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Derfel Cadarn

Social values in historical fiction

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Below is a blog article I wrote discussing the issues of fiction set in historical periods, specifically reflecting social values. Simply transplanting today's values risk the story losing authenticity, and to give the characters values contemporary to the period risks making the characters unsympathetic. Or gathering an unsavoury reader-base. I've specifically referred to my historical urban fantasy, Resurrection Men (by David Craig) as it was quite challenging in this respect.

Bernard Cornwall is pretty good at writing characters that manage to engage the reader despite having period values - he manages in part to get round it by making them somewhat rebellious where society is considered. Derfel was a bit of a paragon in a lot of respects, but Uhtred is more of a rogue. Sharpe lies in between them.

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One of the potential pitfalls of writing fiction in certain periods is how to acknowledge social values no longer compatible with contemporary values. With fiction set in the 19th century, there runs the risk of glorifying imperialism/colonialism. Does the writer give their protagonists modern social values with regards to issues like racism/sexism/feminism etc? To do so runs the risk of losing the reader's sense of immersion. To ignore these issues altogether risks 'whitewashing' history or hand-waving over certain demographics being second-class citizens. Homosexuality was a crime, and certain ethnic groups faced persecution and even genocide. But to give the protagonists period values risks alienating them from the reader. Or attracting an unsavoury reader-base.

These were concerns I had when writing Resurrection Men, a gothic/historical urban fantasy/supernatural mystery set in 1893 Glasgow. Glasgow's location on the west coast, served by a large river, led to it being heavily involved in trade (such as tobacco) with the American colonies pre-revolution. In the following century it was heavily involved in industries such as shipbuilding and the textile industry, and was known as the 2nd City of the British Empire. The Irish potato famine and the Highland Clearances led to a large influx of immigrants desperate for homes and work.

There are streets today still named after people involved in the slave trade, or plantation locations (Glassford Street, Jamaica Street, Virginia Street).
(On the flip side, in 1986 Glasgow demonstrated its support for ending South African apartheid by naming a street after then-imprisoned Nelson Mandela – ‘coincidently’ the same street the South African Consulate was located on, to their ire.)

Including active, interesting female characters in a time and place where women had little agency was challenging, but doable. A powerful undead female character isn’t an issue, as giving her disrespect is pretty much suicide-by-vampire. My solution for mortal female characters not capable of separating a misogynist’s head from his shoulders with their bare hands was Lady Delaney. Independently wealthy, she has spent a couple of decades quietly fighting the undead and their servants, driven by vengeance. In part sexism aids her, as a woman would not be thought a likely insurgent in the eyes of the (mostly male) secret society running the city on behalf of the undead. Indeed, she takes a leadership role later in the novel, overriding her male companions’ objections by pointing out she’s the most experienced, and the one with the resources to carry out their mission; if they don’t like it, they can walk to their destination.

A minor female protagonist (Kerry) is introduced to the supernatural world and plays a much larger role in the in-progress sequel. In Resurrection Men she’s forbidden to take part in a mission due to her inexperience, but the reader should be able to discern the double-standards in that a male protagonist takes part despite having little fighting experience either.

The protagonist's Hunt's mother is what I would regard as strong, running her family shipping business while her husband focuses on his own career. She's certainly determined and strong-willed, not that Those traits are necessarily easy for her son.

Which takes us to toxic masculinity. I didn’t consciously set out to address this but found myself indirectly referencing it. As a man, the above mentioned inexperienced male protagonist (Hunt) is expected to fight, despite being untrained. Several times in the novel I use this character to highlight that people new to dangerous situations are typically not clear-headed; fear and adrenalin can affect the mind and decision-making. But he’s a man, so he’s expected to fight and would lose face in declining.

Male toxicity is further explored in the friendship between the above protagonist, Hunt, and his friend Foley. Hunt knows Foley has issues (what we would recognise now as depression, including suicidal thoughts) but they never discuss it. Foley self-medicates with alcohol and laudanum, which Hunt knows but again lets continue unremarked. Later, Hunt suffers through traumatic events, but this is never addressed by the characters. Again, alcohol is seen as the cure. Both Hunt and Foley are aware of the other’s issues, but the notion that men should be strong and not discuss their problems is prevalent, leading to substance misuse.

