in frustration at closed borders? By quietly and calmly keeping her nerve as she posed as an unremarkable, unthreatening woman in a variety of occupations. A quiet girl who could readily be dismissed by those in power. More fool them. By being one of the first journalists to see the potential of small, tourist-friendly video cameras – disdained by those of her colleagues enamoured with the latest in hi-tech toys. More fool them. As she got older, she calculatedly and gleefully took advantage of the social invisibility that descends on middle aged women.

We need such women in fiction as well as in fact – and in books for all ages – as evident in comments in various places on my contribution to Alyx Dellamonica’s exploration of heroines last week. In particular, I was reminded of the number of strong-minded, capable and effective women I know who identified first and foremost with the quiet girls in their early reading; Lucy and Susan in Narnia, Beth in Little Women, Anne in the Famous Five, Peggy Blackett and Susan Walker in the Swallows and Amazons. Quiet girls who nevertheless always make a contribution, even if it’s largely doing the cooking, and they are certainly essential to the group dynamic.

The tomboys in these stories who so enthralled me as a child held no such interest for my friends. Would they have stopped reading these books without having someone else to identify with? Would that have hampered the development of their love of reading that’s carried them through to academic and other careers where they’ve made significant contributions to other people’s lives and wider society? Only they can say – but time and again, when diversity in fiction is discussed, the importance of representation in fiction for everyone comes up time and again. So let’s not dismiss the value of these quiet girls.

Thinking about my own writing, a good few of these same pals – and other fans – have told me how the quiet girls in my own novels are some of their favourite characters. Allin, in the Tales of Einarinn; Risala in The Aldabreshin Compass, Branca and Failla in The Lescari Revolution and Zurenne in the Hadrumal Crisis. Do I pride myself on my cleverness in creating them? Hardly. I needed other people to point out such characters’ potential before I could start to consciously work with quiet girls, to explore different aspect of my own preconceptions as much as readers’ assumptions.

Allin started out as no more than a writerly convenience in The Thief’s Gamble, even if she is a magewoman. The pompous wizard Casuel needed someone to talk to, in order to inform the reader of various bits of background and plot development. As my editor at the time pointed out with a grin, an author can only get away with a man musing as he shaves, gazing into a mirror, once in a career. Given Casuel’s so warped by personal insecurity, Allin needed to be meek enough for him to feel superior enough to loftily explain key aspects of life and magic to her. Or as we’d put it nowadays, mansplain.

The thing is though, Allin turned out to be so much more useful to me as the author by the time I was writing The Assassin’s Edge. Because a quiet girl who isn’t out there taking action and provoking reaction is still listening, watching and thinking while she’s doing the darning. When people dismiss her, they don’t care what they say around her. Which means she can end up being the one who has all the pieces of a particular puzzle. Knowledge can be power that’s just as decisive as force of arms. Risala knows that full well, as she travels the Archipelago, doing her very best to stay unremarkable and unnoticed. No one could call Charoleia unremarkable but the foundation of her wealth and influence is everything she learns from the likes of ladies’ maids and scullery girls going about their work unnoticed.

Does this realisation come naturally to the quiet girls, even if I was slow on the uptake as a writer? No, it doesn’t. It takes Zurenne three volumes of The Hadrumal Crisis to throw off a lifetime’s expectation that she would be dutiful and biddable and yield to male authority. The current focus on everyday sexism in everything from pay gaps in Hollywood to media obsessing over a female politician’s shoes instead of discussing her policies shows us the challenge of entrenched attitudes facing today’s young women. Which brings us back to the need for role models in fiction who show the quiet girls there are other routes and strategies which will work for them, even though they lack the tomboy’s inclination for toe-to-toe confrontation. As well as role models in real life.

Let’s celebrate Sue Lloyd Roberts’ life and work as we mourn her loss, and let’s make very sure we honour her legacy. Let’s hear it for the quiet girls.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *