But Oh! It’s Heaven Now-a-days!*

Steven Harper already touched on this, but I think it bears more discussion.  You’re writing from now.  You are (if you’re honest with yourself) a creature of now, with the prejudices and assumptions of now.  And your audience is reading from now.  But what about if what you’re writing takes place then?

I’ve said before in this space that almost nothing irritates me so much as a novel set in another when-and-where that doesn’t acknowledge that the culture, beliefs, and attitudes are different. And most readers are willing to accept that attitudes toward, say, sex, or money, or religion, might have been different in the middle ages or Renaissance Italy or 17th century Japan.  Often we read about exotic times and places because they’re exotic.  But the recent past, the past we think we know because we were there, or our parents were there, that’s not exotic, and we know how this works, right?

How it works is: reader assumptions may come slap up against the truth of the past, and readers will be baffled or up in arms about it.  An example: my friend Ellen Klages, whose wonderful The Green Glass Sea and White Sands, Red Menace are set during WWII and just afterward, regularly gets mail from parents and teachers saying “why are the parents smoking?  What a terrible example for the young!” or “that woman is pregnant and she’s drinking alcohol?  Are you nuts?  What about fetal alcohol syndrome?Doesn’t she know…”  Well, no, she doesn’t.  A lot of the health issues about smoking and drinking during pregnancy didn’t come out until the 60s and 70s –during WWII there were still ads extolling the health benefits of cigarettes!  It’s perfectly reasonable for characters in 1947 not to know what we in 2010 take for granted.

So: can a writer head off this problem?  The topic came up the other day when I was proofreading Brenda Clough’s excellent soon-to-be-a-BVC e-book.  Speak to Our Desires is set in the sixties, a time of fairly, um, permissive attitudes about sexuality.  I was there, so to speak: growing up in Greenwich Village in the early and mid-60s, I imbibed a lot of those attitudes (including the notion that I was a social failure if I hadn’t had sex before I was 18).  Even so, when the 17 year old heroine of the book embarked on a sexual relationship with a much older man, I kept wanting someone to say, “Hey, statutory rape, dude.”  The older man gets flack for being with a younger woman, but my 2010 self wanted some sort of acknowledgement of what, after years of Law and Order: SVU reruns, seems like a given.

The whole problem is complicated by the fact that sex with a minor was a crime in the 60s, but it was selectively enforced, depending on the where and the who: if the girl had a host of truculent male relatives, or if one party was one color and the other another, or if the event took place in a particularly conservative area of the country, the response might be either a shotgun wedding or court proceedings.  So how is a writer to signal to the reader that, yes, this is a different time, we thought differently then, it wasn’t necessarily a good thing but it was the way things were.

The best answer I’ve got (and I’d love to see answers from the group mind) is that it depends.  In my Sarah Tolerance books I put an info-dump at the beginning of the books to make it clear the economic and social price a woman paid for sex before marriage, because if you don’t understand that, the rest of the book makes no sense.  Sometimes all you have to do is put in an acknowledgment of the reader’s attitude: “You know, Lenny, those cigarettes are gonna kill you.”  “Whaddaya talkin’ about?  9 outta 10 doctors smoke Camels! Can’t get healthier than that!”

The past is another country.  And the border to the past begins within our lifetimes.  It pays us to remember that, as readers and writers.

*the title of this post comes from Chicago


Madeleine Robins is a founding member of BookViewCafe, the author of ten novels, and is of course working on an eleventh.  You can check out her short fiction on BVC, read her daily blog, or check out her website.  Or you can turn the page.

Posted in History permalink

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


But Oh! It’s Heaven Now-a-days!* — 28 Comments

  1. I suspect that those readers who decry the facts of everyday living and attitude of the past are few in number. These days of “anyone’s a reviewer on the Internet” means those views are seen. Sometimes they are the only views seen, because readers who are satisfied, yep, that’s the way it was in the sixties, aren’t moved to post a finger-wagging review.

    I myself don’t like historical novels in which too much liberty is taken with the times, because I can’t stay in it. Every error bounces me out, and I have to make an effort to return to the story. (Just above this post is a list praising a historical romance writer whose first book bounced me badly. Yet other readers love it, so these things are not cut and dried.)