Homosexuality. Sexuality isn’t explored to any great extent in the novel, but homosexuality is slightly referenced through two characters. The first is a fairly minor character, rumoured to prefer men, largely due to being unmarried, active and owning a big house. He’s quite big in the social scene, sociable, assumed to be very wealthy, so the natural assumption at that time would be that if he’s not married then he doesn’t like women. The character’s sexuality is never confirmed; he may or may not be gay, but regardless, there are a couple of explanations for him being unmarried (except spoilers). A secondary protagonist is also indirectly inferred to be gay (or perhaps bisexual), but this is not explored or confirmed in Resurrection Men. It is something that may resurface in the sequels, if it serves the plot or character development.

Prejudice. At that time there was a lot of prejudice against Irish immigrants and Catholicism (a sectarian divide which still troubles the west of Scotland today). These prejudices are mentioned in the book, and if not challenged by any of the characters, the reader can make their own judgements. A character displays prejudice towards ‘gypsies’ (Irish travellers) which while not directly challenged, leads to this character being blinded to the real threat.

While many of the characters live a relatively comfortable life, others enjoying a very privileged life, I made sure to highlight the vast divide between the rich and poor of Glasgow, describing in some detail the awful conditions endured by most of the people at that time. The minor female protagonist (Kerry) referenced above is from a poor background, and in the sequel we see the social inequality through her eyes. The sequel also explores the exploitation of child labour that was endemic in Victorian Glasgow. A consequence of the failed 18th century Jacobite uprisings was the persecution/destruction of Highland communities, and this is also explored in the sequel. How successful I’ve been is for each reader to decide.

For the writers reading this, did you find yourself with a similar problem writing characters in a time with different values, wanting to keep them true to the time but still sympathetic? For the readers, what books do you feel did this well, or perhaps not so well?

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For me, a character in a work of historical fiction with anachronistic worldviews is far, far worse than a character with a period-correct outlook that would not be appropriate today.

I have the ability to understand that a character in 19th-century Glasgow won't share my views on all subjects, and I can still identify with such a character, because the character written in such a way is suitable for the milieu.  I might not view the British monarchy as the ultimate means of sovereign leadership, and I might consider imperialism to have a lot of negative effects on the world, but few people outside Anarchist circles at that time thought that way.

I cannot read and enjoy such a character who walks down the 19th-century Glasgow street and complains about the smell of horse stale pooling in the streets or the fact that the children of poor immigrant Irish families don't have opportunities to do post-graduate studies at the University of Glasgow or that Aunt Mathilda didn't get that job as a surgeon.  Unless the story is about a saint's life, no one thought that way then, and the shear between known reality and wished-for social mores cuts me right out of the story.

A character with alternative or more sympathetic-to-contemporary-mores worldviews needs to have a damn good and very compelling reason to hold those ideas and to maintain them for any length of time.

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Your post ended up getting me to write a musing on the subject:

https://phuulishfellow.wordpress.com/2019/02/21/uncanny-values-writing-attitude-dissonance-in-setting/

Another day, another comment on someone else’s essay. Today it’s my forum colleague and recently-published author, David Craig, who has written a piece on Writing Social Values in Historical Fiction. Craig discusses the challenge of writing settings where the social norms are… different… from our own. Not in a fun, alien sense, but in an “oh god, these people are a bunch of racist misogynistic bigots” sense. Craig identifies the difficulty in balancing authenticity with having unsympathetic characters, and potentially attracting readers who like racist misogynistic bigots. It’s an issue that I am actually dealing with myself at the moment, as I write a story about one Lionel Terry – but we’ll get to that later.

Where in-story Values Dissonance (as TV Tropes calls it) really becomes a problem is not the truly alien setting. Writing an Aztec Priest who sincerely believes that sacrificing small children to Tlaloc will bring rain is not an issue – there is comfortable distance between the Priest’s world and our own. You aren’t going to run into people in 2019 who actually think like that, and getting inside the mindset of such a person can be an intriguing (if disturbing) adventure. Rather, the problem are those settings that are almost-but-not-quite like our own. The chief offenders here are eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe and North America (the twentieth century is easier to fudge). In these cases, there is enough overlap between their views and ours that modern Westerners can relate to them, but enough difference that we can still spot the uglier aspects of the older culture. Uncanny Values, if you will – it’s the West’s proverbial (or maybe literal) racist grandfather in the attic. Worse, there are still people around who do have these sorts of views, even if they are less socially acceptable than they once were, hence the writer’s fear of attracting an unsavoury audience.

The example Craig cites is his own book’s setting of 1893 Glasgow, a place and time we in 2019 simultaneously can and cannot relate to. While I have never met (so far as I know) anyone who was alive in 1893, my parents (born in the 1950s) have. This is the world as it was when my great-grandparents were children – in one sense, it is not distant at all.  Yet for all that I have immense fondness for the intellectual enthusiasm and boundless curiosity of the Victorian era (I also live in a city dominated by gorgeous Victorian architecture), we all know that some Victorian social views have aged badly. Hence the setting being a prime candidate for Uncanny Values, and why Craig ran into it when writing his book.

