A Middle Way

I’ve been thinking about realism in historical fiction recently as a result of a discussion on the Macaronis yahoo group in which I was in the unusual position of arguing for less of it.

I do think that my opinions about realism versus fantasy in fiction have shifted a little towards the middle, so I’m going to subject you to me thinking out loud about what has changed in my head and why.

I’ve been reading a lot of Age of Sail romance recently, and have noticed that many of the books which I have found difficult to read because of the lack of historical realism are still books which are thoroughly enjoyed by some romance readers.  I wondered how that could be.  Didn’t they care about realism or quality?  Did they want only wallpaper history?  Did they actively prefer stories in which the unpleasant things about the past were brushed under the rug?  What was going on?

Last weekend I went to the re-enactor’s market up near Coventry, and it occurred to me that re-enacting was like historical fiction in the way that re-enactors attempt to portray people from other historical periods but can never get away from the fact that they are, underneath, as 21st century as anyone else.

We drive to shows, we wear modern underwear, we sleep on modern camp beds and bring out the camping gas stoves in the evening to make our instant coffee.  Some of us (heresy) machine sew the invisible parts of our clothes and only hand sew the bits you can see.  And we have modern ways of looking at the world and understanding things, which we have to painstakingly put aside in order to try and see things as our ancestors would.

In addition to my 18th Century group, the Mannered Mob, I belong to a re-enactment society called Regia Anglorum, which recreates life during the Anglo-Saxon and Viking periods:

Both of these societies are well known in their respective fields for the extreme seriousness with which they take the idea of presenting an accurate picture of their period of choice to the public.  Both have officers whose job it is to check people over to make sure they are not wearing or using or being seen with any out of period artefact, even if that’s as easy for the public to miss as rubber soles on your shoes.

One of Regia’s clothing rules is that black clothing is right out.  No one gets to wear black.  This isn’t in fact strictly historically accurate.  It is possible to dye cloth a dense black with the methods available at the time.  But it was extremely expensive and it was not at all colour fast, so it rapidly faded to grey.  The society’s rule is in place because, before they had that rule, everyone said “oh, but they could produce black cloth, so I’m doing nothing wrong” and everyone wore black.  With the result that, overall, the society ended up giving a false impression of the kind of clothes that would be in general use at the time.

In the same way, the Mannered Mob is well aware that there were some women in Georgian society who disguised themselves as men and entered the Army or Navy.  It would be historically accurate if they were to allow their female members to cross dress in this way. But they don’t.  And they don’t for the same reason as Regia – because if they did, everyone would do it, and the overall level of realism would go down.

So what’s this got to do with fiction?

Well, what this made me think about was that (another heresy coming up) possibly strict accuracy was not what fiction is actually aiming for.  After all, to realistically portray even a contemporary event, we would have to include the parts where the main characters went to the toilet, spent five hours playing Farmville because it was Sunday and they were bored, spent six hours of their day every day at their job and the remainder worrying about their bills.  Even contemporary fiction abstracts from the real world only those things which make a good story.  It just presents them in a way where the reader doesn’t even notice they’ve gone.  It gets across the impression of contemporary life, while actually severely restricting and re-ordering incidents in a way that never would happen in real life.

That goes double for historical fiction.  Realism might seem to demand that the story be told in the original language.  My Saxon freedom fighters should be speaking Old English.  But then the modern reader wouldn’t understand them at all.

My 18th Century gentlemen, if they’re going to be typical of their breed, should be fat, have bad teeth and the pox, keep slaves, cheat on their wives as a matter of course, loathe sodomites and enjoy nothing better than a public execution.

But, frankly, then they wouldn’t be very heroic.  Of course, I could write heroes who are the embodiment of every modern virtue, and excuse those heroes by saying “well, some people in the 18th Century had surprisingly modern attitudes.”  And that’s true.  But in a way, it’s like the black cloth.  If you’re going to do it at all, you have to do it sparingly or you give a false impression.  Some middle way is required – a way to write heroes who are men of their time and yet still sympathetic, likable characters.

So I think the aim in fiction, as it is in re-enactment, is not complete re-creation.  I think that it is to create verisimilitude.  To keep the past and present in the kind of dialog where they’re working together to create an impression that “it could have been just like this.”  To give the reader enough detail, enough accuracy and enough flavour of the period so that they feel they are really there.  And to do that without either giving a false impression of the historical period, or damaging the flow of the story, so that they not only feel they are really there, but they’re having a whale of a time while they’re at it.

That brings me back to the puzzle I talked about at the beginning: Why are some readers so tolerant of such a low standard of historical accuracy in fiction, whereas some throw the book at the wall if the writer gets the thread count of the knotwork on the character’s epaulette wrong?

Well, verisimilitude is one of those things that depends as much on the reader as it does on the thing being read.  Suppose your reader is someone who loves romance, doesn’t care that much about history and has a powerful imagination of their own.  It isn’t going to take much historical detail to create an impression of verisimilitude for that reader.  Throw in a cutlass and everyone saying “yarrr” and their imagination has probably already leaped in to supply the rest, leaving them happily transported to their vision of what it must have been like on a pirate ship.  The reader is still experiencing that feeling of being swept away to a different time—it just didn’t take a lot of effort on the part of the writer to achieve that.

The problem for the historical romance writer is that while it is easy to create an impression of a cool historical setting for readers who are prepared to suspend much of their own disbelief, some readers are reading historical romance because they like to learn about the history as well as the romance, and those readers already know a lot and expect the writer to know more.

For those readers, creating the illusion that they are right there in that historical time is going to take a lot more historical accuracy from the writer.  Those readers are the ones for whom it’s necessary to check your facts and get your details right.

The more an author knows about a historical period, the more of those picky, knowledgeable historical readers he or she can sweep away under the enchantment of “I feel like I’m really there”.  The trick, of course, is to do it without turning off the reader who doesn’t like history and is only in it for the love story.

If you can suspend the disbelief of both sets of readers and give both of them a satisfying love story too, well, you’ll have twice the readers.  If you’re a writer who doesn’t particularly care about the historical details and only wants the atmosphere of the time, it’s still got to be worth putting in that extra bit of historical research, because it will mean that your stories appeal to a whole new audience.