Thursday, December 20, 2012

Writing About Historical Women? Humble Thyself and See Their Humanity

It is supremely difficult to venture outside one’s own head and see life as it appears to someone else. Yet the desire to do so is one of the reasons that people read and write fiction. Why do so few authors succeed in this worldview exchange when they choose a historical setting for their characters? Those women in period attire who gaze out at the world from dust jackets, spiritedly pursuing adventures between the pages, are often modern folk in costume instead of true representations of a different mindset.

The problem is not research. Most historical novels successfully demonstrate authorial effort to surround characters with references to cool historical customs and people. What is truly wrong is authorial mind block: the deep-down, unconscious inability to accept that women back then could really have believed the values they espoused, or that they were truly human if they did.

I do not ask authors to adopt the values of someone else’s era—only to try to understand them. Storytellers (in my view, even authors of genre fiction) help expand our understanding of life, humanity, love, hate, death—the things that matter. To do this, the writer must truly try to see beyond the period costumes. Did a given cultural group criticize any young woman so wanton as to dally alone with men? No author should address this until he or she is able to understand how that position made sense within the prevailing framework of thought, and is ready to sympathetically express it through the mouth of a character who is neither weak, annoying, nor petty (no matter how vociferously the protagonist may reject it).

Victoria Thompson’s Murder on St. Mark’s Place, a mystery set amongst the tenements of turn-of-the-century New York, provides an excellent example of authorial intent fallen short despite a fascinating setting. Sarah, the heroine, interviews three working girls who “couldn’t understand why [Sarah had] taken up a trade instead of remarrying. Plainly, they believed—as did most of the population—that a woman needed a man to take care of her.” This “most people in those days” refrain (wording which separates both the author and the reader from “those people”) is repeated multiple times throughout the book.

Is it conceivable that turn-of-the-century people who urged a woman to marry felt not that she needed a man (plainly she was surviving without one) but that her financial quality of life would be improved? Is it possible that this is equivalent to urging a modern woman to switch to a career that would provide her with a better salary for fewer hours? Indeed, is it also conceivable that nineteenth-century people were aware of women’s emotional, romantic, or even sexual needs and thought she would be happier with a man in her life? The author could have humanized the world she wrote about if she considered such propositions, and surely such humanization is the goal of fiction.  

Challenging as it is to take on another woman’s mindset and tell a story through her eyes, Ursula Le Guin does this successfully in Lavinia (a novel about a minor character from Virgil’s epic Aeneid). Lavinia is surrounded by vivid characters who may respect, threaten, wed, or abuse her—but none is accompanied by a tag that communicates, “Well, people back then…” These characters are simply, fully, obviously people. Interestingly, the author is able to heighten their universality by grounding them in the culture of ancient Italy. Most remarkable of all, Lavinia herself is a truly human, truly heroic character who strives to fulfill her own culture’s idea of virtue. Her beliefs are the driving force of her story. She is able to show us a little more about humanity while we are with her. Because the author respects her characters as people of their time period, she is able to explore the meaning and the results of values and culture at a far deeper level than a writer who remains in the “Yuck, I wouldn’t want to live back then,” stage.

Yes, it is supremely difficult to create written art that portrays human characters, but no author should be content with the illusion of having done so, no matter how many petticoats the heroine is wearing.

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