Notes on history and historical fiction, Part II

As I continue my new avocation of writing (thus far unpublished) novels, there is no avoiding history. Even my first book, a novella, was split between the present and the 1880s, and the mysteries are set in 1860s. This makes them historical fiction, or historical mysteries.

One of the reasons I began writing mysteries is because I read some novels that I believe misused the historical past, stories that could have taken place in any time, including the present. For these authors, the past just seemed to be a setting, where you could use hansom cabs and hoop skirts for effect. In some of these novels, people spoke anachronistically, but even when they didn’t the possible sounds and smells of the place simply weren’t there.

To me that’s the difference between using the past as a setting and setting a story in the past. My books are set deeply within the past. The reader should have a sense of what things were like in 19th century London. It’s not enough to have the clop-clopping of horses and the misting of fog. I want the click of door latches, the smell of tanneries, the gray light on London Bridge. The street names and omnibus routes must be correct for 1863, not 1880 or 2020. I want to show the city being torn up for sewers, the distinctions in how people of different classes might behave, the way women in skirts dealt with toileting. And it all must be based on fact, on historical research.

I recently joined the Historical Novel Society, and in the first week on the Facebook group there was an argument about how accurate a writer of historical fiction needed to be, and another about whether the show Bridgerton was worth watching. It was distressingly easy for me to take sides.

I would say “no” on Bridgerton, but that has nothing to do with the color-blind casting. In my research I keep stumbling on evidence of both women and people with various differences having more agency and being more visible than is portrayed in the movies and television shows of the last century. So it’s possible that some of the things that don’t seem “real” (a black man hob-nobbing with other upper middle-class snobs) might actually be more accurate for the time.

A great deal of what we “know” about the past comes from prescriptive documents, works designed to convince people to correct their behavior. I try to teach my students that when they read a law code punishing adultery, theft, and trespassing, there must be a great deal of adultery, theft, and trespassing going on in the society. Otherwise there’d be no need for a law.
So if you find a lot of literature telling women that their role is to be very good at managing a household, you can be damn sure that a lot of women aren’t doing that but are doing other things. We are discovering that more and more artworks and literature were created by women using the names of men, for example.

No, my problem with Bridgerton, and many contemporary historical novels, is that the historical setting is ignored as an influence on the characters, and sometimes even on the plot.

I think I first noticed this trend in the movie Elizabeth, the 1998 film with Cate Blanchett. As I was watching her being attacked by her poisoned gown, I was thinking wait, what about the motives of the assassin? How can we tell this story without the religious or political context? It seemed to be all about the emotions and reactions of the characters. We could have been in 12th century France or early 20th century China. It could have been Macbeth. The Emotions of Elizabeth was not what I came to see.

Movies and books that use the past just as a setting for telling a story are not, to me, historical fiction. They’re just fiction. In the next post, I’ll talk about the recent revival in the popularity of historical fiction, and where it might come from.

Part III

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