    The thing I really hate (and again, it seems popular) is when the good guys all have attitudes of today, and the bad guys have attitudes of Back Then.

  2. The other wrinkle is that, even though the ‘age of consent’ shifts with culture and era, even within a time and place there’s dissent. A great example is ROMEO & JULIET. Juliet is 14, totally too young by modern estimations, but her mother points out that many a Veronese maiden is married and a mother by that age. (For that matter, today there is probably a young teen or even a pre-teen getting legally married and having sex with a much older man; she probably lives in Afghanistan or Pakistan.) Juliet’s father weighs in noting that sometimes early marriage is not so smart! In spite of his concerns he’s going ahead with marrying her to the County Paris, and hijinks ensue.

    What that says to the writer is that you can probably do anything you want to do, if you take care to mention that there might be problems. Your bullheaded characters can then ignore good advice and hop into bed anyway.

  3. What an excellent post!

    I’m currently working on something set in 1902, and in reading period literature from that country, noticed that everyone smoked. ::sighs::

    I’ve been beating my head against a wall about that, but found a way to explain away some of my shortfall. But I did go back in and add cigarettes for many of the characters…which were completely absent before.

  4. A problem I ran into when writing my Merlin Books, was readers who denounce my heroines when they accept superstition as fact. In their century that was the way life worked. The criticism that “She’s smarter than that,” doesn’t mean anything. If we are taught as fact that spitting into our palms and then shaking hands seals a deal into the third reincarnation and if we break it our blood will boil, then it takes someone dedicated to breaking such a deal to prove it wrong. To someone needing to keep faith with the deal, it is fact.

  5. There is this though, considering changing mind-sets: the more history you read the more you realize that no matter how widely accepted something is, which in reality really is vile, such as slavery, how many people really did object, and often suffered for it. Often their objections were officially shut down, or merely ignored (another form of censorship). This is why we cannot excuse someone on the order of Thomas Jefferson his excuses for slavery. He was surrounded by so many of his peers who did object; the constitutional convention was bottlenecked for weeks over the issue. People knew slavery was wrong. Even Jefferson knew slavery was wrong. In the end, however, he admitted that slavery was just too convenient to be rid of. And that was indeed his operative word — to rid the nation of slavery was “inconvenient.”

    So that is one way around attitudes that seem out of period — though still, you must include the period version of attitude. Though so many people believed slavery was evil, wrong, sin and even crime, very few people still would have wanted their daughters to marry into that group, and very few people did believe that created equal meant integration or participation.

    Love, c.

  6. Good and bad examples:

    One of William Goldman (the screenwriter)’s memoirs mentions a problem he had with Butch Cassidy. He gave Butch the line “I got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals”, and a producer wanted him to take it out because “they didn’t have bifocals back then”. Goldman replied with Franklin’s invention of bifocals, but I don’t remember if he won the battle.

    Mad Men makes a point of yanking your sensibilities all the time, in a “hang a hat on it” sort of way; I’m only up to the first season, but I remember two kids playing with putting a dry-cleaning bag on their heads and the mom’s telling them not to tear the bag*, and a man at a party slapping his hostess’s kid across the face to make him stop running through the house.

    Bad: An appalling romance I read called The China Bride in which the heroine was a trouser-wearing Chinese/British bastard in the mid-nineteenth century. She made it to the U.K., pregnant, and her noble presumed-deceased paramour’s parents — note the paramour — took her under their roof and gave a ball in her honour, since her bastard child was the only one they were likely to get.

    * I wonder if they actually researched this one; I was born in the late 1950s and my parents were religious about triple-knotting and throwing away all dry-cleaning bags.

  7. Addition to Ms. Clough: I had it pointed out to me in a reputable source that Juliet’s marriage would actually have been considered appallingly young by contemporary English standards, and that her age is partially in there to remind people of how furrin those Italians are. Elizabethans married surprisingly late; the mean marriage age was the late 20s.

    So Juliet’s age is intended to be shocking, rather than intended to be taken for granted.

  8. I will point out that while the Constitutional Convention was bottlenecked for weeks over the issue of slavery, very few delegates were arguing that slavery ought to be eliminated because it was a moral wrong; slavery was all caught up in the issue of representation, and whether slaves should be counted as people for issues of taxation and seats in national bodies, not to mention economic tensions between an agricultural south an a more industrialized north, and fears that one population would grow much more quickly than the other. I will also point out that the cotton gin wasn’t invented until the 1790’s, so at that time there was a widely-held belief that if the US stopped importing slaves, slavery as an institution would sort of wither up and disappear because it would be less economically feasible.

