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Historical Novels and Contemporary Readers

I haven't touched my manuscript for WIP-B in a few days. Instead, I've had my nose stuck in my used library copy of Daily Life in Victorian England, submerging myself in the details of the period and reevaluating my first draft for any historical inaccuracies. I've found enough already that I'm loathe to touch the keyboard again until I've memorized the whole text. It's the little slips that make me want to rap a ruler over my own knuckles: assuming that British universities structure degrees the same way as American ones, with classes and exams each term; assuming people selected their own purchases from shelves in stores like they do today; assuming the sitting room would be on the ground floor. I have a second title by the same author on the way now, The New Girl: Girls' Culture in England 1880 to 1915, that will surely expose more problems and give me too many new ideas.

I'm the type of writer who obsessively researches everything. I question the etymology of every word I use in dialogue. I've spent hours on websites devoted to nineteenth century fashion, databases of daily newspapers, and articles on the various wars the British Empire sparked or marched into all over the globe. But still, I couldn't help but to take certain aspects of life for granted. My readers will certainly do the same.

This became evident as soon as I handed my first chapter over to beta readers. For some background, my hero, Leo Dawson, is a student coming home for the summer after his second year at Oxford. He has bold new ideas of laborer's unions, universal suffrage, etc. that clash with his parents' mid-century mores. However, though he genuinely wants to improve himself and the world, he was raised to think a certain way, and he's unconsciously stuck in it. In his attempts to be open-minded, he ends up simply swapping one stereotype for another, e.g. instead of having a true respect for women, he believes in a revamped ideal of the sexy New Woman. I set this in the 1890s, but everyone knows people like this today—I'm surrounded by people who believe that just by moving to a university town and voting straight-ticket Democratic, they must be smarter and better than the sheep in the rest of the state. They don't realize they're just sheep who bray like donkeys instead of sheep who trumpet like elephants.

So in my first chapter, I wrote Leo straight up the way he is: an idealistic young man who holds anyone less idealistic in contempt, shunning girls who don't fit the profile of his perfect New Woman and blissfully oblivious to his own hypocrisy. The response?

  • "I assume he's supposed to be an 'enlightened' ass?"
  • "Leo really gets on my nerves."
  • "Talk about being the patriarchal asshole he claims to hate."

And then the interpretation of everything after that was colored by this perception of Leo as a villain. Nothing he did was motivated by anything rational or noble; he was just being an ass. Somehow I managed to make the hero who fights against a forced marriage of convenience and campaigns for votes and education for women and the lower classes irreparably despicable. Sweetie argued with me when I tried to explain that Leo wasn't trying to humiliate the heroine; he was just fed up with the arbitrary social rules and rituals and was breaking them to make a point. "No he wasn't," Sweetie insisted. "He's really just a sexist bastard." As if I hadn't written him myself and should know what his motivations are :p

The problem, I think, is that if Leo were to pop into the twenty-first century, he would be unquestionably offensive—a misogynistic oddity in a Neofeminist era. However, sexism in 1890s England was not only perfectly normal, but celebrated and vehemently defended by both genders. Leo is far from an oddity in context—in fact, he's trying to become an oddity by seeing women as equal. He's only failed at it so far...which is where the conservative heroine comes in and shakes things up. That's kind of the point of the book. But I can't make my point if people hate him and see no value to anything he does.

It's very difficult for people today to read novels from previous centuries without applying the lens of modernity to their interpretations. Even scholars take their own cultural attitudes for universal fact. I read a paper once claiming that The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was really about Robert Louis Stevenson's secret fascination with homosexuality, because no women are featured and Mr. Hyde emerges at night, when gay men were known to roam for partners. Or Stevenson just didn't see any place for a woman in the story (even when Victorian men did put female characters in their books, they were generally useless anyway), and a lot of criminal activity takes place after sundown. I don't even like to go out after dark now in the twenty-first century, and it's not because I might run into a latent homosexual.

Not even the authors are safe. It's common knowledge now that Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carrol) was a pedophile with yearnings for little Alice. He took young girls on boating trips, you know, and he photographed children in their birthday suits. The fact that he was asked to do so by their parents, and that he and his estate deliberately cultivated his image of the child-loving bachelor to appeal to Victorian sensibilities, is conveniently omitted from today's books and articles. Having looked at a lot of popular nineteenth century art recently, I can tell you that showing kids nude or semi-nude was not uncommon. Advertisers c. 1900 liked to have bare-bottomed cupids flying around giant posters and billboards. Heck, Disney didn't have any problem with drawing them into Fantasia in 1940—remember all those naked cherubs and topless centaurs in the "Pastoral Symphony" segment? But of course, we now live in a time that an elderly man can't go into a Barnes 'n Noble to pick up books for his grandchildren without being "escorted out" as a potential sex offender. So Lewis Carrol was a creep, Maurice Sendak's picture books are chock-full of phallic symbolism, and James Barrie wrote Peter Pan to get in the pants of young boys.

So what's a writer to do when the population reading a work thinks completely differently from the one featured in her story? I've come up with three options:

1. Explain everything

Take great pains to demonstrate the norms of the period. Fill your pages with descriptions of the mundane that seems exotic now. Make the heroine reflect on her everyday habits and assumptions (even though she wouldn't in reality because people don't question the attitudes they've internalized...hence why I have this problem in the first place). The danger, of course, is that your novel could swiftly turn into a dried-out textbook. I couldn't get past the first few pages of The Clan of the Cave Bear because I felt like I was studying for a paleontology class. People glaze over explanations and seek out the action; if half of your book is just reveling in the setting, they get bored quickly.

2. Explain nothing

Forget it. Just don't bother. Let people interpret the characters and story however the heck they want. There will be history fanatics and period reenactors who lap it up. There will be modern readers who hate it. In another hundred years, or even a couple of decades, contemporary novels will be horribly misinterpreted too. Even if you try to explain everything, your writing will rely on the cultural knowledge and norms of today. You can just hope that there will be a subset of people who "get it" no matter what.

3. Explain sneakily

This is the approach I chose. I inserted unnamed characters to say sexist things before Leo does, in the hopes that readers will be less likely to blame him than his environment. I put in humor that relies on modern norms to highlight the contrast. In the currently shelved WIP-C, for example, I have this little exchange between the heroine and her husband's trendy teenage cousin in 1907 New York:

Phoebe paused at her undressing and stared at her young cousin-in-law. Natalie pouted back with impatience.

"What is it?" she demanded. "Haven't you seen a pretty girl in her chemise before?"

Phoebe hesitated. "Your underarms...You don't have any hair on them."

"Oh. That." Natalie tucked her hands behind her head and looked at her smooth armpits with pride. "I shaved them. My friends say the most fashionable women do it all the time so they can wear sleeveless evening dresses. I heard that in France, they even shave their legs, too."

"How strange!" Phoebe mused. "The fads Europeans come up with."

I also pad historical and British terms with words that should make the meaning clear to people unfamiliar with them. A random man in chapter one says, "Well, well. The first idle days of summer after Trinity term...that takes me back." Of course no one would actually say that, because everyone knew that Trinity term ended in June. In America today, it would be like saying, "The first idle days of summer after spring semester." But these sneaky redundancies can eliminate a lot of confusion.

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