Today, I found this amazing post by Hayden Wand: Battling the Modern Condescension. She writes about a historical fiction pet peeve which happens to be one of my pet peeves as well, and it was nice to discover that I’m not alone in my historical opinions. But then I decided to post my own thoughts about the matter, thoughts that have been simmering for several years.
To put the matter simply, it really is arrogant to judge past behavior by modern ideas of justice, equality, social norms, science, etc. For one thing, this mindset keeps us from truly understanding why things were the way they were. Maybe there was a good reason for some customs. For example, in England for much of the 19th century, you had to be a landowner with a private income in order to sit in the House of Commons or the House of Lords. Unfair! Unequal! Unnecessary restriction! Social injustice, class wars, what-have-you in action!
Actually, sitting in Parliament brought no wages until the 1880s. And being a Member was a full-time job. Parliament met from early January or February until early August. Sessions began at 3:00 p.m. and sometimes didn’t end until 3:00 a.m. Before then, you would correspond with constituents, read Parliamentary papers, do political paperwork—and since you were a landowner, you would have to manage your estates in there somewhere, as well as attend or host the dinners that were obligatory for a social position. You simply didn’t have time to work for a living. You needed an independent income. (Sources: Norman Gash’s Politics in the Age of Peel and James Grant’s Random Recollections of the House of Commons, and Daniel Pool’s What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew.)
Additionally, what our culture considers “enlightened” and “just” changes. Constantly. Which means our standards change constantly, and our judgments change constantly. How do we know that in a 100 years, what we considered “right” will be enforced in legal courts? How do we know that women won’t eventually get tired of the career girl expectations and revert to homemaking?
And then looking at the matter from a writer’s point-of-view, it’s actually narrow-minded to assume that readers can relate only to characters with their understanding of life, social justice, etc. Now granted, similar mindsets do help you connect with others. But if we writers rely on this alone for our characters, there will be no intellectual challenge in our books, no new knowledge presented, no window into a different life through characters who are similar, but not identical, to you or to readers. I think there’s a timeless quality to the complexity of a character who has solid reasons for believing something modern readers may not agree with; it gives him beliefs, flaws, motivations–and historical accuracy. A writer’s job is to write a character as sympathetic and understandable anyway, regardless of different beliefs and social norms. Giving a character the same mindset as the readership is a lazy way to accomplish this.
On the flip side, understanding a historical mindset does not mean that you pretend a social ill never existed. That would take the problem to a different extreme and would create the same result: misunderstanding of history. And I certainly don’t advocate defending historical beliefs that the Bible called wrong. I just want to be humble enough as a writer and historian to truly understand a historical mindset, to learn from it, and to challenge myself and others through different points of view.