Yes, Things Were Different Then

A year or so ago, an editor I very much admire said something that made my eyes cross.  I’m paraphrasing here, because I’m too lazy to go look the exact quote, but, in answer to a neophyte writer who wanted to know if she had to do a whole lot of research in order to write historical fiction or historical fantasy, the editor said (paraphrasing, right?): you have to do some, but people are basically people, no matter when/where you set them.

Eyes crossing right now.

The world has changed since I was a young human.  I know this because every time I watch an older movie with my daughters there will be moments when they look at me, dumbfounded.  “Was it really like that when you were young?” they ask (about women wearing gloves to leave the house, or men condescending to female lawyers, sexual double standards, really weird hairdos), and I have to say, well, yes it was.  The far past is exotic, but we think we know what it was like because we’ve seen movies and read books and stuff like that.  But the near past, which we think we know because we were there (for some part of it, anyway) is just as exotic.

Case in point: a couple of months ago I picked up the 1945 edition of Etiquette, by Emily Post (yes, that is Mrs. Post in the photo).  This book was published during WW II; women were working jobs vacated by men who went off to war; the world had gone through sixteen kinds of sea change since the end of the last world war (voting women! talking pictures! radio! sulfa drugs and penicillin just on the verge of being mass-produced!) and we think we know what it was like, how people behaved, what they thought and aspired to.

Then you read Etiquette and have to revise your thinking. Mrs. Post’s books may have harkened back to a more formal time, but she was still the arbiter of social usage.  Etiquette covers the waterfront, social usage-wise: exhaustive and exhausting information on weddings and advice on the protocol of engagements (“Correctly, the mother, father, sisters,brothers, aunts and cousins of the bridegeroom-to-be should go at once and call upon the bride and her family.”   I’m imagining the terror as this army descends upon the bride’s hapless family, brandishing visiting cards.  Also, Mrs. Post points out that “THE ENGAGEMENT RING IS NOT ESSENTIAL TO THE VALIDITY OF THE BETROTHAL.”  Caps hers).  She’s got the scoop on christenings and, speaking to the modern woman, she includes the wording for an announcement of adoption (“Mrs. and Mrs. Nuhome have the happiness to announce the adoption of Mary, aged thirteen months.”).

The section on funerals and mourning is fabulous (in the enlightened year of 1945 a widow need only stay in deep mourning for a year, with another year of second mourning–grays, I suppose–to follow.  And as always, men get off easier.  “Although the etiquette is less exacting for a man than for a woman, a widower should not be seen at a dance or any large and solely social entertainment for from six to eight months; a son from four to six months; a brother for three–at least! The length of time a father stays in mourning for a child is from four to eight months.”  A child under eight, however, should never be put into black, no matter what Charles Dickens says).  It’s revelatory to anyone who has been to a funeral in the last thirty years; I’ve never been to one where everyone wore black, have you?

And Mrs. Post talks about servants.  The staff for a large house (the Butler is more important than the Housekeeper, but just barely), includes the butler and housekeeper, footmen, chauffeur, cook, kitchen maids, house maids, lady’s maid, valet, tutor, nursery maid–I feel like I’ve wandered into a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery!  Advice is given to those who have persistent trouble with the help.  To her credit, Mrs. Post stresses rigorous firmness and fairness with the help; no taking your bad mood out on your social inferiors, that’s tacky.  And she talks to the woman with only one maid in a small apartment as well: the maid will of course live in, and you should make her room as pleasant as possible, and allow her a decent afternoon off once a week….

And on it goes.  I could quote you passages (“Business Women in Unconventional Situations: Certain jobs–particularly those of responsibility leading to the heights of success–carry with them the paradoxical responsibility of upholding a moral code of unassailable integrity while smashing to bits all rules of old-fashioned propriety!”) until your eyes glaze over.  Mine won’t; this is like catnip to me, a window into another time and another way of thinking.  Emily Post was not writing for the wealthy who had been wealthy all their lives–they knew this stuff.  She was writing for the people who aspired to be wealthy, or upper middle class, or middle class.  The people who wanted to know how they were supposed to be living their lives.

I would say to my editor friend: yes, if you want to create a different place, you have to do enough research to understand how the place shapes the beliefs and the behaviors, and vice versa.  If you’re looking at the near past, Emily Post is not a bad place to start.


Madeleine Robins is a founding member of Book View cafe; the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, and Petty Treason, and of many short stories which can be found on her bookshelf.  Her story “Somewhere in Dreamland Tonight” appears in the BVC e-anthology Dragon Lords and Warrior Women.  She blogs here on the 7th and 21st of the month.


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


Yes, Things Were Different Then — 29 Comments

  1. you have to do some, but people are basically people, no matter when/where you set them.

