The Big Idea: Kate Heartfield
They say behind every great man is a great woman, but what happens when that woman has a magic book and has decided she’s had enough of the patriarchy? Author Kate Heartfield takes us back through history, with a brand new perspective. Follow along in her Big Idea for The Embroidered Book to hear a new take on stories you thought you knew.
The idea for The Embroidered Book came to me in late 2015, when Hillary Rodham Clinton was on track to become the first female president of the United States. (And then, of course, that happened. Phew, good thing we’re in this timeline, am I right?)
I was thinking about powerful women: the personal sacrifices they make, the uses they make of wealth and privilege, the bargains they sometimes make with patriarchy and white supremacy. Sacrifices, bargains … it seemed only natural to use magic as a metaphor. And I happened to be reading about women of the 18th century.
I didn’t learn much in school about the women who dominated politics in 18th century Europe. Two that probably come to mind are the empresses Maria Theresa of the Holy Roman Empire and Catherine the Great of Russia, but there was also the Empress Elizabeth before Catherine. And then there were Maria Theresa’s many daughters. The Habsburg girls dutifully married their way into the various ruling families of Europe, wielding their influence through their husbands, or despite them.
Two of Maria Theresa’s daughters took very different paths to power. Marie Antoinette, queen of France, tried to win her people’s love; popular history remembers her now as a hairstyle and an invented catchphrase. Her sister Charlotte, the queen of Naples, was the de facto ruler of a great kingdom that stood up to Napoleon; popular history barely remembers her at all. To be mocked or to be forgotten: are those the fates of powerful women?
Charlotte and Antoinette are the protagonists of The Embroidered Book: two sisters sent to marry men they’ve never met, in kingdoms they’ve never seen. But in my version of history, they have a source of power: a secret book of magic. The sacrifices required change them and their world.
In some ways, the novel is highly accurate: I take research seriously, and I tried to thread my story through known history. In other ways, of course, it’s entirely invented: the magic system, and the secret society that controls it. Looking at history through a fantastical lens is one way to see it as if for the first time, without the other lenses we’ve acquired over the years.
I should be clear about one thing: Antoinette and Charlotte are (were) extremely flawed people who made a lot of bad choices. But they’re not caricatures. It struck me that these two real, complex women have been erased by history in different ways – or at least, shall we say, embroidered over. The imperialist, patriarchal structures that made their power possible also dictated what forms that power could take, and how history would interpret their choices later. They were simultaneously powerful and oppressed: a dynamic that still shapes the lives and choices of white women like me today.
The 18th century was a time of great promise. But the seeds of the Enlightenment were rotten. The same century that witnessed incredible advances in art, science and philosophy also bequeathed us a legacy of racism, colonialism and white supremacy that survives to this day. And the women who fought at the barricades would remain second-class citizens.
At the end of The Embroidered Book, one of the sisters rails against “this dying century that broke all its promises.” That line came to me very late in the revision process, but it rang like a bell in my head when I wrote it. I feel the same way, about the 20th century rather than the 18th.
I’m a Canadian. When I was 16 years old, Canada got its first female prime minister. She lasted a few months. As it turned out, she was an anomaly. We’ve never had another. Sixteen-year-old me would have been saddened to learn than in 2022, the 45th year of my life, only two of Canada’s 13 premiers would be women. To learn that in last year’s federal election, all four of our major political parties were led by men. It’s far beyond coincidence, and it isn’t changing quickly enough. Whatever forces have long worked against women gaining power, they seem to be working still.