Six impossible things

Rewriting the past

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there” – L.P. Hartley

 One of the tricky aspects of writing books set in any vaguely recognizable version of history is the inevitable clash between now and then, on pretty much every level. There are an enormous number of things that most people know or believe in the present day – the earth moves around the sun, tomatoes are not an aphrodisiac, flossing is important, recycling is desireable, smoking cigarettes causes cancer – that people did not know or believe at various points in the past.

Any writer who goes poking around even a little way into the past will quickly run into attitudes and beliefs that are very, very different from the ones we hold today. And when the beliefs and attitudes of the past clash with modern values, the writer is immediately faced with a dilemma: Does she portray the past accurately, and take the chance that her central characters will be less likeable and sympathetic (or perhaps that they’ll be actively offensive) because they have attitudes that are consistent with their own time rather than ours? Does she “fix” things by giving at least her main characters more modern, more enlightened attitudes and beliefs that no one in that time period would hold? Or does she just ignore any differences and present what is essentially a modern novel with the characters in funny clothes?

Different writers answer these questions in different ways, depending on what things they think are most important. An example: Some years back, I read a novel set in England around 1810. One of the central characters was clearly a full-blown alcoholic, resulting in a good many difficulties for him and his family (as one might expect). Then, in mid-book, the character hit bottom and essentially invented the entire Alcoholics Anonymous twelve step program (though he didn’t call it that) and then worked his way through it, with support from his family and friends.

To me, this story was problematic to the point of being a wall-flinger, because the twelve step program (and the modern attitude toward drinking, drunkenness, and alcoholism) is an anachronism in 1810, especially in England, and the author clearly did not mean the story as an alternate history of any kind. The author of this particular book, however, obviously felt that portraying alcoholism and recovery accurately (according to the modern understanding of this condition) was much more important than being historically accurate.

Had I been writing this book, I would not have made the same choices. But that’s me, and it wasn’t my story. I’m not saying the author was wrong to make the choice she did; I’m saying that the result was a book that I, personally, didn’t like much, won’t reread, and wouldn’t recommend.

BUT – there are other readers who love the book, some of them for the same reasons that I dislike it. They place a greater importance on having their fiction reflect modern values, understanding, and culture than on having those things be historically accurate. And I am okay with that, so long as those readers (and especially writers) know exactly what they are doing (and don’t try to pretend that those stories are historically accurate when they aren’t).

What I am not okay with are the writers who don’t bother even trying to understand the periods they use as settings. The author I mentioned above obviously knew that there was no Alcoholics Anonymous program in England in 1810; equally obviously, she made a deliberate, conscious choice to have her character come up with the twelve steps so that he could work his way through them and begin to recover, and she put some effort into making her characters’ actions plausible. I didn’t buy it, myself, but at least she didn’t have one of the other characters say “Look, why don’t you come to an AA meeting with me tonight?” in London in 1810.

Unfortunately, there are too many writers who do just that sort of thing. Sometimes it’s a relatively minor and innocent gaffe, like the Victorian-era “historical” that had characters taking showers; sometimes it’s a more fundamental lack of research; sometimes it’s complete and utter cluelessness of the sort that simply cannot imagine a world without cell phones or the Internet. The result, though is that the writer portrays the past as if it was exactly like the present, only with different fashions and horses instead of cars.

That carelessness is where I draw the line between I-don’t-like-it-but-it’s-your-choice and don’t-do-this-just-don’t. Because I agree with George Santayana that “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it,” and pretending that the past was exactly like the present is the first step in forgetting the parts that we need to remember. Even (or especially) if they’re parts we don’t like.

9 Comments
  1. Sometimes it can be something exceedingly small, such as a linguistic anomaly. I recently described a character in Victorian England as looking like a teenager. Fortunately, I have a Beta who notices things like that.

  2. I have such a difficult time reading much of the YA historical fiction these days, because it seems that all the heroes and heroines reflect the values of today instead of their actual era. Trying to find an eighteen-year-old girl in historical fiction who is NOT a raging, rampant feminist is practically impossible. Which is sad, because classic characters like almost all of Jane Austen’s girls, or LM Montgomery’s, or Elizabeth Gaskell’s, etc., prove that one CAN be strong-minded and feisty without being anachronistic. I would much rather read something that is historically accurate in mindset as well as details, than something that shows the author’s values so blatantly. That’s what blogs and biographies are for!

