Friday, June 22, 2018

Romance Stories Throughout Time: Let Historical People be Historical

As I wrote in a previous post, "But then I believe that history does NOT repeat itself: each event in history is a fully complex occurrence with its own background and issues. The event's complexity--the historical personages, their interactions, their choices--deserves attention and understanding. Consequently, when I read historical fiction, I expect the characters to be historical characters, not modern characters plunked into a historical milieu. "

I want to clarify how difficult this is: Often non-writers think that "good" writers would be able to fix all these pesky writing problems if they just tried hard enough. Hey, I've accused writers of being lazy myself.

The fact is, some things are simply hard to do. This is one reason I get annoyed when non-writers think that a movie would have been better if the studio simply paid everyone more--or that Hollywood's approach to religion is always bad because Hollywood itself is amoral and secular. That is, the writing problem is not attributed to the writing but to an inherent "original sin" flaw.

The truth is, transferring an idea to the page has never been easy.

One of those non-easy writing things is capturing the historical thinking of a moment. This isn't simply hard to do between, say, the twentieth century and the nineteenth century; according to Daniel Gilbert, it is difficult for people to do between their adult years and their teens years--or between this week and last Friday.

--from The Reluctant Berserker
After all, it isn't as if the characters can say, "Hey,
let's use the language of submissive-dominant sex
theory to discuss stuff." They have to use the
language and analogies they have to hand.
Humans have a hard time capturing the exact experience of the past, which is why shows like 1900s House looked awfully like Turn of the Century (2000) House with 1900s Trimmings.

There are writers who accomplish this history-in-present thinking. *Slight Spoilers* In Beecroft's The Reluctant Berserker, which takes place in Saxon England, the men's love is not defined in modern terms. That would be incomprehensible to them. Instead, it is defined using the terms of their culture: master and slave. They manage to transcend it, but not by adopting modern terminology. They transcend "master and slave" by finding the chivalric silver lining, a mindset that they can comprehend. Their lingual passwords are not rooted in the nineteenth century concept of "love" (slowly being worked out in Austen's fiction) but in far older concepts of "disgrace" and "honor."

Many of Christie's mysteries depend on
class indifference to servants. She was aware
of them; she knew others of her class and
time period weren't.
In KJ Charles's A Gentleman's Position, the lovers--a gentleman and his valet--have a built in excuse to be in each other's company. Problems arise from the gentleman's trained belief that (1) a gentleman never takes advantage of his servant; (2) a servant is a different class of person from a gentleman.

The issues are partly resolved by the valet's enthusiastic consent, but the ingrained historical beliefs interestingly (and correctly) take longer to shake. The valet is offended by the implication that he couldn't possible want to be valet; he ought to want to be a secretary, which is a more "respectable" position. He points out that as a valet (and a kind of general factotum), he is the gentleman's right-hand-man with an impressively retentive memory, the ability to handle and problem-solve any crisis, and a wily instinct for improbable solutions.

Since he can't read and write well, he'd make a terrible secretary. Why should he give up a job he is good at to be more "acceptable" as a lover? Meanwhile, his aristocratic lover has to struggle against the deep-grained belief that he is automatically taking advantage simply due to the other man's birth.

These kinds of problems/solutions get to the heart of issues that concerned Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen. And they indicate an ability on the part of the author to anticipate more than merely costume and outward historical issues, to tackle inner mental historical mindsets.

Harder to write. Worth the effort.