    This sort of attitude among editors (and directors) is one of the reasons why there are so many bad historical novels (and movies and TV shows) out there. :/ And because people read (and see) so much bogus history, they come to think that’s how things were, and it gets harder and harder to put the good stuff out there for more than a small audience of devotees. (Judy’s great at it, of course; we need more like her.)

    I’ve never been to one where everyone wore black, have you?

    No, never. I have a black dress I wear to funerals and most of the time I’m the only one in black. It just seems respectful, and besides I don’t have many dresses. [wry smile] But the only times I’ve ever seen a funeral where everyone wore black was on TV or in a movie.


  2. Oh, so very true. And reading these fully can convey how people thought then. Yes, humans come equipped with the same basic set of emotions, but they do not, and have not, seen the world in exactly the same way.

    As big a treasure as etiquette books are books on housekeeping of the past. Secondary to these are letters between women as they discuss the social and housekeeping conundrums of the day; Jane Austen’s letters are full of witty asides about housekeeping, for example.

  3. Have a look at photographs of state or military funerals (the president of Poland featured prominently in one last weekend) to see the current state of mourning wear. Usually the closest relatives — at minimum the widow or widower — will be in black or darks; with everybody else it’s open season.

    In the past the reason so many people’s “best’ outfit was black was because clothing was expensive. You needed one set of blacks for the inevitable and frequent deaths in your circle; if you were not well off you might not have any other “Sunday” garments. In our day, with cheap mass-manufactured clothing flooding into our WalMarts and Targets, it is difficult to grasp how hard making cloth and clothing was then.

  4. A similar attitude about research seems to have descended on speculative fiction. I wrote about this in SF Goes McDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle ( The pertinent paragraphs:

    Yet old fogey that I’m becoming, I do believe that people who write SF should have a nodding acquaintance with science principles and the scientific mindset.

    So imagine my surprise when the following comment met with universal approval on a well-known SF blog: “There seems to be a common feeling with people coming into SF that you need to know real science to write good SF. Which is of course rubbish.”

    Let me rewrite that statement for another genre: “There seems to be a common feeling with people coming into historical fiction that you need to know real history – or at least the history of the era you plan to portray – to write good historical fiction or alternative history. Which is of course rubbish.”

    Cell phones in a Renaissance novel? Tudor court ladies on mopeds? Why should anyone notice or care? Likewise, “cracks” in the event horizon of a black hole? Instant effortless shapeshifting? Only an elitist jerk would object, spoiling the fun and causing unnecessary angst to the author! Never mind that such sloppiness jolts the reader out of the suspension of disbelief necessary for reading the story – and is particularly unpardonable because a passable veneer of knowledge can be readily acquired by surfing the Internet.

  5. Sherwood: I have a wonderful book called How to Do It, which is a compendium of How To pamphlets and books from the 14th-17th centuries, mostly in Italy. While the fundamental questions and problems remain familiar to us (child rearing, the help, manners, first aid) the solutions, and the belief systems they’re rooted in, are way different.

  6. ‘”Was it really like that when you were young?” ‘

    What really hurts is when they ask that about a time period BEFORE you were born.

    I’ve always felt that historical fiction was harder than SF because while you can make up your science, culture or species*** to suit your story how do you realistically portray a slave owning Roman? Or the slave for that matter. It’s completely alien to todays mind set.

    There was a famous Romance author, a contemporary of Georgette Heyer’s who sent her heroine from London to Brighton on a train. Twenty years before the first track was laid.

    *** I’m not really arguing against Athena Andreadis’ point. Sloppy science doesn’t belong in SF, but without postulating science that doesn’t exist yet there would be no SF.

  7. Bookmobiler — you’re quite right. Speculative science is synonymous with SF. But mangling extant science to force a plot point is another matter, as is using “sciency” terms to handwave. The best SF stories are those in which the science (whether existing or extrapolated) is integrally interwoven in the story — provided also that the characters are compelling and the writing style is deft.

  8. Madeleine: that sounds awesome. Will look for it. Oh, anent that, I remember reading in someone’s letters in the early 1800s disparaging another woman for a common ploy, that is, wearing really fine mourning and pretending it’s for some relative, so she can appear at a fashionable watering hole without having to actually lay out the expense for current fashions.

    While those of us familiar with historical periods (or science) decry errors in fact or paradigm, there are readers who don’t know the history, or the science, and so who prefer the characters to be modern in outlook and expression. Like the movie Titanic. Or who prefer handwavium science. (I have to admit I am one of these latter . . . as soon as the character start gabbling about math or science my eyes glaze and I skip on in my ignorance, looking for where the story picks up.)

  9. Let me be the one to cut that editor one millimeter of slack, in that your well-researched, thoroughly accurate work should be populated with real human beings. If research takes over and the characters are cardboard cutouts, that’s not good, either. I am not impressed by your ten-page, single-spaced bibliography if you have no credible characters in our novel.