    (Not to get all fan-girly, but one of the many reasons I love the Cecy and Kate books is because the girls are independent and spirited, but fittingly for their time period. THANK you for that!)

  3. The really sad part is that — well, you hear a lot about reading fiction to learn more about other people and broaden the mind, and the attitude that rejects accuracy in historical fiction (as, indeed, in many forms of contemporary fiction where they don’t know the milieu or the character type) shuts this off at the start.

    Where it gets to be hysterical without ceasing to be sad is when the people reject reading about people different from them on the grounds that those people were not broad-minded.

  4. One of my favorite books that confronts this issue head on is Household Gods. The main character is a modern Californian who finds herself in the body of a Roman woman and learns (often the hard way) that modern morals do no make sense in an ancient world. A great read!

    Last summer I saw an Egyptian mummy exhibit and they believed that the brain was a useless organ. In my current WIP, I fought for a while about whether I made the modern assumption about thinking coming from the head (and all the phrases that come from that). In the end I went for it, but with some reservations.

  5. I recently read a Regencyish Romance which had an amusing premise, and was going along as a reasonably fluffy read, and then there’s the inevitable Misunderstanding between the main characters, and the girl runs off and talks to her aunt/aunt-in-law and realizes, “Oh! I have abandonment issues!” Which was all well and good, and I was sort of going “okay…” But then she winds up *explaining it to her fellow* in *almost those exact terms* and I’m going, “…oh, come on. Can’t you at least dress this up in period-sounding language, instead of talking like a modern-day psychologist??” (Plus, her fellow instantly reacts along the lines of “Oh, all right, that makes perfect sense, and I love you, honey, even if I did just catch you kissing someone else.”)

    I swear, the last bit felt so much like the author had suddenly run up against her word-count limit (or, I suppose, a deadline) and was frantically wrapping up the loose ends. Meh.

    The rest of it is still fun and fluffy, and there’s a secondary romance and a tertiary one that don’t suffer that sort of issue, but between a touch of the Mary Sue and the Modern Psychology bit… Well, what I remember about it, unfortunately, is more along the lines of “what I found annoying” and less of “what I found amusing.”

  6. One of the reasons Roberta Gellis is my favorite historical author is that her characters are not 20th century people in costume. I definitely feel like the world was different then.

    [For Kindle owners, right now 9 of her books are on sale for $1.19 each.]

  7. I read old books. The people in them often have politically incorrect attitudes: savages are pretty much orcs; women need to be controlled and disciplined for their own good.

    Going back a lot further, to the classic Greeks, their attitudes to slavery and so forth are very non PC. Nonetheless, this does not cause me to dislike these characters, but rather to view our ownattitudes as provincial, as present centric, to doubt our civilization, rather than theirs. Which society is more civilized? One that gives women equality, or one that ensures that children have fathers?

    I find Xenophon’s justification for raping, looting, slaughtering, and burning his way across Asia compelling and persuasive. Xenophon tells us that if the locals allowed his army to pass through, and were willing to sell food and supplies, his men took nothing, and respected everyone, but if the locals refused passage, or refused trade, well that was war, and all is fair in war.

  8. I think the silliest book — also regency romance — that I remember reading was one where the heroine was an sort-of architect who appeared to invent open-floor plan living. Unfortunately, she didn’t invent central heating, and some short time after the hero and heroine got together, I’m positive both died of pneumonia. Civil engineering appeared to absent on the author’s and editors’ side. I believe that one also won a RITA. It was the only book that ever inspired me to write fanfic, in which both main characters quietly freeze to death.

  9. How true. If there’s one thing that will make me slam a book shut, it’s blatant historical inaccuracy.
    I’ve been having trouble myself, writing a work of fiction set in ancient Rome, where the attitudes towards slavery and war are so drastically different. It’s hard even comprehending the Romans’ physcology.

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