For many years, it seemed to me that my favorite literary heroines inhabited their own universes, hardly ever running into real (read: historical) people, and only touching actual events peripherally. The American Girls books were carefully set in decades that didn’t quite touch each other (I always found it amusing that they all began in years ending with “4″), and though I adored Felicity, Kirsten, Samantha, Molly and Addy, it was highly unlikely that they’d ever cross paths, or even have been alive at the same time.
Some of the heroines I loved, like Laura Ingalls Wilder and Anne Shirley, were such sacred figures to me – such larger-than-life girls who were the center of their own universes – that I could never think of them together (though Laura and Anne were born around the same time and lived through many of the same world events). They simply lived in different worlds, bounded by different families, life stories and writing styles. And some characters’ place in history is rather vague – Nancy Drew, for example, has shifted back and forth in time over the years, and the Baby-Sitters Club girls, though resolutely contemporary, seemed to live in a sort of bubble in small-town Connecticut.
More recently, I’ve tried to mentally piece together a sort of timeline of heroines’ lives – and it blows my mind, frankly. Even if the stories are similar, it’s still difficult to think of Rilla Blythe as being just seven years younger than Betsy Ray – they were both young women at the time of the First World War, though Betsy was already married and Rilla was just a teenager. And across the ocean, Maisie Dobbs was serving as a nurse in France at the same time, while the women of Downton Abbey (I’m loving season 2 so far!) were learning that the war would change their lives forever.
I’ve read rather a lot of World War II fiction, since it looms large in the American consciousness, and it’s a little easier for me to connect Annemarie of Number the Stars to Patty Bergen of Summer of My German Soldier to Frankie Bard of The Postmistress and even Juliet of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. But still it seems that they all inhabit their own universes – touched, perhaps, by the same earthshaking events (which in turn have affected my own life, decades later). But mostly they still seem to live on parallel tracks, with no knowledge of one another.
Do you ever try to piece together a timeline of heroines, or think about how some characters lived differently (or similarly!) in the same period or decade? Does your reading of a book from a certain time period inform your understanding of other books from that era? Or does this just happen to me?