    That being said, those characters will not think exactly like modern Americans. This is a problem with much of the historical fiction I come across, including some very big bestsellers. In my snotty younger years I got into serious trouble with Mega-Maven BigBux Author for pointing out that her alleged WWII-era British nurse spoke, acted, and thought like a 1990s suburban American with no medical training. I just wanted to know why she didn’t write the character as such. Why the filter of a period, country, and mindset that she had no knowledge or understanding of at all? “Because I thought it would be exotic” didn’t count as an answer.


    Hmmm. I sense a blog coming on.

  10. Sherwood, I agree that infodumps are boring and imply a clumsy, lazy or uninformed writer — but they’re boring even when you’re introducing the reader to a feudal fantasy universe or a historical bodice ripper (look ma, no sciency stuff). As both Judith and I mentioned, story and character come first with all fiction, regardless of genre. But if you want SF without science, why bother reading SF — and what makes such stories SF?

    As for glazing over, science affects your life each and every day, in matters large and small; you literally swim in it. It’s far likelier that you will meet a weak AI (you already have, in many systems including your cell phone and your flight controller) than a unicorn. And if we, as citizens of the world, don’t know enough about science to make informed decisions, we will end up with loss of biodiversity, global warming, lack of resources… oops.

  11. It is said of the great Mary Renault, author of all those ancient-Greece historicals, that she would never do research first. She always just wrote the book. Then she would do the research and backfill it in. Doing it the other way turned the book into a wad of history, thinly populated by sock puppets.

  12. Young children wear white while in mourning. That’s why Mary’s guardian, who can’t stand to see her in black, orders that she be given white dresses in The Secret Garden.

    In second mourning, BTW, you can wear white, gray, mauve, purple or lavender — or beige, gray or lavender — or some such subdued colors. (Etiquette experts have given different lists.)

  13. Brenda — I can see her point. Though I find it better to wallow in the history reading before I start to write. It’s better because it clues you in to what you don’t know you don’t know.

  14. Brenda, I read a good deal of Renault. As a Hellene versed in the mythology and history of my culture, I can tell you that she struck a lot of false notes, in terms of both setting and mindsets. Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian was far more solid in both respects. And backfilling or not, only a few of Renault’s characters escaped stereotype and became fully fleshed. A bit more about the fact that most people think they know Hellenic culture:

    Being Part of Everyone’s Furniture; Or: Appropriate Away!

    And a bit about the Minoans and Alexander, both prominent subjects in Renault’s opus:

    The Hyacinth among the Roses: The Minoan Civilization

    Iskander, Khan Tengri

  15. Athena: I appreciate the everyday science, and I even read magazine articles and google subjects (I was reading up on radio waves the other day) but yeah, I don’t get jazzed about info dumps about quarks whereas I might get jazzed about a long discussion of weaving techniques.

    I guess it all comes down to each reader’s individual taste, as filtered through the craft of the writer.

    As for reading SF–i tend toward favoring space opera rather than heavy tech-oriented books. Though that can vary!

  16. I will say, though, that I have seen full-on, formal black attire at a local, high-end, political Catholic funeral Mass–with black dress, black gloves, and black hat. The women wearing it were, however, making a social and political statement and were supporting the widow and her children while the politicos ranted on furthering their campaigns for higher office. Interesting sociodynamics, to say the least. That was several years ago, though, and a social circle I no longer run in (but did include some high-end money).

  17. Judy: Why the filter of a period, country, and mindset that she had no knowledge or understanding of at all? “Because I thought it would be exotic” didn’t count as an answer.

    “Because I liked the clothes.” Seriously, in my Regency writing days, I went to a luncheon of Lady Authors (not writers, mind you, but ladies who had authed) and spoke with a woman who wrote Victorian novels. I observed that it wasn’t a period that appealed to me as much as the Regency. “I just like the clothes,” she said. She knew the names of some cities in England, and that Victoria was Queen. Beyond that, nothing. I, at a disadvantage because I was the youngest person there (and not wearing gloves and a hat) just nodded and went back to my fricassee.

  18. I have written elsewhere about my dismay when I encounter a book where the research is all over the page, as if the author was saying “See How Much I Know!” Frankly, I’d rather read a book where the emotional research was correct and they got some of the setting details wrong…

  19. “Frankly, I’d rather read a book where the emotional research was correct and they got some of the setting details wrong…”

    No quibbles whatsoever about this. Hence my point about Renault.

  20. Sherwood — I harbor a huge soft spot for space opera myself. Cherryh’s Union/Alliance cycle, Le Guin’s Hainish universe, Anderson’s Polesotechnic League, Kingsbury’s Courtship Rite, Friedman’s In Conquest Born… they’re on my list of top SF achievements.

