Myth-conceptions in (Alternate) History

By David Flin


True or False: A matter of alternate history style.

If an Alternate History is to be convincing, then it has to feel right for the period. No-one would take seriously an AH that had President Jefferson Davis of the CSA choose a black person as his Vice-President. Even though one has changed the history, it’s still got to be plausible. The problem that the author faces is that the reality of history of a period can be different to what is commonly accepted about the period. The author has to decide whether to follow what their historical research shows to have been accurate, or what people have come to accept.

“How do you mean, David? Can you give an example?”

I’m glad you asked. From the late Victorian and Edwardian era of England, we have some excellent examples. In the Red Corner, representing Real History, we have the results of factual research, based on memoirs and reports from the period. In the Blue Corner, we have the history as most people understand it.

From the Blue Corner of public understanding of the period, we have things like Downton Abbey, and Upstairs, Downstairs for those of more mature years. Sherlock Holmes provides a picture of London, and the tales of Wells and Verne give us a picture of scientific thought. People think of stern but kind elderly Ladies; middle-aged Lords and Sirs with extensive estates, honourable but not always the brightest minds in the country; the colourful fashion of young debutantes; loyal and pretty maids, hard-working yet spotless; a repressed sexuality and as spirit of fair play and general decency.

Sherlock Holmes investigates London, making use of the Baker Street Irregulars, young ragamuffins who look astonishingly well-fed, under the circumstances, and even more surprising is that they are well-dressed in sturdy clothes that might be too big for them, and look dirty and unkempt, but which do the job of clothes very effectively.

That is what the general understanding of the period is, and if you step outside those boundaries, you’ll get accused of pandering to political correctness gone mad, or imposing modern ideals on the past.

From the Red Corner of Research, we find that the generally accepted version is heavily sanitised. Reading the memoirs of maids from the period, one quickly learns that they were pretty much at the mercy of their employer. Upsetting the employer meant being dismissed without references, and being dismissed without references meant no-one else would employ you, and that pretty much meant a descent into prostitution to make a living. What might upset an employer? Complaining about being raped was one thing that upset employers. Refusing a young man or guest of the house. There are several examples where a young man of the house knocks a maid around somewhat while raping her, and she would be sacked for showing a distressing appearance, upsetting the employer.

Being raped was simply an occupational hazard for a maid, and one that just had to be accepted.

It’s hard to convey the extent of some of the issues. Paying bills was considered optional. Tailors’ bills, in particular, had huge levels of non-payment. It’s been estimated that around 70% of tailors’ bills were never paid. This, obviously, caused tailors some problems, but it was difficult for a tradesman to force a member of Society to pay debts.

Choosing between the Red Corner of Reality and the Blue Corner of what is the accepted truth is a difficult task. I picked up on the late Victorian and Edwardian era, but I could equally have used the contrast between George Smiley and James Bond for espionage, or any number of other subjects or periods.

The trouble that the author faces is trying to balance the Red Reality and the Blue Acceptance in a way that the reader enjoys. And, as any author knows, you have to be careful when mixing red and blue not to end up with a lot of purple prose.

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