Friday, January 25, 2013

The Past is a Foreign Country

There have been so many good posts on this subject so far!

Despite the risks, I love writing historical fiction and the necessary fact-checking spadework. What I don’t love (or can’t bring myself to write) is heterosexual romance set in a time when women had no rights, but which implies that this is really not a problem as long as the Hero and Heroine are in love. Since I wouldn’t want to make an unbreakable commitment to a man who would have the legal right to “correct” me through beatings (and confinement and starvation, all the standard methods of torture), rape me over and over, get me pregnant without my consent, and prevent me from initiating any action, I wouldn’t wish that on any woman – even an imaginary one.

And to anyone who claims that Good Men have never done these things to women, I would ask: then why have laws and social customs allowed such drastic inequality? And under such circumstances, what is “good” and who defines it?

Cultures that deprived most women of the rights of citizenship generally did the same to men of the “lower orders,” however these were defined. And anyone who was defined as a lunatic or an outlaw could expect even worse treatment. Feh.

Yet there have been interesting loopholes and inconsistencies in every social system. However you define historical “progress,” it is never a smooth highway to nirvana.

Visiting the past is like visiting a locale that seems exotic because it is different from where you live. Having to learn what your characters ate, what their houses or dwelling-places were like, how they spoke, what they wore, how they travelled, what they did for entertainment, how they earned money, and how they worshipped their Deity(ies) and then work all that information into a story without interrupting the plot with long info-dumps is not only an interesting writing challenge. Becoming aware of the texture of a past era, like visiting another country, is a way of becoming aware of the texture of your own everyday life. This is guaranteed to help the writing, regardless of when or where the story takes place.

Changing technology and passing fashions enable all writers – if we survive long enough – to recognize our own early work as “historical.” Consider a one-act play I wrote in high school in the late 1960s. Two girls (one painfully shy, bookish, self-conscious, and one aggressive, determined to survive in the teenage jungle) compete for the attention of an easy-going boy who is mildly attracted to Shy Girl but bewildered by the intensity of both girls. There is a portable record-player and stack of vinyl records in an empty classroom. The boy puts on a record and dances with Shy Girl until Sassy Girl (in fashionable psychedelic-print miniskirt) pulls him away. Shy Girl has bangs (fringe) that almost cover her eyes.

My motive for looking up this piece, typed on paper that has yellowed over the years, was to decide whether I could make it “relevant” (1960s term) to current times. I was dismayed. OMG! (Not a 1960s expression.)

The vinyl records (usually with scratches on them that altered the sound), the classroom with blackboard and chalk (no computers, no cell phones, no i-whatevers), the clothing, the hairstyles, the assumption by all three young characters that they are living in a culture so “advanced” that their old-fogey parents and teachers have no grasp of the current zeitgeist – I would have to update all the physical details and several of the unspoken premises to bring this dinosaur back to life. And I probably wouldn’t succeed.

On the other hand, if I ever want to write a longer play, story or novel set in the 1960s, I have a primary document which could be adapted to my current plan.

Historical fiction that works always has to involve sleight-of-hand because some of the assumptions of yesteryear don’t seem to travel well into the present. For example, the basic plot of Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, circa 1890s, about sexual exploitation and its aftermath, is still gripping enough to have inspired more than one movie and a television mini-series when the novel was a century old. But who remembers
the theological debates in the novel?

On that note, I know that one of the conflicts that divided my mother’s family during her childhood in the 1920s was between Baptist and Methodist theology. (My mom, then little Jane, was taken to church by her Methodist aunt while her father, a Baptist convert, thundered about the evils of alcohol, dancing and card-playing. And Jane’s mother wrung her hands but went to church with her husband.) Do I care? Not really.

The question of whether my scandalous party behaviour (dancing and drinking wine) could send me to Hell has never kept me awake at night. Yet if I ever write a realistic piece about the flavour of little Jane’s upbringing, I will have to find a way to make this conflict interesting to the reader or viewer.

Any piece set in English-speaking culture before approximately 1450 AD either requires subtitles or “archaic” language that a current audience can still understand. The writer has to function as an interpreter who can make the past intelligible to his or her contemporaries. It really isn’t that different from what we all strive to do: show the story in our minds to our readers, and hope they understand.


  1. Jean! Yes! A foreign country. That's such an apt way to describe the past.

    I empathize with your distaste for dealing with the way women were treated.

    I'm a bit sorry that no one tackled the idea of alternative history such as steampunk. I dabble, but I think it's dangerous to strip away what we see as bad in society and keep only the good, then embellish that with the 'even better,' because then we're close to building Mary Sue worlds.

  2. Hi, Jean,

    Thanks for an astute and highly readable post. Your comments about your old play definitely ring true. Working as I do with twenty year olds, I'm often reminded of how different their world is than the university milieu in which I was educated.

    With regard to alternative history and steampunk, those genres do not necessarily envision a better world - only different. Consider Dick's The Man in the High Castle. My steampunk world (I just finished a novel) is full of conflict over energy and resources - just like the real one.

  3. Kathleen and Lisabet,

    Thanks for commenting. I wonder if no one posted anything about steampunk because it is not exactly historical fiction -- it is also fantasy or sci-fi.
    We should probably feature steampunk as a topic on its own some time.


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