By David Flin
“The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” The immortal first line from L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between summarises a fundamental problem for any historian or alternate historian. Things were different then. It’s a commonly-used phrase, frequently dismissed by the young as mere excuse making by the old of things now regarded as incomprehensibly unpleasant.
But attitudes and behaviours were different in the past. I’m old enough to know for a certain fact that this is true. Take just one example. I’m mixed race; back in the 1960s, when I was a teenager, one of my nicknames was “Breed”, short for half-breed. My reaction to this at the time depended on who said it and in what tone of voice, but in the main, it was not an issue. I rather suspect that this would not be considered acceptable in today’s world.
Which brings one to the issue of how modern authors present people from historical periods. If an author presents characters with historical accurate attitudes, the reader is likely to regard them in a negative light. This is easily seen in many historical re-enacting societies, and in particular, those recreating the American Civil War period. Serious re-enactors generally adopt a ‘legend’, a persona that they portray representative of the period. It will come as no surprise to anyone that the overwhelming majority of those portraying senior Confederate Army officers claim that they are portraying someone whose family does not own slaves. I know that this war was described as a “Rich man’s war, poor man’s fight”, (and that probably describes every conflict since agriculture began) but it really is astonishing just how few senior Confederate officers were slave owners, according to re-enactment societies.
Naturally, it is because we find the idea of owning slaves to be so reprehensible that no-one wants to take on that role.
Writers of alternate history face similar issues, when they try to make a character, real or fictional, sympathetic while retaining period views. There are some greatly and justly revered figures from history who had views that would be considered abhorrent today.
“Ours is one continual struggle against a degradation sought to be inflicted upon us by the Europeans, who desire to degrade us to the level of the raw Kaffir, whose occupation is hunting, and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with and, then, pass his life in indolence and nakedness.”
An author who had a character say those words would be fully justified in expecting readers to regard the speaker in a very negative light. Having a figure as influential and respected as Mahatma Gandhi saying such a thing would be met with howls of disapproval, were it not for the fact that he actually said this.
However, if the author portrays a character having modern views on things, in complete disregard of historical attitudes, then any attempt at verisimilitude goes straight out of the window. If, for example, an author decided to show Abraham Lincoln (generally, but not universally, regarded as, on balance, a force for good) deciding that equality meant that people of colour would be welcomed into the Union Army from the very start of the conflict, and that everyone supporting the Union cheerfully went along with this, then the reader would be entitled to snort in derision.
I’m currently writing a story set in the 1920s in a world in which World War One never took place (well, so far, anyway). It’s actually quite a challenge to balance incorporating accurate attitudes of the period while keeping the reader’s sympathy for the characters. It was an era of casual racism and sexism, although the reality was not necessarily as perceived by most people today. Perhaps less well understood is how deeply the class system in various countries was embedded.
Portraying the attitudes accurately and retaining audience sympathy is a challenge. It all comes down to how well the author constructs their world-building. This, in turn, requires the author to understand period thoroughly. Primary sources are invaluable for this. Much of modern writing is filtered through modern views, and can be misleading as a result.
If you set a piece in a period of history that has literature readily available, it’s a good idea to immerse yourself in as wide a range as possible. There’s often a rhythm of writing and speech that you can pick up, along with the almost-unspoken attitudes.
Sometimes the attitudes aren’t what one might expect. Much is made by modern audiences about the British in India never learning the local language. It’s a bit of a cliché now. It’s also nonsense. “It was a point of honour never to talk to the servants in anything other than their own language,” is a phrase one comes across time after time after time.
This is where things can get complicated. Trying to portray the complexity of attitudes can derail the story, and cause it to get bogged down in details and explanations.
How important is it to stay true to period attitudes? There are two elements the author has to consider. Firstly, how important does the author feel it is it to get an accurate period feel to things? If one is trying to recreate a specific feel, such as a pastiche of a Bond novel, then getting the details right is vitally important.
Secondly, the author needs to decide how best to convey period attitudes without alienating the readership. It’s the old problem that ACW re-enactors face; it is quite likely that a Southern Officer and Gentleman would be from a slave-owning family, and would see nothing wrong with slavery. John Mosby, a famous Confederate colonel, said in a letter after the war:
“In retrospect, slavery seems such a monstrous thing that some are now trying to prove that slavery was not the Cause of the War. Then what was the cause? I always thought that the South fought about the thing that it quarrelled with the North about.”
That pretty much summarises the quandary. What we now see as monstrous was sometimes regarded as just the way things are.
Of course, that rather leads to another question, one that some people might find difficult. In 40 years, what will people think is monstrous about things we just take for granted?