Peeve of the Day

Today’s pet peeve, O my readers (you patient and long-suffering lot), is presentism in historical fiction.

What, I ask you, is the point of writing stories set in the past if everybody in them — or at least every character intended to be liked or admired by the reader — thinks and at least desires to act like an enlightened specimen of twenty-first century humanity? And yet there is a market for such stories, possibly because not every reader-for-pleasure wants to spend his or her time working at the admittedly difficult job of empathizing with characters who might possibly hold opinions or indulge in practices of which twenty-first century persons do not approve. For it is an almost inescapable fact that even the most enlightened and progressive person of a past era will hold at least one or two opinions which are at best incomprehensible and at worst repugnant to the modern mind.  (They smoke like chimneys.  They spank their children.  They truly believe not just in the rightness but in the vigorous exportation of Western civilization and Protestant Christianity.  And so on.)  The past isn’t just another country; sometimes it’s practically another planet.  And space aliens live there.

In the immortal words of the old New Yorker cartoon, I say it’s spinach and I say the hell with it.  But then, I’m a science fiction and fantasy sort of person, with the science fiction and fantasy cast of mind, which means that I’m the sort of reader who can derive pleasure from trying to think like a space alien for an hour or two.  That cast of mind makes the awareness that these people are not like us into a feature, rather than a bug, of true historical fiction.  The “not like us” factor is also what, in my opinion, distinguishes historical fiction from historical romances, which choose to emphasize the points of commonality — the “these people are a lot like us after all” bits — rather than the points of difference.

And I’ll save time right now by agreeing that it isn’t either the quality of the research or the quality of the writing that distinguishes historical fiction from historical romance — it’s the angle of approach. And I enjoy a historical romance as much as the next person, when I’m in the right mood.

4 thoughts on “Peeve of the Day

  1. I’d never thought of the distinction in characters’ attitudes between historical fiction and historical romance before, but you’ve nailed it. I enjoy reading straight-out historical fiction where the characters’ attitudes are alien to mine — though I confess I have much more patience with the mindsets of medieval, Renaissance, or Georgian characters than with Edwardians, who drive me absolutely furious. But in a romance, the characters generally have to be more sympathetic… and that does mean tweaking their attitudes towards modern sensibilities. I try to strike a balance, and let them keep their period views but act on them with maximum benevolence.

  2. Ah, yes, Dr. Quinn, Modern Woman.

    Another problem with making the past exactly like the present is that it denies the possibility of change. How things are now is how they ever were and evermore shall be.

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