Monday, February 23, 2004

Realism in historical fiction

This question came up in my writing community ( and I had a difficult time with my answer. I would generally say I'm interested in realism in historical fiction. I see this genre as a way to learn about history in a more approachable manner than through history books. While not a valid way to learn the information for a history test, as long as the author does their homework, reading an enjoyable historical fiction work can give you insights into other times and mentalities.

So, with that as my perspective, I had some difficulty with the realization my openness to the culture of other times had limits. I had no difficulty learning that Harold the Green died because William the Conqueror told his men to shoot arrows into the sky. This neat piece of information came from a historical novel told through the perspective of a man with William the Conqueror. It has stuck in my memory while tons of history lessons have vanished into the murky underworld of my mind.

During the discussion, I realized I wouldn't feel the same delight if I were to explore the perspective of a slave owner accurately portrayed or even a person of extreme prejudice (a position with many similarities). We know historically, from actual documents from the time, that certain people were considered non-human. This made up the underpinnings of slavery in a "civilized society" just as it validated the objectification and restrictions placed on women. You don't have to treat them like they are thinking, reasoning beings if they aren't.

Now, though I've had discussions about finding some main characters problematic, especially female ones, because of their independent natures, I don't think the accurate portrayal of casual cruelty in the main character would be any more attractive even if true to the time. Now, the words casual cruelty may have raised up images of beatings and abuse that one wouldn't expect of a "good" slave master for example. However, take a moment to consider the treatment of our beloved pets.

For a dog, it must eat, drink and relieve itself not on a natural schedule, but one dictated by its master. It is often confined in small spaces, whether a crate or a house. An owned dog cannot go out on its own and explore the world. Cats have a little more independence, but especially indoor cats have many of the same restrictions.

These are our beloved animals and yet we chain them at will and discipline them when they fail to obey our, probably arbitrary in their minds, rules.

On what grounds do we treat them this way? Well, they're just animals. They don't know any better. Now translate that for a moment to the most benevolent slave owner. Remember, they believed slaves were little more than animals; they had to or I'd hope their ingrained sense of right and wrong would have rejected the practice.

Oops, there I have to question am I applying 20th century mentality to earlier times?

Bringing this back in a full circle, think a moment on true accuracy in historical fiction. Would we be able to enjoy tales of life in those earlier times if the works accurately portrayed that life even if it meant identifying with someone who thought nothing of chaining his slave to make sure he wouldn't run when the master left home? And if we did enjoy, what does that say about our veneer of civilization that it is so thin as not to rebel even when presented these mentalities in fiction?

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