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25 April 2008

The Warp and Woof of Historical Fiction: What They Read and Wrote and (even) Wore

One of the joys of history-hoydendom is bouncing off the thoughts and words of the others in our group. And Tracy's intricate and elegant post about the political context of Waterloo and Peterloo has plunged me into vortex of associations, some of which have been swirling in my backbrain since I tried (and failed) to write my own book set in 1819 Manchester; some of which I've only encountered in the reading I've been doing very lately; and some of which I'm resolving to follow up as soon as I can.

But although in The Slightest Provocation I did do a lot of research about the political context of Home Office-sponsored provocateuring (the plot follows the documented day-to-day activities of a certain seedy secret government agent, known to history as Oliver the Spy), in truth political context isn't my favorite thing about writing historical romance.

In truth, what I most love is thinking about is what people read and wrote during the period I'm trying to portray. Because majoring in English (as Garrison Keillor has shown us) is a commitment that goes beyond your four years of college...

And so, qua Peterloo, the lifelong English major in me couldn't help but think of this response to the event, written soon after it happened, by one of the most passionate and engaged writers of that -- or of any -- age:

I met murder on the way
He had a mask like Castlereagh
Very smooth he
looked, yet grim;
Seven blood-hounds followed him:

All were fat; and
well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them human hearts to chew
Which from his wide cloak he drew.

Shelley's "Masque of Anarchy," goes on for far too long (this is only a tiny excerpt). But it's still one of the most brilliant responses ever written to outrageous political violence (and would we had him with us now).

But here are some less well known and considerably less brilliant words from Blackwood's Magazine of the same period: "It is a better and wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet, so back to the shop Mr. John."

A gentler outrage, this one. No hussars charging into a crowd and slashing at innocent women demonstators here. No marchers cut down, Sunday clothes bloodied, the greenery they'd stuck in their hatbrims that bright morning torn and muddy and trampled underfoot. Only a stupidly self-regarding gentleman of letters sneering at Shelley's friend the apothecary and surgeon John Keats, for having the effrontery to write English poetry.

Keats continued to write, of course. For what it's worth, it was during the dark and difficult years of 1818 and 1819 that Keats wrote most of his prodigious output, before dying of consumption. And I can't help but associate this young writer's asgoinighs will and ambition with that of the period -- steam technology, empire in Asia and Africa, fortunes to be made in manufacturing, inner worlds to be discovered in romantic poetry. (I wanted to call my failed novel of 1819 Steam.)

And here are more words, from another man who'd worked in a shop -- the manufacturer and progressive employer Robert Owen remembering how, as a young assistant to a draper, every morning he had "the hairdresser to powder and pomatum and curl my hair."

While as to what links these quotes together...

..and what links them as well to our unfailing history hoyden interest in period dress and what it meant to feel your best in the clothing of a time other than our own...

...for me at least part of it must be the problem of how to portray a society like Georgian and Regency England, that was so callously stratified and yet so buoyantly striving.

An author ought to remember the period's cruel political reaction and repression, the appalling working conditions the as-yet unorganized factory workers fell victim to. But she also needs to remember that even the victims of history are the heroes and heroines of their own stories.

And that the heroes and heroines of their own stories always will probably always try to dress as befits a hero or heroine. Which is why, I suppose, I'm touched by young Owens' powder and pomatum, as well as the Peterloo marchers' Sunday clothes.

And why, first chance I get, I'm going to check out what looks like a wonderful new book. If you're as interested in dress as a part of the social fabric of everyday life in Georgian England as I am, you can read the whole of the TLS review of John Styles' The Dress of the People: Everyday fashion in eighteenth-century England here.

Which makes me wonder how you -- readers and you writers both -- resolve, or even approach, the historical paradoxes of ambition and optimism in times that do their best to crush it.

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14 Comments:

Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Pam, am I going crazy or did you actually post this last week and then it disappeared? Otherwise, I'm having serious deja vu about this post.

11:50 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

It was up for a few hours last week, Elizabeth, before I realized that I was a week off-schedule and took it down. Sorry for the confusion.

1:15 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Pam, your posts always blow me away!

As I write about actual people who lived during the Georgian and Regency periods and how they coped when fortunes rose and fell, how the politics and social constructs and constraints of the age affected their lives, as observers and participants, I am always awestruck at how some people (and because I wrote their stories, specifically Emma Hamilton and Mary Robinson) managed to rise like phoenixes from one conflagration after another in their lives. I have never lived in a stratified society (although I have been made to feel very much the outsider thru the occasional anti-Semitism I've encountered in my life). And though women still bump their heads on "glass ceilings" and encounter the lack of comparable salaries in many cases, it's hard for a contemporary American to wrap her brain around the very real constraints our characters endured in their daily lives. Perhaps we like to write about those who clawed and scratched against them and charmed their way out of them because we find it hard to accept that most people did not break the rules and accepted their place and lot in life.

