How Much Reality Do We Want In Our Historical Fiction?
Yesterday I was at QC2, a meeting of queer romance writers organized by Manifold Press. I chaired a panel on how much reality we want in our historicals and am definitely going to have to blog again about lots of the issues that came up. So much was covered! And then in the hours that followed I remembered how much I’d meant to say and hadn’t, and probably should get around to mentioning later. I am as always occupying an equivocal position of “Well, it’s complicated.”
People love easy answers, but easy answers can’t cover complex situations, and human behaviour has always been hair-tearingly tangled and contradictory. Why should it be different in art?
I hope I’m going to talk later about KJ Charles’s talk about finding the complexities in history and opening them out and discovering that in examining them we also examine ourselves. Also I need to shout out to Farah Mendlesohn whose talk reminded me what a genuine pleasure it is to encounter well presented historical research, and also how much I loved the Georgians.
But for now I’m posting here the article I wrote for the event booklet. Some of you may remember the incident that gave me my inspiration for this!
How much reality do we want in our historical fiction?
Not so long ago, it was the summer holidays, and my family decided to go to one of Kentwell Hall’s Tudor days, at which their beautiful house and gardens are flooded with beautifully costumed reenactors. We have some problems with their reenactors, who pretend to be people of the past, and with varying degrees of accuracy put on ye olde English speech patterns and try to get you to play along with the pretence that you are actually visiting Tudor England.
Our family are reenactors ourselves, but of a different sort – a sort that acknowledges that we are in reality modern people who share a culture, language and knowledge base with any member of the public who might talk to us. We like to have conversations where we and the public share notes. A chat where we say “This is how the Saxons did [whatever],” and the member of the public says “Oh, that’s interesting. I read that the Romans did it [some other way]. I’m interested because I do [whatever craft] myself. It’s cool to see how it developed,” is the kind of chat that we aspire to. A dialogue, in other words.
This training makes it difficult for us to suspend disbelief in the historical reality of the Kentwell Hall reenactors. And because they won’t drop character, and we’re caught in the existential uncertainty of how to talk to people who are pretending they don’t know anything about our shared culture, we find we can’t talk to them at all. We don’t care to be treated as props to be monologued at.
However, they do look pretty! So we decided we would go anyway, keep our heads down, avoid interacting with them, and take some nice photos.
It was a scorcher of a day, so my daughter was dressed in shorts and a strappy top – nothing out of the ordinary for a 21st Century young woman. When we first passed a reenactor who shouted out something about “These young maidens going about in their underwear,” we rolled our eyes at each other, sourly thought “oh ha ha,” and walked on, continuing with our attempts not to engage.
But he followed us. And he continued to pester her about how she was going to hell, leading people into temptation, a harlot who ought to be ashamed, and us about how we should rein her in and put her under proper control and teach her to be properly modest.
It was excruciatingly unpleasant. No doubt we were supposed to take it as a joke or an enlightening glimpse at an ugliness so far removed from our present lives that it can be fun to contemplate. But it wasn’t, of course. Both my daughter and I have had plenty of experience of being followed down the road in modern life by creepy middle aged guys who wanted an excuse to rant at how sinful our mere existence in female bodies was. We didn’t find it any more amusing couched in ye olde English.
Which leads me finally to my point.
When does the pantomime of an abuse become an abuse in itself? The more convincing it gets – the closer to reality it gets – the more you are actually inflicting that very abuse on your reader.
If we had actually been Tudors ourselves (a) we wouldn’t have been dressed like that anyway, and (b) my husband could have hit him across the face with his cane and had him put in the stocks for insulting a respectable young lady. But we weren’t – we were at an unnatural disadvantage very like the disadvantage a reader suffers when they open a book.
When a reader opens a book, they can’t have a free and mutual conversation with the author or with the characters. An author, like our harasser, can drop the reader straight into the intolerable ugliness of the past, and rub their faces in the fact that people like them – women, queer people, people of colour, disabled people, even sensitive non-heroic cishet men – would have largely had a worse time of it than they do today.
That would be the reality. And the reality is not fun. Fill a book with the kind of misery, suffering, fear and abuse, the kind of grinding, soul destroying prejudice that such people would encounter in the past – do it without any glimmer of assurance that you, the author, a modern person, know that this stuff is vile – and you can be sure your reader won’t come out of reading it feeling uplifted. Your reader will come out of it feeling crushed in a way they’ve been crushed too many times before.
If your queer characters always die; if your women end up silenced, relegated to the roles of wife, mother or whore; if your people of colour end up slaves or outcasts, run out of the community or dead, it doesn’t matter how ‘realistic’ that might be. You, the author, are still deliberately choosing to hurt people in ways they get enough of in real life.
It’s important to remember that you, the author, are a modern person telling a story to other modern people. You can’t hide behind the claim that you’re just being ‘realistic’. You choose what goes into your story. You choose whether you start the conversation with “You’re a harlot,” or “Lord, mistress, are you foreign? Do they dress like that where you’re from?”
The sexual harassment is perhaps more likely and therefore more realistic, but one of these openers is an assault, and one is a respectful invitation to play along. If you know that, and you choose the ‘realistic’ option anyway, what can I say? You’re a douche.