  21. Renault had the gift of making a period come alive in such a way that its inhabitants make perfect sense to the reader, but they don’t in any way feel modern. They fit their context beautifully.

    I call that “period sense.”

    The real boggler for me is the writer who completely misses the emotional landscape of a period, not just by making the characters modern American or British, but by evoking a completely different period–like the author who is writing Elizabethan but her whole affect is Victorian.

    I guess that’s the costume thing. It’s the past, check, but she liked the clothes better in -that- period, so…

  22. What, Judith? You mean that change didn’t start happening with my generation? Not everyone before were copy-carbons to the dawn of time? boggles

  23. > you have to do some, but people are basically people, no matter when/where you set them.

    [Roll over in shock!] No, no, no. True, people’s reactions are *similar*, but class, culture and manners change the expression of those reactions severely.

    I agree this is still no excuse for infodumps. I’ve thrown out a historical by a BigBux Author because the “novel” was nothing but an infodump with fictional characters. (Well, actually, it went to the used bookstore – I can’t bear to throw a book away.)

  24. I’m from Northern Germany and at funerals here everybody wears black or at least very subdued colours (dark blue or grey is acceptable). The only exceptions are pregnant women who cannot be expected to own black maternity wear and children who will be put in the darkest available clothes, if they go along to the funeral. Though whether children should be taken to funerals or not is controversial. My mother always took me along even when I was very little, other parents don’t even take teenagers along because they fear they will be traumatized.

    Pretty much every adult I know has dark clothes for funerals somewhere in his or her closet. In rural areas, widows will sometimes wear black for a whole year, but even my urban aunt and grandmother wore black for several months after their respective husbands died. My Mom wore black for at least two months or so after her father died in the 1980s, because otherwise “the neighbours would talk”. I wouldn’t wear black weeks or months afterwards, but it would never occur to me to wear anything other than dark clothes to a funeral. On the other hand, if you wear a lot of black in day to day life or if you’re into goth fashion, you may well have people asking you if someone in your family has died.

    I know that the “black for funerals” rule is not nearly as strict in the US and the UK as in Germany, but I still find it alienating to see people in US films wear light colours at funerals, particularly if they were closely related to the deceased person. That’s what ruined the almost universally lauded Buffy episode “The Body” for me – I simply could not get beyond the fact that even the children of the deceased did not wear black.

    When I was at university in the UK, I had serious issues with the fact that the only available sympathy cards were brightly coloured and had colourful envelopes. Whenever I had to write one (and relatives and acquaintances seemed to drop like flies that year), I would always apologize for the inappropriate card.

    So in short, customs, habits, ways of doing things vary not just across time but also across cultures. And writing always requires research, unless you are writing about people very much like yourself living in the same time and culture you grew up in.

    This is in fact the main reason I gave up on historical romance with very few exceptions for authors I trust or who come highly recommended – because the characters all too often did not at all behave appropriate for the period. I don’t actually mind if a character has views and attitudes that are at odds with the majority views of the time, as long as it is addressed that this character is unusual and as long as there are real consequences and real risks to his or her behaviour. But modern people in historical costume don’t interest me.

  25. I think the rules are different for children in the US. Remember the famous photograph of little John-John Kennedy, saluting his father’s funeral cortege? Check it out — the kid is wearing a gray or blue-gray child’s coat. It took place in November, winter-coat weather in Washington DC, in 1963. The family (or the White House) could easily have afforded to buy that child any wardrobe item necessary, and you will recall that Jackie Kennedy was not only in full blacks but had a hat with a black veil — a full generation or more retro. Yet the child was not in black. So it must have been deemed OK.

  26. Cora–that’s fascinating. It’s not just the past that is another country, it’s all those other countries as well.

    When I was a kid reading the Little House books, it always bothered me that once Laura grew up her “best” dress was always black–until years later when I realized that it was not only best because it was of the nicest fabric and kept for special, but because it was for occasions such as funerals.

  27. As I recall, the Kennedy children wore white to that funeral, as a symbol for hope. It was talked about by everybody at the time.

  28. Also, in the days when all fabric dyes were fairly fugitive, black held up reasonably well. It got ‘rusty’ (i.e. more brownish) but it didn’t fade out as drastically as red or blue. And you could overdye it black again — remember in GONE WITH THE WIND, when after the young soldier son is killed the family cook is spotted in the kitchen, stirring a dyepot with all the family’s clothes in it? The most stable color, alas, is brown or yellowish-brown, which is why poor people are always clothed in drab hues.

  29. “People are people” indeed.
    I remember all of that “What Would Jesus Do?” that was brandished about a few years back– Jesus, evidently, would drive the SUV to the mall to shop at the Gap after work.