    And that’s not even mentioning the worries that the national government ought not to have power to make that sort of ultimatum to the states . . .

    Sorry, I’ll stop babbling now.

  9. @J. Kathleen–I’m constantly coming up against things I omit because it doesn’t occur to me to put them in, on the order of cigarettes in 1902. In the book I just turned in, set in Italy in the 13th century, the single hardest thing for me to remember was the pervasiveness of religious faith (I was raised by wolves, religion-wise; it’s not a thing I think of). I literally went through every scene trying to think of it in terms of how a Christian of the time would have viewed what was going on.

    @Sherwood: I’m willing to suffer through minor lapses in historical verisimilitude (particularly, for some reason, in comic novels). But the big ones–no. Part of the history behind the Sarah Tolerance books included a Regency romance I read as a teenager which so egregiously lapsed from the reality of the time that I more or less threw the book against the wall.

    @ Mme. Hardy–the research I did for the Italian book suggests that our idea of what marriageable age was in the Olden Days exaggerates youthward; unless you were being married for dynastic or financial reasons (and marriage was still an economic, more than a romantic, function at that time) you didn’t marry until you could afford it, and that often meant not until one’s 20s.

  10. Yup yup yup. And even if you were being married for dynastic reasons, the contract generally specified that there would be a wait before consummation. The royal bride often wound up being raised at her husband’s court — see Mary, Queen of Nitwits. Royalty who consummated at 14 often wound up childless.

    ” the single hardest thing for me to remember was the pervasiveness of religious faith”

    Yes, THIS. And it’s where much of fantasy falls down; people steal all the trappings of the medieval period without having any kind of religion system at all, or create a religious system that is only used for swearing and powering the spells cast by evil priests.

    IMHO Tolkien falls down on the latter as well; the whole God-framework laid down in the Silmarillion really doesn’t show through in Hobbit and LoTR.

  11. Miriam — Not quite … re the slave trade. The upper South plantation owners on the order of Jefferson, i.e. Virginia (it r all Old Dominion and r belong to us) and Maryland was already exporting it’s overstock slave chattel into new territories as their principle financial support, as already the tobacco growing had burned out the land and peaked.

    If no one attending the Constitutional Convention had problems with slavery why was it such a gridlock?

    The non-domestic slave trade was shut down, by Consitutional agreement, in 1808, not for any altruistic reasons but because African slaves, and those brought in from the Caribbean, were cheaper than those bred in the upper South, and Jefferson and his cohorts were shutting down the competition.

    Yes, the south was already complaining about losing its power to non-slaveholding states, its power as a slaveholding economy.

    Love, C.

  12. And democracy.

    You know, they knew all about democracies in early modern Europe.

    “A pure democracy can admit no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will be felt by a majority, and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party. Hence it is, that democracies have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have, in general, been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. “

  13. And there’s another major divide: class and wealth. Rich people, or people of high degree, can get away with stuff that the lower orders would go to the gibbet for. (Yes, Henry VIII, I’m looking at -you-.)
    The other factor is how very fast society can change. In 1969, when SPEAK TO OUR DESIRES takes place, there are Catholic priests peaceably molesting their altar boys; black people routinely refused service in hotels and restaurants; listings in the daily paper headed MEN WANTED and WOMEN WANTED. All gone with the wind.
    Somewhere, yesterday, I read an article about the change in British manners. In London in 1914 you took your life in your hands if you walked alone, even in the best part of town. “Rude boys” would set upon you and rob you. Animal cruelty was common. In one generation it all changed. By 1950 visitors were commenting on the Brit habit of queuing, and noting how mild the reactions were at soccer games. The pendulum has swung back again some what (google on Soccer Hooligans). But if it is so easy for mores to shift, why can’t we shift them, for the better?

  14. I said elsewhere that my daughters are agog watching old movies because of the routine “isn’t she cute, she’s trying to be a grownup” treatment of women, particularly in comedies. To quote one daughter, “Mom, do they realize they’re condescending to KATHARINE HEPBURN??!!!”

