I just finished a recently-published historical fiction novel, set in England in the time of Jane Austen and most of Georgette Heyer’s books. It had a great premise, but the execution was…flawed. And not for glaring historical flaws. The costumes, the plot events, and the characters had a studied feel to them. I felt like the author had looked up the details to make sure they were right.
But there were problems in the details. The overall feel of the hero and heroine, what they said, how they thought, what they felt they had to do or say, was off. Social mores were an afterthought, both possessing an “I-know-I-shouldn’t-be-doing-this-but-I’m-going-to-do-it-anyway” attitude, and it caused the plot to ramble off in directions it never would have gone.
And I think this is something that modern authors are encountering, more and more. How we think and react is so very distant from the people of the past—particularly, if you are dealing with a culture before the 20th century—that errors may creep in without our noticing them, because we are dealing with a fundamental difference in how people approached life.
You could argue that historical fiction has always had this problem, because the people writing the novels were writing about a time distinct, generations past. But I think the challenge of getting the rhythms of the past, the feel of the age, the intangible somethings that makes us sense an anachronism even if the details are correct, has gotten harder, because in the past, people actually cared.
It was often shallow, but they cared about what other people thought of them, in a way far beyond our “like” buttons. To be considered good society, to be accepted, was more like what we commonly find with young adults today than the rest of us. Peer pressure was tremendous; one didn’t want to be extraordinary unless one could somehow do so without being “cut.”
People cared passionately about social norms, social etiquette, form, fashion, and tradition. Fulfilling or succeeding society’s expectations was what many lived for, and I think we’ve lost that (whether good or bad, it has made aspects of the past even more alien than it would have been for other historical novelists, who still had some of the same paradigms, traditions, and formalities; people like Sir Walter Scott, writing about Scotland in the past, were not nearly as removed as we are).
Today, we pride ourselves, at least in some countries, on “not caring what other people think,” about “being our own person,” and we even look for ways to break from tradition, to “find our own path.” The pressure, in some ways, is to be different, to be remarkable, to be astonishing, to be extraordinary. Our heroes are those of comic books—people with special gifts, or special weapons, or special powers, who are above and beyond ordinary people.
And I wonder if this has also served to diminish how much we notice other people. If we are so concerned about how we think, what we wear, and whether we are different, than we will tend to generalize the others around us.
In the past, people looked to others around them to guide them in their behavior, watching what other people did, what they said, and how they reacted—much as young adults still do. Now, we are told to look to ourselves, to our heart…but is this just making us self-absorbed, and leaving us without any guide other than what we, ourselves, can come up with?
Perhaps there is a balance somewhere, where we can still value independence but honor tradition—and listen to what it has to say without the immediate intention of going and doing the opposite thing?
And as for historical fiction novelists, maybe we need to take a page out of Somewhere in Time and cut ourselves off, as much as possible, from any voice outside those of the time in which we are setting our novels, drowning ourselves in the details and writings and voices of the past—and then maybe, we can get it right. Because the smallest thing, the thought that they wouldn’t have had, the penny in our pocket, is all it takes to pull the reader out of the time period the book is “supposedly” set in, and right back into the present.
Copyright 2014 Andrea Lundgren