I’ve been reading a lot of historical fiction lately, for a variety of reasons, and skipping about various continents and time periods. I do love me some historical fiction, when it’s well executed, and the best kind makes me so interested in the characters and period I encounter that I go out and find actual history books to read so I can learn more.
There’s a particular kind of authorial insertion that happens with historical fiction that I find very interesting. I referenced Mary Sues in the title, but that’s not quite the term I want to use to describe it, because it’s more complicated than that. This isn’t about authors putting idealised versions of themselves into their work. It’s about authors who appear to be afraid to confront the reality of the times they write in, making their lead characters rather out of character for the time because they seem to think readers will shy away otherwise, or find the book alienating, or something.
Let’s take, for example, books set in the Middle Ages, historically a pretty rough time for Jewish people and women. I can’t even tell you how many historical novels I’ve read set in this period where the heroine overcomes pretty much every obstacle of the period to be asskicking and awesome. Now, I love me some asskicking heroines, I will be the first to tell you. But I find it a little much when a woman born into poverty somehow manages to get educated, has thinking about science and related topics far in advance of the period, and is down with the Jews despite being a Christian. It’s just a little…much.
Were there people (are there people) who went against the grain of their time? Who defied the expectations of their period and rose above them? There absolutely were. There were some fantastic people, real actual people documented in history, who thought radically differently than the people around them. There were, just for instance, Christians who interacted with Jewish people compassionately and lovingly, who didn’t think they were all bent on Satanic and evil activities. Just as there were undoubtedly women who were educated despite the significant barriers to education for women at the time. And women who engaged in earlier versions of what we would recognise as modern scientific thought, women who were atheist before atheism was a thing.
But these people were not the norm, at all. And I find it unlikely, when I am in a historical novel, that a whole huge swath of people, all the main characters, somehow magically have all of these traits. They stand out. Especially when authors go on to add insertions about, say, how much they love bathing and taking baths even though everyone thinks its weird. How they always wash their hands before assisting at a birth ‘because they just think it’s a good idea.’ And so forth.
I feel like all of these insertions are added for a very specific and clear reason; to make us like these characters better. To make us relate to them. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has imagined what I would do if I went to sleep and woke up in the Middle Ages tomorrow, and I can tell you for damn sure I’d be tracking down soap and water on a regular basis, challenging thinking, and so forth. Because I would be a person with different ideas, from a different era, inserted into the period, and that’s sometimes how these characters feel to me.
Now, we have a lot of antiquated ideas about historical periods and the people who lived in them, and I think that breaking those ideas down is a good thing. Showing readers how things like progressive thought flowered in eras when we don’t think it did is really valuable. But acting like people from the past need to be spruced up and updated does a disservice to the past and to the characters themselves.
I’m not saying I want to read a book rife with, say, Antisemitism for authenticity. But if main characters were Antisemetic? It wouldn’t be jarring, for the time period. I would almost expect it. And I would probably view those characters sympathetically in spite of that trait, which would raise some interesting questions for me as a reader about how I view people and the world. I’ve never accepted ‘it was the times!’ as an excuse for bad behaviour, but, at the same time, when I am reading fiction set in an era when particular thinking was rampant, I’d like to see the author contextualise that thinking and explore it. Not even though it’s ugly, but because it’s ugly.
I’m reading a lot of books about societies that eventually gave rise to my own. Looking at how people thought, believed, and acted in the past is important to me because it helps me understand my own culture. It helps me see how things have and haven’t changed. Exploring the origins of ideas that persist to this day (Antisemitism is far from dead) provides important information for moving forward and pushing back against the past.
So, what is it? Are authors afraid to have characters realistic for the time they were in? Are editors? Anna thinks that characters who work well with the times, who are accurate and honest, make readers (and probably writers) really uncomfortable. I think she might be right, but I think there’s more going on than just that, though, because this trend in historical fiction is pervasive. The main character has to be perfect, has to a model of modern thinking and behaviour, even though people as progressive and bold as the main character can’t even be seen in the modern world.
The West is Best, modern culture is best, so that means characters have to be updated if they’re going to be The Best, right?