Why It’s Impossible to Write An Historical Novel Accurately For A Modern Audience 2016-11-22T11:48:39+00:00

historical

First posted in January 2010 on this site…and still relevant.  -t.

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When you’re next reading an historical romance that sucks you so deeply into the period that you feel like you’re really living in those times, and the characters are breathing and walking around you as they suffer through their emotional roller-coaster ride of a story, when you sit back and say “The writer got the period dead right!” you could actually be dead wrong.

Oh, the writer would have done her research. No writer with the ability to suck you in that deep would chance winging it and breaking the spell with little or no research. The writer will know that period inside out and upside down.

She just may not have written it with perfect accuracy, and she may have made that choice deliberately.

Let me explain.

sherlockI’m a dyed-in-the-wool Sherlockian, a former committee member of the Sherlock Holmes society, and I know late Victorian London culture, mores and even the lay out of the streets back then very well. I’ve probably forgotten more of it than most people know, and usually spend a few weeks brushing up on the decade I’m writing in before I write a new book set in that era.

I was also one of the first people to line up to see the new Sherlock Holmes movie when it came out at Christmas. I wasn’t there on Christmas Day, but I was bright and early on Boxing day. I love the movie to pieces, as the director, writers and producers all treated the Sherlock Holmes canon with respect, and brought out what is best and most fascinating about Conan Doyle’s characters. They even remembered to give Watson a limp – perhaps the first television or film adaptation to ever do so.

I was tempted to add into the pile of compliments about the movie the final one: They were completely accurate in their portrayal of Victorian London and of Sherlock Holmes’ character.

But they weren’t. They couldn’t be, or the film would have been a complete lemon, an incomprehensible dud to most contemporary movie goers.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was writing contemporary thriller stories set in his home town. He was a physician practicing in late Victorian London himself. So when he described Sherlock Holmes as “bohemian,” to him and to all his Victorian readers that meant something completely different to what “bohemian” means to us in 2010. Doyle meant that sometimes Holmes lazed around all day in his trousers and shirt, a dressing gown over the top, and no collar and cuffs. To Victorians, this was incredibly lazy, socially unacceptable, and almost outrageous.

The seven percent solution of cocaine that Holmes occasionally indulged in was, for Victorian audiences, only mildly disturbing.  Women in those days were imbibing laudanum (opium) daily, and poets and artists of all sorts were constantly strung out on Absinthe, while opium parlors were thriving in the docklands and seamier sides of London.

But both those points translate badly for modern audiences. To try and paint Sherlock Holmes as “bohemian” simply by having him forget to put on a collar and cuffs would be completely lost on contemporary people, who almost never wear collars on a daily basis and when they do, the collars come attached to their shirts.

And to show him openly using cocaine would have guaranteed the movie’s PG-13 rating would have been kicked up to something much higher…if audiences would have stood for a good guy hero openly using illegal drugs in the first place.

There are many more cultural subtleties like this that the movie adapted to suit a modern audience. In order to make Holmes look and behave “bohemian” to people living in 2010, the writers and director had to exaggerate and at times simply adjust elements of Holmes’ character altogether to paint the same picture in your mind that Conan Doyle was trying to paint in his Victorian audience’s mind back in 1888. So Holmes in the movie went unshaved, unwashed, with borrowed clothes, and a more extreme “habit” with more exotic (and still legal in 2010) substances, such as the chemical compounds used in biology experiments. He fought in the boxing ring without a shirt (most Victorians would have kept their shirt on – or their undershirt), walked about London in what amounted to tramp’s clothing, dabbled openly in black magic, and is rude and obnoxious to authority figures. In order to properly convey to audiences the emotional attachment he had to Irene Adler, it was very clearly indicated that they’d had an affair in the past. In the books, Conan Doyle merely indicates a “fondness” for the lady — the most extreme emotion that upright Victorians could accept between an unmarried man and woman who had no intention of immediately getting married.

Conan Doyle would not have dared been blunt about his character, writing in the 1880’s. Nor could Holmes really have acted the way he does in the movie, and managed to keep his reputation intact or attract paying clients to his doorstep. Victorians were so highly sensitive about reputation and the appearance of propriety, that Holmes wouldn’t have landed a single client if he had persisted in behaving the way he did in the movie. But in order for modern audiences to understand just how bohemian he was, the movie fractured reality in order to make it seem real.

And they did it so well, even I didn’t flinch.

Why? Because the intent of the movie was to entertain. And my goodness, did it ever deliver on that score! It was 128 minutes of hold-your-breath fun.

But the movie could not have entertained us if it had remained a 100% accurate portrayal of Sherlock Holmes as Conan Doyle wrote him, and as he truly would have behaved in Victorian times.

Romance novels, like the movies and all popular fiction, are also meant to entertain. Often, this means that even though the author has done their homework and knows very well the period that they’re writing in, the historical romance you’re reading has been culturally adapted so that you are better able to understand the motivations and behaviors of the characters you meet between the covers, and not need a history degree to translate their actions to modern day values. You’re not supposed to work that hard to enjoy a popular fiction novel. Instead, the author does all the work for you.

If she does the job well enough, you’ll feel like you’ve been immersed in the period and understand it completely and in a way, you do, because the author has been acting as a translator for you.

But now I’ve told you all this, what I’ve really done is show you the wires and wheels behind the scenes. The next time you read historical fiction — romance or otherwise — forget all about everything I’ve just said and just sit back and read.

Enjoy your book.

🙂

 

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