Ethical historical fiction

Last time, I argued that it is unethical to portray the world in a way it could never be, by making unjust systems turn out just or bad people appear good. Recently, I watched Enola Holmes (which, let me be clear, is perfect) and it got me thinking about how it’s also unethical to portray the past as it never was.

It’s a common flaw in historical fiction: instead of examining history as it was, authors try to imitate books written at the time, and as a result end up missing whatever realities their models chose to gloss over.

For instance, Jane Austen did not talk much about the lives of servants. She touched only briefly on the Napoleonic Wars. The Luddite Movement doesn’t come up. We don’t talk about a third of England going hungry at the time, or food riots that were going on.

I’m not going to fault my dear Jane for this: she was writing a very particular kind of book, dealing only with a certain social class. And when she tells us that a woman was “ruined” or that another woman can’t possibly travel without a male companion, she expects her contemporary readers to understand her veiled references to sex and shame.

I do blame some of her imitators, who set novel after novel in an imaginary Regency that includes only the things Austen thought to mention. It ends up, through the weight of an entire genre, building up an illusion where the Regency was some kind of ideal time. Austen’s subtle social commentary is lost.

I hate idealizing the past, because I grew up doing exactly that. The result is spending all your efforts trying to go back there. I imagined that there could be a landed class and a peasant class with no injustice. I thought women could be bound in a strict courtship system with no other rights or duties and still be happy and powerful. Those beliefs affected the choices I made and the politics I supported.

I think writers of historical (or pseudohistorical, like medieval fantasy or steampunk) fiction should study what was actually going on at the time, what injustices people knew so deeply as to ignore them, and what those time periods were like for everyone.

For instance: there have always been nonwhite people in Europe. There have always been gay people. There have always been trans people. How did they live? How were they affected by the events happening at the time?

If there was rampant injustice going on at the time, you can’t have your characters simply ignore it. If we know it was going on, we’ll judge the characters for standing by or participating in it. The daughter of a slaveowning family is not going to look like a heroine unless the book is about her helping the slaves escape. If you erase all the ugliness of slavery in order to make her the heroine of a romance, you’re doing violence to history. You’re creating a parallel past where people can believe it wasn’t so bad, when in reality it was so bad the injustice of it continues to echo to this day.

Enola Holmes is a perfect example of how to do it right. Throughout the story, the political reality is a backdrop and sometimes the focus. We get to see the reality of being a girl at a time when minors had no rights and women few. And even beloved characters don’t get to coast: Sherlock is called out for his neglect of politics, which could improve the plight of others.

The original Holmes books weren’t this explicit, but I think real people alive at the time would have been. Real people don’t walk into a story only to leave the relevant clues, then depart without distracting the heroes with their politics. They’re generally vocal about their oppression; they break any illusion that “good people of the time just didn’t know better.”

Historical fiction like this doesn’t let readers cozy up in an idealized world with none of the problems ours has. It isn’t afraid to mention the ugliness and darkness of the past: some things that are universal, because no time is perfect; and some that it took generations of struggle to end. It helps us see our own time in better context. Our time, like the past, isn’t a cozy, quaint background for us to be protagonists against. It’s a shifting river of constant change, some for the better, some for the worse. And real heroes try to shift that current for the better in whatever way they can.