Tuesday 25 September 2012


For any writer of history, one of the most crucial (and sometimes most difficult) tasks is getting the values right.  I don’t just mean cash values, though they can be remarkably tricky to determine. 
For the period in which I specialised as a student - the bridge between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries - there’s a very rough, but easy, rule of thumb: multiply by one hundred to find out how much something would be worth today.
On a superficial level, it can sometimes appear to work.  For example, on 20 July 1700, Godfrey Copley (one of the main characters in my PhD) wrote one of the first slips of paper recognisable as a precursor of our modern cheques.
It was made out to transfer £30 'unto Sir Godfrey Kneller in Covent Garden for a half length Picture' (payment is acknowledged by Kneller on the back)
As it happens, it is probably possible to hire a modern painter for around one hundred times that sum. However, you would be lucky to get a Kneller today for less than £50,000 - more than sixteen hundred times as much. The reason is obvious. The object has acquired a different kind of value due to its age and scarcity, and to our different outlook on such things.


 In 1700, no one would have paid anything like that sum - or, in most cases, any money at all - for an object that was three hundred years old.

On the face of it, it’s interesting to find out from Celia Fiennes’ diary that '2 good shoulders of Veale' cost 9 pence in Ripon in 1697, but applying the simple x100 method to get a sense of its value now is useless. Adjusting for decimal coinage, the sum comes out at £3.75, but the place of veal in our lives is so profoundly different that the computation is meaningless. With chicken, for example, using a multiplier doesn’t even work within our lifetimes.  Some of us can remember a time, before intensive rearing, when it was a luxury food.  Comparing the price of a bird in 1962 and 2012 tells us nothing of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the economy then and now because we are not comparing like with like. The slippage can go the other way, of course.  Oysters (the poor man’s protein in Victorian times) still taste of snot, but they are now snotty in a different sense, and so can be on a restaurant menu for £3 each. 

Unless we know the social value of things, it’s impossible to draw meaningful conclusions from what may appear to be treasure troves of information.  Financial records are, on the face of it, a boon for the historian - money transactions tended to be noted, and those documents were preserved - but unless we know (for instance) that the place in which Copley often dined (Pontack’s) was one of the most expensive in London (thanks to its exclusive supply of fine French wines) seeing a bill for his dinner doesn’t tell us much about him or his times.  We even need to know that 'dinner' was a mid-day meal.  More than one historian has jumped to the conclusion that seventeenth century Londoners were given to extensive late-night socialising by assuming that diary entries stating “Dined at home, then to my Lord Derby’s and thence to...” referred to events taking place in the evening.

But back to values, and the kind that are nothing to do with money. Here I’m referring to everything from superficial matters of etiquette to assumptions so deep and automatic that they passed largely unnoticed by commentators at the time.  You may have to read between the lines of diaries and letters to detect these, but they a not too hard to find (and they don’t always match the stereotypes we learned about at school).

I sense that current habits in historical writing risk us losing an accurate appreciation of, or even developing A contempt for, the mindset of people in past times.  One of the most worrying trends is a timidity about endowing leading characters with those attitudes and behaviour patterns that we may find reprehensible, but which were nevertheless standard at the time when the plot is set. 

The casual racism and anti-semitism found in books such as Miss Pettigrew Lives For a day (1938) is unlikely to be shown in a modern novel set at that time (and indeed doesn’t appear in my own Johnny Swanson, set in 1929).  Even if it did, it’s likely that it would be put into the mouth of one of the less attractive characters. 
Are we developing a new cliche within historical fiction, whereby our heroes and heroines have to hold only slightly diluted twentyfirst century attitudes? Is it harder to write a book where a downtrodden servant accepts his or her place in the world (as many have down the ages) than to create a fighter challenging that view of the world?   

When did you last read a book where a someone the author wants the reader to admire and understand was compliantly operating within the social bounds of an ’honour’ driven society? Such societies are depicted in fiction - but usually though the eyes of someone who is challenging their norms, often in a way that would have been most unlikely at the time.

Don’t get me wrong. I can see why that is so - especially in books written for young people. These days you can’t assume that readers know the first thing about a historical period, and conflict is a useful brush for painting the scenery in an engaging way, but giving the protagonist anachronistic attitudes is too easy a way to do it.  When that is accompanied by a subtext implying that the modern attitude is “right” and the old one “wrong” we run the risk of engaging in, and disseminating, a form of historical cultural imperialism. We also reduce the range of our characters.  How much more interesting for example, to get under the skin of someone who truly believed that tearing down the Georgian terraces of 1960s London was a good idea, than to invent a person with a passion for conservation long before the word was in use.

I will brace myself now for the usual onslaught from the thought police, but one area where I think the new norm in publishing is hopelessly sloppy is in the depiction of women in the past.  They tend to be portrayed either as feeble dolts, unaware of their oppression by an unfair world, or as brave warriors lashing out at glass ceilings, and behaving in ways they simply would not have contemplated at the time.  This horribly misrepresents the richness of women’s lives over the centuries, and fails to acknowledge the many ways in which they have employed their intellect and exercised power within the conventions of their own eras - just as modern women, with all the ’advantages’ we value, are operating within conventions of our own.

I am not saying that repression of women is good, that servants should know their place, or that life was “better” when people routinely viewed other races and creeds in ways that we find abhorrent today.  What I am suggesting is that we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that people’s core values and outlooks were different in the past, and that there will come a time when our own assumptions will seem dated, comic, outrageous, or just wrong.

