“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there” – L.P. Hartley
One of the tricky aspects of writing books set in any vaguely recognizable version of history is the inevitable clash between now and then, on pretty much every level. There are an enormous number of things that most people know or believe in the present day – the earth moves around the sun, tomatoes are not an aphrodisiac, flossing is important, recycling is desireable, smoking cigarettes causes cancer - that people did not know or believe at various points in the past.
Any writer who goes poking around even a little way into the past will quickly run into attitudes and beliefs that are very, very different from the ones we hold today. And when the beliefs and attitudes of the past clash with modern values, the writer is immediately faced with a dilemma: Does she portray the past accurately, and take the chance that her central characters will be less likeable and sympathetic (or perhaps that they’ll be actively offensive) because they have attitudes that are consistent with their own time rather than ours? Does she “fix” things by giving at least her main characters more modern, more enlightened attitudes and beliefs that no one in that time period would hold? Or does she just ignore any differences and present what is essentially a modern novel with the characters in funny clothes?
Different writers answer these questions in different ways, depending on what things they think are most important. An example: Some years back, I read a novel set in England around 1810. One of the central characters was clearly a full-blown alcoholic, resulting in a good many difficulties for him and his family (as one might expect). Then, in mid-book, the character hit bottom and essentially invented the entire Alcoholics Anonymous twelve step program (though he didn’t call it that) and then worked his way through it, with support from his family and friends.
To me, this story was problematic to the point of being a wall-flinger, because the twelve step program (and the modern attitude toward drinking, drunkenness, and alcoholism) is an anachronism in 1810, especially in England, and the author clearly did not mean the story as an alternate history of any kind. The author of this particular book, however, obviously felt that portraying alcoholism and recovery accurately (according to the modern understanding of this condition) was much more important than being historically accurate.
Had I been writing this book, I would not have made the same choices. But that’s me, and it wasn’t my story. I’m not saying the author was wrong to make the choice she did; I’m saying that the result was a book that I, personally, didn’t like much, won’t reread, and wouldn’t recommend.
BUT – there are other readers who love the book, some of them for the same reasons that I dislike it. They place a greater importance on having their fiction reflect modern values, understanding, and culture than on having those things be historically accurate. And I am okay with that, so long as those readers (and especially writers) know exactly what they are doing (and don’t try to pretend that those stories are historically accurate when they aren’t).
What I am not okay with are the writers who don’t bother even trying to understand the periods they use as settings. The author I mentioned above obviously knew that there was no Alcoholics Anonymous program in England in 1810; equally obviously, she made a deliberate, conscious choice to have her character come up with the twelve steps so that he could work his way through them and begin to recover, and she put some effort into making her characters’ actions plausible. I didn’t buy it, myself, but at least she didn’t have one of the other characters say “Look, why don’t you come to an AA meeting with me tonight?” in London in 1810.
Unfortunately, there are too many writers who do just that sort of thing. Sometimes it’s a relatively minor and innocent gaffe, like the Victorian-era “historical” that had characters taking showers; sometimes it’s a more fundamental lack of research; sometimes it’s complete and utter cluelessness of the sort that simply cannot imagine a world without cell phones or the Internet. The result, though is that the writer portrays the past as if it was exactly like the present, only with different fashions and horses instead of cars.
That carelessness is where I draw the line between I-don’t-like-it-but-it’s-your-choice and don’t-do-this-just-don’t. Because I agree with George Santayana that “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it,” and pretending that the past was exactly like the present is the first step in forgetting the parts that we need to remember. Even (or especially) if they’re parts we don’t like.