Taking Off From All of Your Comments
Thanks to everyone for weighing in. I can’t respond to each post, but, taken together I see a strand we all need to explore. Betty points out that Historical Fiction has a tendency to reflect the time of the author more than the supposed era in which it is set. That links nicely with Becky’s referency to George Macauley Trevelyan and my post about the Cliometric/Collingwood debate. See, while all of us easily lean to the Collingwood/Trevelyan/Reach-the-Reader side, there is a danger in that position. The more we, as historians or as authors of historical fiction, use the past as a setting for our current concerns, the more we try to create a past we are sure our readers will "get," the greater danger of both getting the past wrong and misleading our readers. Cause, see, what we and readers may agree on is fine for us, but may have nothing at all to do with what actually went on in another time.
I have always loved L.P. Hartley’s phase, "the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.’ And that is what the Cliometricians, more than the Collingwoodians, understand. For example, for 75 years or so, after the 1890s, the most famous, prestigious, American historians said that Reconstruction was a big mistake. Greedy, corrupt carpetbaggers from the North allied with southern blacks not truly ready for self government made a wrong-headed effort to rule the former Confederate states, until the nation saw the light and let the southern whites retake control. This view of the past matched the dominant white views in 20th century America. But from the 1960s on, historians went back and took a new look. They saw that blacks in the south had been quite responsible, in getting married, buying and working the land, seeking education, and voting. The problem with Reconstruction was not that it was a mistake, but that the white South resisted it, and finally found a partner in Northerners willing to end the experiment.
Of course this new view of Reconstruction was in line with post-Civil-Rights America, so was, in its way, as much "of its time" as had been the older interpretation. But it is a clear warning — if we write with our current values in mind, we are at great risk of misreading the past. The example I alluded to in my first post is the most obvious one — spunky girls. Today we value independence, ambition, and pluck in girls as well as boys. As Betty has written, if we write about girls having those same traits in the ancient world, or medieval Europe, or Victorian London, we need to make a very, very good case for why this one character is so out of the norm. The fact that our readers prefer activity to passivity, assertion to submisision, independent thinking to obedience, does not mean we can impose those traits on girls in the foreign country of the past.
In fact, if we have one prime goal as historians and authors of historical fiction it must be to honor the strangeness, the difference, the foreigness of the past, even as we offer our readers a tour of its most fascinating sites.