by Sherwood Smith
Everyone seems to be aware that many customs of the ‘old days’ are no longer in use. But where our historical knowledge varies is not only being aware of what customs (and why they were employed) but how people of the past responded to them.
Take the passing bell. How many today even know what that is?
Church bells were not just time-keepers and calls for religious duty, they also passed news and warnings. The local churches (and most Europeans lived within earshot of one) would ring the passing bell after someone died. The writer who does scanty research will pounce on that stray fact, and be sure to work in a passing bell, but will that writer know how people responded? They might have used ritual prayers or gestures, but would they all respond with the same emotion? Would they respond as people do now?
What was everyday then might seem strange to us. The passing bell tolling when a local woman was known to be due to deliver a child might occasion no outrage or universal grief. Death was too common an attendant at childbirths for that. Reading letters and journals of the time, one discovers such thoughts as: It’s better so, they have already too many mouths to feed, and they are so poor . . . or I trust Cousin Ann did not die as well, for we might be expected to take at least one of the other babes, and where would we put them?
Now the idea of a woman and infant dying in the process of giving birth is a stunning double tragedy. In the future it might be so rare that people who are unacquainted with history might never believe it could have happened at all.
For customs less dire, consider the history of cooties. Though my playground experience at elementary school in the Western USA during the fifties was plagued with ‘cooties’ I did not discover until I reached college that cooties were not invisible, as we had all believed. It was slang for lice. By the fifties, well-scrubbed kids and houses sprayed with DDT (over the counter common then, and outlawed now) did not have lice, but there was enough generational memory for the word to have been passed down.
For us, cooties were an invisible symbol of repudiation—meaning social disfavor. We kids used to go so far as to wipe ourselves off, fling the invisible cooties to the ground, and stomp on them, if someone we didn’t like bumped against us.
No one talked about lice, for they were associated with dirty habits and slovenly life, which everyone knew was the practice of the poor, of immigrants, of Those People (however your family defined ‘those’). Nice people—clean people—did not get lice. The word lice had such dire power in those days that many of our grandparents would give us ominous warnings—threatening kerosene baths, head-shaving, burning of all clothes and linens—if we associated with people considered outsiders, because ‘everyone knew’ they were dirty. The word ‘lice’ had so aligned itself with other four-letter words that in the seventies, kids shared combs and sweaters, had sleep-overs, etc, and guess what made a vigorous comeback . . . among clean, nice people. Through the early eighties, when my oldest kid was in elementary school, lice checks had become routine.
Around that time I was in graduate school, and read Grimmelshausen’s satiric Simplicius Simplicissimus, about what life was like for the peasant during the Thirty Years’ War, and one of the things I learned was that there was etiquette involved in picking lice off one another. How many historical novelists these days get that detail right?
The appropriate detail—and the reaction thereto—goes for all genres, not just historical. Science fiction and fantasy is full of invented custom. I like the invented ones if there is a sense of history, of how the fictive culture might have evolved this way. Sometimes a custom is distorted so the writer can pass on a message about a social ill, and sometimes the writer merely wants to entertain by illustrating how odd we humans can be. Jack Vance is good at the invention of odd customs that you can imagine humans developing.
Then there is the history mixed with fiction, such as making up a country that never existed, but trying to anchor that to real times and places. I’ve had that challenge when inventing Dobrenica, my version of Ruritania, for Coronets and Steel, and its sequel, Blood Spirits, which comes out in a couple of days.The reader has to decide whether it’s convincing or not, but one thing I’ll mention was the fun of inventing names and bits of language, for which I had dictionaries in Latin, Romanian, Hungarian, Russian, and German. Linguistic Frankenstein creation, woo!
To return to the general point: if customs, whether real ones or made up, feel real, whether it corresponds with personal experience or not, makes for a more visceral reading experience.
The variety of human reaction is as important as discovering (or inventing) customs. Like the passing bell reactions above indicate, people don’t uniformly react the same, unless in mob mode: the way a teenager might react to an old woman falling down in the street is not at all the way another old woman is likely to react. One laughs at the ridiculous sight, the other feels sharp sympathy, an urge to Do Something. That’s not to say that every teen would laugh—and every old woman would grieve. We can conjure up plenty of alternative examples: a kind teen, a cantankerous oldster; the teen who loves the fallen woman, the old person who loathes her.
There is another aspect to consider, the tension between realistic detail and the demands of romantic, or epic, or heroic fiction. The realist in a way has it easy: the ordinary human reaction to most extraordinary circumstances is usually fumbling and maybe fear, question and irritation and desperate attempts to deal, looking about for someone to help—or to make sense of the situation, to tell us what to do. Heroes know what to do, or convince you they know, and so we follow, hoping to get back to normalcy.
A year or two back, I was rereading Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, which I think sparked a renascence of fictions about lusty Scotsmen good with their blades—both physical and metaphorical. I mentioned this reread at a gathering. Those who’d read the books began discussing a bit at the end of the first one, Game of Kings. Someone quoted a passage they thought brilliant. It was at a trial. The character gives a rousing speech full of stylish oratorical pyrotechnics, condemning unthinking patriotism (or to be more correct, the miserable things people do to one another in the “name” of patriotism, which is, too often, an automatic pass to the moral high ground), and most of us agreed that this was terrific writing.
But not all.
Person A. (wry face): Romantic tripe! I can’t believe in this hero who gets up and makes this ‘brilliant’ speech, as though a highly-paid team of speech writers had been working on it for weeks. Real people would be thinking all night about what to say, how to say it—and if their lives are at stake, when they get before the audience, they hem, haw, bleat, repeat, quaver; noses run, and who is going to grant the accused automatic authority anyway? Realistically the accused will be ignored, if not shouted down.
Person B: But Dunnett is writing romantic history—small r, in the style of the old romantics, the heroic novels.
Person C: Personally, I am sick of historical novels full of rotting teeth and wormy intestines. If I want to read grotty details, I read primary sources. I go to fiction for something besides helpless people caught in miserable circumstances fumbling their way inevitably toward the dark.
Person D: Besides, A, you are wrong. Modern people might worry all night and scarcely be able to string together a sentence. In the 1500s, schoolboys (and young women educated at home) were taught rhetorical devices and flourishes which enabled them to give speeches extemporaneously. As for brilliant, look up Sir Philip Sidney, and he wasn’t alone.
That’s when the discussion got lively.
Dunnett’s novels are remarkable for their combination of gritty details yet still being cast in the heroic mold. And I think she did this deliberately. There are a couple of points in the books where the narrator steps outside of the theatre just far enough to comment, but without breaking the fourth wall. Like this passage early on in the last book, Checkmate:
Side by side they were evading, she and Francis Crawford, a pack of men who intended to kill them. To escape them would be a miracle. To try to escape them with wit and grace and all that civilization could add to an occasion essentially barbarous was her care, her delight, and her intention.
The thing about that passage is that it does not leave out the emotional reaction, the individual reaction. Just before that graph (which I think encompasses the purpose of romance as well as anything I’ve ever come across) there is this acknowledgement of the shock of emotional fireworks when friendship sparks into something else.
A heady experience, for an only child accustomed to single-thread happiness, and not to the moment of creation that occurs when the warp is interlocked with the weft. When the singer is matched with the sounding board, the dream with the poet. When the sun and the fountain first meet one another.
A realistic reader might pinch their nose and say, “Oh, please.” A romantic reader might resonate through every nerve, and read on.