Thinking about how I have dealt with the issue myself, Wise Phuul – set in a world of approximately 1900-level technology – gets round the problem by virtue of being secondary world fantasy, rather than historical fantasy. Since accuracy is of less concern for secondary world fantasy (it’s made up whole-cloth), there is much greater freedom to play with social attitudes – though not infinite freedom, since I do want to evoke a particular time with my setting. This means I can drop the real-world ugly bits (why would the Viiminian Empire care about gender and sexuality when all that matters is necromantic power?), and give them a whole heap of imaginary ugly bits (the necromancy thing). There is values dissonance in Wise Phuul, but I think it is of the Aztec Priest sort, rather than the racist grandfather sort.

My short stories that have historical elements are not so lucky. My taniwha/railway story, An Extract from the Diary of Peter Mackenzie, is set in North Otago in 1896 – so, yes, Victorian. I get round the problem by focusing on the less offensive aspects of the Victorian world-view – Religion (Wilson) and Progress (Mackenzie), though the occasional bit of mild period prejudice is there, treated more as a decorative turn of phrase to evoke the time-period. In The Happiest Man Alive, set in Britain in the 1960s, I also include the odd bit of deliberate values dissonance (a certain reference to a tea-caddy) to remind people that Sam is not quite from our era. The point is that in both stories it’s there in the background, but not something I go into in any detail, because it’s not important to the story.

This brings us to my story about real-life Lionel Terry (strictly Edwardian, not Victorian, but close enough). Fascinating guy, in a train-wreck sense, one of the most famous inmates of Seacliff Lunatic Asylum, and someone who would be a potential story gold-mine for a historical New Zealand piece, were it not for complicating factors. Namely that the guy was more than just a mad self-made messiah with some painting ability and a taste for white suits. He was also a convicted murderer (he was in the Asylum having escaped a death sentence via insanity), and a lifelong White Supremacist. Sadly, local far-right nutters still consider the guy a hero.

So he’s an unlikable, morally reprehensible, protagonist – what of it? There are plenty of those in all forms of literature. Well, leaving aside that Terry, as a historical figure who never changed his views, can’t have a redemption arc, and the additional issue of wanting to avoid giving him any sort of glamour, the biggest problem I have encountered in writing this short fantasy story is that (sadly) the majority of the real-life New Zealand public were quite sympathetic to his cause. He was basically New Zealand’s Edwardian-era Ned Kelly at one point, only with industrial strength hatred of Jewish and Chinese people, and with what was later diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia. This sense of culturally normalised racism prevents Terry’s views from being thrown into appropriately sharp relief when he interacts with others in the setting, and when dealing with a figure like Terry, I think you need in-story contrast. If everyone is defined by being racist in the story, then he loses a key distinguishing attribute, quite apart from the writer’s fear of producing a text that inadvertently condones racism.

My solution – time will only tell if it works – is to have the narrator be a fantastical entity of some description (think Gil-Martin from James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner). This narrator is safely outside the value constraints of the historical period (fantasy rides to the rescue of history…), and thus able to give a critical perspective on events, even as Terry confides in him. Not that the narrator is sympathetic either – he’s quite clearly capital e-Evil, and unreliable as anything – but he at least serves to deflate the main character. I don’t want Terry to be a glamorous Hannibal Lecter-style villain, and I don’t want his genuine mental illness to be a moral excuse for his actions. At the same time, I don’t want to present Terry as a moustache-twirler. I find those uninteresting, and Terry may be many things, but uninteresting is not one of them. It’s a strange tightrope to be walking here, and I normally would not describe my ideas about a half-finished story in such detail, but I ran across Craig’s post, and though I’d untangle my thoughts a bit…

Edited by The Marquis de Leech

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Even when the setting is alien, it's far easier to empathise with a protagonist who murders his enemies, than with a protagonist who rapes them.

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On 2/25/2019 at 8:56 AM, SeanF said:

 

Even when the setting is alien, it's far easier to empathise with a protagonist who murders his enemies, than with a protagonist who rapes them.

That is because there are worse crimes than murder, Rape is one of them and so is slavery. 

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On 1 March 2019 at 11:48 PM, maarsen said:

That is because there are worse crimes than murder, Rape is one of them and so is slavery. 

I don't have much difficulty in empathising with a slave owner, in say, a novel set in Rome, unless he's a brute.  A rapist is different.

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