Friday, March 2, 2007

And the Bride Said NO!

My earlier post about my ggg grandmother started me thinking about the debate that seems ever-present in discussions of historical fiction: accuracy.

I'v always have trouble with the concept of accuracy in fiction because by definition, fiction is ... well ... fiction. To me, a better way of describing what I think makes for good historical fiction is "believability." Of course, depending upon the worldview of the reader, even that is open for debate. I was reminded of this issue by my earlier post because the most frequent criticism I see of historical fiction runs along these lines:

"Women didn't..."
"Women were..."

The conclusion often seems to be that an author introduced a modern (and often feminist) worldview into an earlier time period. That can indeed be a problem, but an equally vexing (to me) problem is that those who make these criticisms often have a limited understanding themselves; one that's based on common stereotypes.

Take, for example, the stereotypical "rebellious heroine" -- a type of character that frequently leads to criticism for introducing a modern viewpoint into an historical novel. I'm not particularly fond of these characters myself, but using them does not instantly introduce inaccuracy. Why not? Well, consider the clipping below, which appeared in the December 19, 1760 edition of the New-Hampshire Gazette:

[Note: Click on the images for a larger view.]

These types of things were printed endlessly and repeatedly. Now why do you suppose anyone would waste paper and ink on that if women were so docile? Perhaps because there is a difference between "shoulds" and "dos" -- merely because a law existed, or because the church, the newspapers, or someone's mother said they should behave in a certain way, doesn't necessarily mean they did.

It's also important to consider that fiction is often written about "extraordinary" people, or average people who did extraordinary things. If everyone did the same things in the same way, then why would anyone wish to read stories about them? For example, this item from Edinburgh, which appeared in the August 17-24, 1738 edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette:

I somehow don't think it was terribly common for women to play golf in those days (although I could be wrong), but I'll bet they'd make for an interesting story, no?

Since I've been writing about the South a lot lately, I've noticed some assumptions about southern women being stereotypical "doormats." But here, for example, is something from the July 1, 1847 edition of the New-Hampshire Sentinel about a woman from New Orleans who was clearly not a doormat!

It's a bit extreme, but neither was this one [1882-10-03; Macon (Georgia) Weekly]:

Nor was this Kentucky lady [1853-10-06; The San Antonio Ledger].

Now, I'm not suggesting any of this was common behaviour (nor advocating it!), I'm just sayin' that a rebel in a red dress isn't instantly inaccurate. It may be, but it isn't automatically so.

Coming soon: Lady guerillas of the American South.


Wil said...

Hi. I recently discovered your blog. Great stuff!

I completely agree that "those who make these criticisms often have a limited understanding themselves; one that's based on common stereotypes."

My main period of interest is late-medieval England/France, and the stereotype is that everyone was a devout Christian, and it's just not true. 99.9% were indeed Christian, but devotion and belief varied considerably. People questioned Mary's virginity, miracles, transubstantiation, etc. Some were "good Christians", while others grumbled and griped and skipped Mass as often as possible.

There's also a lot of pedantic medieval material on "how good women should behave." Like you said, if women were perfectly well-behaved, why waste time writing such stuff?

Tess said...

Great post, DM. I think where novelists are concerned, we should make women real within the terms of their envirionment. So obviously, before the late 18th century we wouldn't talk about women's rights, BUT, that doesn't mean our heroines can't stand up for themselves.