There are many more good and not-so-good novels set in Georgian England (more popularly known as Jane Austen land ;)) than I can count. Some of them were written at that time, most of them later. This can lead to some problems with anachronisms (a kind of historical inaccuracy, read more here) and readers’ expectations.

In a Pride and Prejudice prequel I recently read, Lydia, one of the major characters speaks against women’s inability to start a business in such a way that it made me feel she was rather anachronistic. But was she? Surely, some women would have thought about this at the time, even if there was no clear way to express this? This made me think about the characters of modern books set 200 years ago in general.

I feel that in modern-day historical fiction, many horrible events (like your lover suddenly marrying an heiress of some sort) are glossed over more than they would in contemporary works, or than, in fact, they are in Austen’s originals (think Marianne Dashwood). Women quickly rally and ultimately treat all ills with the same unreserved acceptance of ‘the ways of the world’. The truths of the time are presented in almost a sentimental way, encouraging readers to think ‘Gosh, yeah, that is how things went back then’ rather than feeling heartbroken for the poor girl who was truly in love with this heartless gold-digger.

One could argue that these events serve to remind us how wonderful our life in the electricity-internet-women’s rights 21st century is. But is it? Wouldn’t that mean we see all historical novels as Gothic tragedies? Instead, we seem to enjoy our easy, restricted view of ‘how things were in the past’. We seem to enjoy reading about modern-day rebels, but want historic characters to conform to a norm. Or is it the modern author who feels a certain reverence to the past that makes them unable to touch it, to challenge or condemn its practices?

One thing is certain: authors of the time did challenge the norm (Jane Austen, for one, is famous for it), but in a way that we cannot recreate because we do not think or feel like they did at the time. I think that modern authors are afraid that criticising the past would just feel like imposing modern values on old times. In order to avoid blatant anachronisms, they tend to tilt their stories the other way.

Or is this all part of an idealized ‘fairytale Austen universe’, that we love because all we secretly long for a rich husband and nothing but pretty dresses for the rest of our lives (sometimes)? And hey, how much historical backing does your average Jane Austen fanficion have anyway? What do you think?

5 thoughts on “Writing Rebels in Historical Fiction

  1. ” I think that modern authors are afraid that criticising the past would just feel like imposing modern values on old times.” – I think you are on to something here! When characters set in the past behave “out of time” (or ahead of their time, beyond the norms of their society, etc), the author risks being accused of historical inaccuracy or not having done their due diligence. But why should characters set in certain time periods be obliged to behave according to the norms of those periods for their particular class etc? I imagine the variety in values and character between people we see today in modern times even within the same socio-economic class would hold for other times in history.

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  2. This is such an interesting discussion. I haven’t really dived into historical fiction yet, as I’m currently trying to read the classics first, but I think it is tricky. I guess it all comes back to the writer’s intention; why are they setting the story in the past rather than the present? What is the message they’re trying to get across? Are they commenting on that society’s norms? And if so, have they been careful enough to realise that the ‘norms’ we generalise in a certain time period are not as concrete as they may seem. I recently wrote an essay for university on the idea of the public and private sphere and whether it was as distinct as we like to assume. I don’t have any answers, but an interesting thought!!

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    1. Thanks for your elaborate answer :). As a (former) fellow English lit student, the idea of the author’s death has been drilled into me so firmly that I hardly dare think in that direction, but you are right: because we are talking about projections of modern ideas here we can’t really separate the two. Interesting!

      Liked by 1 person

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