Historic heroines

The femme fatales depicted by Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott are now the subject of a Flinders University medieval cultural study.

As part of her PhD, Flinders research assistant Melinda Graefe (pictured) has spent that past four years analysing the female heroines in Scott’s famed 19th century novels, including Ivanhoe, Waverley and Rob Roy.

The first study of its kind, Ms Graefe said her research has focused on the portrayal of Scott’s female characters, his attitudes towards women and society’s view of femininity.

“Most of Scott’s characters exist outside of society – they’re very unruly heroines,” Ms Graefe, based in the School of Humanities, said.

“If you think of a typical heroine in that period you might look to Jane Austen but Scott’s female characters are very different to that,” she said.

A key focus of the study, Ms Graefe said, has been the depiction of Rebecca, the major female character in the 1819 novel Ivanhoe.

“Scott was one of the first novelists to portray Jewish women in a positive light and his most famous female character, Rebecca, is the moral centre of the novel.

“She’s quite exotic but also assertive in that she’s a character that defies conventions and questions the status quo – her very existence causes a lot of chaos.”

Ms Graefe said her interest in Scott’s novels developed while working as a research assistant for Matthew Flinders Distinguished Professor Graham Tulloch.

“On the surface it appears to be a medieval boys own adventure,” she said.

“It has castles and knights and tournaments and maidens in distress, Robin Hood even makes an appearance, so it has all the components associated with the Middle Ages but when you scratch the surface Scott actually addresses some quite serious issues.

“One of those issues is offering hospitality to strangers, which was quite important at the time.

“Scott was writing in the decade after the Napoleonic Wars had ended, at a time when homelessness, as well as migration, were big issues.

“The great thing about Ivanhoe is that even after all this time it has remained quite contemporary in that a lot of its themes are still relevant in today’s society.”

Ms Graefe was a winner of Flinders University’s 2012 Best Student Paper Awards, an annual competition which aims to recognise and reward outstanding student research.

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One thought on “Historic heroines

  1. Congratulations Melinda,its wonderful to see you are getting the recognition you deserve for all your hard work and innovative resaerch.

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