2:02 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Wow, thanks, Amanda. Yes, I was thinking about women like the ones you write about too, even as I addressed my fury at Keats' reviewer. Here's another piece of that baleful production, btw:

The just celebrity of Robert Burns and Miss Baillie has had the melancholy effect of turning the heads of we know not how many farm-servants and unmarried ladies; our very footmen compose tragedies, and there is scarcely a superannuated governess in the island that does not leave a roll of lyrics behind her in her band-box.....

Doesn't it make your blood boil?

5:36 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Fabulous post, Pam. I've got to get John Style's book. Very cool.

As far as resolving the paradox of ambition and optimism when the history of the time did its best to crush it....I count on the the resiliance of the human spirit, and the idea that noblity, honesty, courage and true love will prevail.

Otherwise, it would be especially hard to write about the dark ages or most of the rest of medieval history.

6:59 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Argh, Pam! And I'm sure there are reviewers today who believe that everyone and her sister thinks she's a genre fiction author.

Mary Robinson knew she'd get hammered when she started submitting her poetry to the periodicals, because no one wanted to credit that slut "Perdita" with having any literary talent, so she initially submitted, and was published, under a number of pseudonyms.

I actually used one of Joanna Baillie's plays in BY A LADY. My heroine C,J. Welles arrives in Bath when that production is playing at the Orchard Street Theatre in 1801; I actually researched what was playing on the exact day C.J. arrived. And I used lines from the plays as well. It serendipitously fit perfectly with what was going on in my novel.

7:29 PM  
Blogger La Belle Americaine said...

Interesting question Pam, and one that grips my attention the more I choose to include and/or feature people of color in my novels. I'm still struggling with how to balance the realities of life for a minority despite their personal triumphs in the 19th and early 20th centuries (and not just people of color, but ethnic minorities, such as the Irish and Home Rule debates that erupted into violence between the years 1880 and 1920) and the atmosphere of the general romance genre.

Readers come to historical romance for a "safe" and fun place, but it isn't in my nature to create a Disney-land version of history. In fact, I find it a bit insulting to presume that true, lasting love and romance can only exist against a relatively conflict-free (that is, conflict not having anything to do with dealing with a stratified society) landscape. But that's just me. *g*

3:35 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I'm on the same page with la belle americaine. I can't do a Disneyfication of history either, which may be why I write historical fiction rather than historical romance (and we've discussed the differences here, which also include reader expectations of each subgenre).

I've been batting around a late medieval/high gothic subject (England) for a historical novel and I need to come to grips with the institutionalized anti-semitism, ingrained hatred of any "other" and the fact that most people, including women, of course, couldn't read or write. It was an ugly, bloody, brutal world, not all, e.g., strumming lutes and frolicking in the greenwood.

6:49 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

"Disneyfication" -- great word, Amanda. Great concept, La Belle Americaine.

I'm torn on this one. because for the life of me the only happy endings I can conceive are on the individual, romantic level: ONE couple (as the movie trailers intone) embarking upon the first day of the rest of their lives.

But I have an awful time figuring out what niche in society to fit them into. Often my solution is to find a hinge of historical change and have them align themselves with what small positive openings into the light this allows.

I'm fascinated, though, by the queens of female genre fiction -- I'm thinking of Dorothy Sayers and Georgette Heyer -- who derive such wit and energy from their happy Toryism.

Oh, and Amanda, if you want to follow up on the medieval, you must read Morality Play, by the splendid historical novelist Barry Unsworth (Lynna has also posted about him).

9:23 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

And yes, Morality Play is about a troupe of actors.

9:37 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Ooooh -- must check out "Morality Play!"

12:21 PM  
Blogger Janie Harrison said...

Amen on Shelley! If only we had him with us now. That would be something to see.

8:53 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

Fabulous post, Pam, as usual. I am afraid these days we are bereft of the kinds of poets you have mentioned. People who see through the artifice and are not afraid to get to the heart of the matter. Shelley's gift with words could have been used to create lovely fluff and he simply refused to whore himself out like that. Had he written more of the fluff that appealed to the upper echelons he might have been more lauded in his own day. That obviously was not his mission in life and I am forever his admirer for taking the rough road. The same can be said of Keats. True visionaries seldom come from a life of privilege.

That being said, I love historical romance in which people born to privilege are shown the harsh reality of life and endeavor to do something about it. To whom much is given, much is expected. And I prefer that it be done not out of a sense of noblesse oblige, but more out of a sense of "there but for an accident of birth go I." To take characters on a journey in which they find their larger family - the family of man - and in which they embrace that family is an amazing task for a writer to undertake.

8:23 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

To take characters on a journey in which they find their larger family - the family of man -- I agree wholeheartedly, doglady, though I hadn't thought of it that way when I had Kit Stansell in The Slightest Provocation realize that the young men he's saving from being arrested on the march to Pentrich are his cousins...

10:27 PM  

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