  15. Well, dangit Madeline, I was going to do my next blog on this very topic, and you swiped it!

    However, I have a slightly different tack in mind, so I’ll take this and expand on it. 🙂


  16. Sorry, Steven–my bad. It’s just, Brenda and I got into such a good crunchy discussion that we decided we should share it with the class.

    Maybe I should have brought brownies instead?

  17. As a reader and not a writer I can sympathize with the desire to throw books against the wall when somebody flunks the reality test. It can get pretty expensive though with today’s electronic book readers.

    This is the other side of the science fiction problem of looking back at today to try to figure out what our “cigarettes” would be.
    I’m not thinking satire here which is exaggeration for effect.

    The difference in view point between one generation and the next can be more jarring then between one century and the next.

  18. The difference in view point between one generation and the next can be more jarring then between one century and the next.

    Yup. This. And what’s the most jarring is that people don’t expect it to be so.

  19. I wonder if we can blame how history is taught these days. My son the history major complains that the K-12 system confines its history instruction to pre-20th century. They got as far as the Civil War, but never got any closer to the present.

  20. Sixteen years older than my life partner, I find I’m forever explaining to them* that when they were born, a female mayor was a startling anomaly; female doctors, astronauts, lawyers also; ad infinitum.

    In so many ways in my lifetime, the world is a better place; and my youth, which immediately preceded theirs, would be unrecognizable to them.

    Particularly including those ’60s and ’70s sexual mores, so we don’t talk about those much. 😉

    *good enough for Shakespeare, good enough for me, for the third person nonspecific.

  21. @ Brenda–I’m not sure it’s how history is taught so much as what literature kids are given to read. Routinely, we’d go enough into depth each year in my history classes that we wouldn’t make it to the present (even my Modern European History class, senior year in high school, started in the late 1700s and only made it to the 1950s–and that was *mumble* years ago. But the impulse to give kids literature that is “relevant” to you–much as I honor the sentiment–means that some kids are not exposed to older literature, and also that they’re not seeing that another time and place can still be relevant to their lives. And a reader who only reads about then-and-there in modern historical novels is limited in her knowledge about the time by what the author knows or is willing to include.

  22. I’m giving my twelfth graders the gamut in the new senior English. So far we’ve read various myths, GILGAMESH, MAUS, and OEDIPUS REX. Next up: THE TEMPEST and probably TARTUFFE. After that, I want to get away from Europe for a while.

  23. Steven, I want to take your senior English class.

    And please do blog on this. Different angles are Goood. 🙂

    I’ve learned a few things reading the comments here. Love that.

    The pervasiveness of religion in medieval life is also applicable to many parts of the world today. All I have to do is conjure up my preteen, parochial-school-attending, weekly-Mass-obligated self, with all the cultural trappings that went with her. Things like the frisson of almost horror at the unbaptized, and the shock of the nun who said that those poor creatures might actually qualify for Heaven because they believed as sincerely in their vision of the Divinity as we did–oh, that was beyond radical in 1967. (That was some radical nun. Tough as nails, as you would expect.)

    My first three books would have gone very differently if I’d written them as close to the mores of the period as I wanted to. But my editor insisted that “modern readers cannot relate to a nonsexual relationship between a male and a female character.” He was adamant that they get it together. I was young, I was impressionable. I did as I was told. Reviews indicate I made it work. But for the time and the characters, it’s not really accurate. If I were doing it now, I’d use the “Moonlighting” defense, but…

  24. And btw? My mother in the 1950s had her doctor prescribe that she start smoking in order to lose weight. “Best method there is, and it’s perfectly healthy and harmless,” he said.

  25. But my editor insisted that “modern readers cannot relate to a nonsexual relationship between a male and a female character.”

    Alas. It’s the Harry-met-Sally line. In fact, most of us have nonsexual relationships with persons of the opposite sex, so why is it so difficult to believe it in fiction?

  26. In WW2 the soldiers’ ration packets included cigarettes. Times really do change, faster than we can believe it. We are like fish, swimming in our pond, surrounded by our own era and unable to get out of the water. The only practical way I can think of to get into another ‘pond’ is to travel — far. There are plenty of places in Asia where smoking is ubiquitous; there are lots of places where women are not allowed to work for pay and rape accusations are routinely dismissed.