Commentary

Why are there so few female adventure writers? Do women not write action-packed novels? Or are they

I grew up reading the great adventure novels of the 1960s and 1970s, from Alistair MacLean's Ice Station Zebra to Wilbur Smith's The Sunbird. I enjoyed the combination of action and landscape, the sense of mystery and the certainty that, whatever trials and tribulations the characters endured, everything would end happily.

But why, more than 30 years later, are there still so few adventure heroines? And even fewer female adventure authors?

Is it because the "adventure" tag is still seen as applying only to the all-guns-blazing fiction produced by writers such as Andy McNab? Is it down to a failure of imagination on the part of women writers? Or is it because the adventure stories women do write are invariably categorised as something different?

Writers of both sexes have always been constrained by expectation. Their female heroines have struggled to escape from a series of suffocating demands: that their tales should feature romantic intrigue and unrequited passion; that they should embody traits such as passive forbearance and tragic purity. Precedents were set by the myths, legends and histories (many retold by Shakespeare) brilliantly analysed by Lisa Jardine in her 1983 work Still Harping on Daughters. In Julius Caesar, for example, while Brutus, Octavius, Mark Antony and Cassius march off to war centre-stage, Portia kills herself - the supreme self-abnegation - off-stage.

Literature needed strong, positive - even aggressive - female characters to counter pantomime harridans such as the self-righteous bluestockings of Moliere's L'Ecole des femmes. And emerge they did in the 19th century. But when women in fiction finally began to speak for themselves, their motivation remained unclear. What was the goal of characters such as Elizabeth Bennet and Becky Sharp?

Was it authority and command, the desire for wider importance

in a wider world? When George Eliot's Middlemarch was first serialised in 1871 and 1872, why was it considered scandalous for Dorothea to prefer the dashing young Ladislaw to the older, dry-as-dust academic Casaubon? Elsewhere, in work by male Victorian writers such as Coventry Patmore (author of that notorious poem, "The Angel in the House"), the domestic ideal was clearly in the ascendant.

Contemporary children's writers such as Frances Hodgson Burnett pursued their dreams of liberation through child characters precisely because strong roles were not available to women. Even if the antecedents of the modern adventure heroine lie in the Victorian era, this does not make the novels of that period adventure stories in the classic sense.

What, if anything, has changed? In his monumental work The Seven Basic Plots (2004), Christopher Booker convincingly argues that there are only so many stories. Yet even he fails to distinguish between the male hero and the heroine. How many "quest" stories can you think of in which women play the lead? How many women have "overcome monsters" or been central figures in "tales of rebirth"? (More likely tales of come-uppance.) It is true that women have always taken lead roles in "rags-to-riches" stories, but remember that in the end it is only by marrying Rochester that Jane Eyre wins happiness and security, not by striking out alone.

In today's overcrowded fiction market, we see the same conflict between characterisation and categorisation. There are plenty of adventurous female characters to be found - think of Philippa Gregory's strong Tudor heroines, or Manda Scott's Boudica - but these novels are placed, by publishers and booksellers alike, firmly on the shelf marked "historical fiction".

My latest novel, Labyrinth, is a time-slip women's adventure novel (and Grail story with a twist), set half in contemporary France and half in medieval Carcassonne. Although I have spent five years researching and writing the novel, the history and spirit of place are secondary to the action. The narrative rests squarely on the shoulders of two female protagonists: they have romantic and sexual adventures, homes and domestic lives, but their role within the novel is to lead rather than follow. My heroines are not traditional adventure heroines, languishing on the mountain top and hoping to be rescued. They are mistresses of their own lives and, by extension, the lives of others.

I've no doubt that, as publishing genres become more fluid, we will see more adventure writing by women. But we are not there yet. For now, Wilbur Smith is still the unchallenged king of adventure - although there are a few of us waiting, knocking at the gates.

Labyrinth is published by Orion (£9.99, hardback)

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