Of course some aspects of human nature transcend all this, which is the reason that historical fiction works at all, but we must avoid creating characters who are more like time travellers from our own world than rounded representatives of theirs. Perhaps the trend began with that awful era of history teaching (20 years ago or so) when pupils were constantly asked “How would you have felt if you were a parlourmaid/Viking/highwayman?”  Those children are now adults, and some of them are working in our industry. I sense that some publishers are getting into the habit of demanding the 'time traveller’ model for, or within, novels set in the past.  Done well, it works, but as a lazy cliche it could send historical fiction back to the doldrums from which it has so recently emerged.



Sue Bursztynski said...

Interesting points you make. It probably doesn't matter, in the context of a novel that at one time chicken was a luxury food and oysters weren't, as long as you show this. Attitudes are another matter. But it can be done without the time traveller thing. For example, in Michelle Cooper's Montmaray trilogy, about an unusual royal family on a tiny island, who have to flee to England before WWII, the heroine's intellectual cousin is a Socialist who embarrasses her aunt by saying rude things to Mosley and his friends and hanging out with a -shock, horror!- Jew! There would have been upper class Socialists even back then. And it wasn't ALL writers who were casually racist, even then. In Dorothy L Sayers' novel Whose Body, the murderer is caught because of his antisemitism.

Katherine Langrish said...

But I take Eleanor's point. John Buchan, for example, whose books I otherwise thoroughly enjoy, is routinely anti-semitic. And there's a whole debate in the USA now about whether 'Huckleberry Finn' can be taught in schools, because of the use of the n-word and supposed racism in it. The book isn't perfect, but it seems clear to me that Twain was attacking racism through the character of ignorant and innocent Huck, who's been taught such shocking ideas about slavery that he honestly thinks helping Jim to escape is theft, a sin for which he will go to hell. And the moment at which he says, 'All right then - I'll GO to hell' is all the more touching. On the other hand Twain is certainly racist towards Native Americans (see Injun Joe) and I can understand why some teachers would approach his books with caution: why cause controversy in the classroom if they can pick something safer... But to bowdlerise Huck Finn is to miss all of Twain's points, and to airbrush racism out of history. Courage is needed, but it's a tricky business.

Derek Birks said...

I think the subject of your post is central to writing historical fiction because it seems to me that the difficult task is to write in a way that is sensitive to the attitudes of the past but satisfies the expectations of a modern audience. Nevertheless, I feel it is possible for example to show a woman who does not accept her traditional place in society by placing her alongside several who do. Those who are portrayed in a traditional role can also show plenty of positive attributes that the modern reader can admire, so they do not appear to be especially pathetic.

Susan Price said...

I agree with Derek - Eleanor's point is central. Are we going to tell the truth about historical times or not? But it is very hard, often, because the full truth would often lose the sympathy of a modern reader. But it's certainly something that should be acknowledged and discussed!

Ann Turnbull said...

I agree with everything you say, Eleanor. For me, it's the difference in people's attitudes and beliefs in the past that makes writing historical stories so interesting and challenging.

Ann Turnbull said...

Katherine, I haven't read Huckleberry Finn (shame on me!) but surely if Huck helps Jim to escape that IS theft, because Jim is someone's property? A similar situation arises in my latest book Seeking Eden, and there is no doubt in anyone's mind that it's theft, though they still argue about whether it was right or wrong.

Leslie Wilson said...

You are so right, Eleanor, and yet I think it's a problem inherent in historical fiction. We often give a voice to people who the fiction of the time thought were uninteresting (like servants, on the whole) and then we depict characters who we find interesting because they challenged current attitudes in ways that we approve or can identify with. How to do this and at the same time not just dress up modern people in historical clothing?
When I wrote Malefice, I read various accounts of 17th-century witch beliefs that were terribly slanted from our current viewpoint - like Keith Thomas, in Religion and the Decline of Magic, commenting that the people in the 17th century had no radio or television. It sounded as if they were sitting there wishing they could watch 'Neighbours.' I felt that he was missing the point; the lack of a thing they had no idea about was profoundly irrelevant. I was talking to a German friend who had spent a year wandering round Southern America, and he said he had better understood A Hundred Years of Solitude after that, because it was 'a different kind of reality.' I decided to write the novel in that way, approaching reality through the beliefs and attitudes I had found out about. It worked for me. But it has to be said: anachronism sells.
Not always, though. Hilary Mantel takes us back in time in a thoroughly scholarly and sensitive way.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I take your point about John Buchanan and Injun Joe,Katherine, though the usual objection to Huckleberry Finn is due to the n-word and misses the entire pint of the story.
Reading all these comments makes me very glad I haven't gone any further back in my straight historical fiction than 1964! ;-) And in 1964, there was plenty of protest and change going in.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Whoops, that's "point" not "pint"!

Ann Turnbull said...

Ah, 1964! "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!"

Unknown said...

I am in complete agreement that trying to impose 21st century values on HF characters restricts their range. Women exercised their power in many subtle ways, and turning them all into feminist warriors ensures that there is no exploration of the reality of their lives in a world where men ruled, as many cultures saw it, by God-given right.

The same applies to the nastier side of the historical record, i.e. attitudes toward race and creed that we now decry. Refusing to acknowledge that these attitudes were thought to be perfectly justifiable by the majority of people (and often accepted as normal by what we'd see as the victims) means that we can't unpack the fascinating question of how ordinary people dealt with these prejudices in their everyday encounters--especially where masters and servants of different races lived in the same household.

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