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Barbarians at the Gates

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The book is done.

It went off on Thursday, in fact, and I’ve been trying to do the transition thing ever since, with only limited success.

I seem to have been unclear the last time. 

When I say I need a “transition book,” I don’t mean that I need a book to help me transition from one book to another.

I mean I need a book to help me transition from writing mode to book is finished mode.

If that makes sense.

But I’ve actually got that transition book now–a big thing on the long-term results of the Reformation–I just haven’t gotten to it yet.

I’m in the middle of Gunpowder Plot, by Carola Dunn.  I’ve only read one other book in the series, so I’m not a good source on the consistency of the quality, but this is a good, solid, workable fair play, if a little too heavy on the Christieland aspects. 

Christieland is what Bill used to call the place that cozy readers went looking for in Agatha Christie novels–not real England, but a special Agatha Christie England.

Of course, readers who read Christie when the books first appeared would have picked up on the real England in them.  We, these days, are too far away to see.

And that brings me to something.

I don’t write historical fiction, largely because I don’t think I’m capable of getting the emotional core of any period but my own.

But I don’t read  historical fiction, either–or I mostly don’t, since I’m obviously reading this–because there are usually plenty of books (and, these days, DVDs of movies and old television shows) written in the period itself.

And that brings up a question–what is it that people want when they read fiction (or watch movies or television shows) about an historical period not their own?

What is it about Victorian England or Twenties Paris or Los Angeles in the Forties or whatever that people want to have in their lives that they can’t have now?

I would say that it is almost impossible to address this question if you read or watch only what was actually made or written in the period you’re looking for. 

When I watch Casablanca or old Perry Mason shows, when I read Henry James, I don’t really have to think about my response to the period.  My response just is.

Reading a book like Gunpowder Plot, though, make me focus on what the writer seems to think is important in the setting she’s recreating.

And the setting she’s recreating isn’t the setting as it originally occurred, or as it would have occurred to any writer wring contemporaneously in the period.

This is not something wrong with the way Dunn writes.  It’s inevitable in any piece of historical fiction.  They were who they were and we are who we are, and none of us can transport ourselves into another sensibility with any success.

And that, sensibility, is the issue, I think.

We live in a time and place where the culture has become, in some ways, very ugly–books and movies and television shows indulge in lots of graphic sex and violence and ridiculously bad language, yes, but on top of that there is a determined concentration on the bizarrely evil and brutal.

Our narratives these days are about serial rapist killers who eat their victims’ hearts, mothers who murder their children and chop their bodies up for fertilizer, husbands and lovers who beat their wives to bloody pulps.

But it’s more than that.

It’s not only in stories that we’ve become brutalized.  One of the things I find most interesting about watching old movies rather than new ones is the way police go about the business of arresting criminals.

These days, get brought in on anything at all, even something nonviolent, and you’ll be handcuffed and shackled as if you were accued of having just mowed down a Girl Scout troop with a machine gun.

We treat everybody we arrest these days as if they were rabid lunatics about to commit mass murder at the drop of a hat. 

Watch something from the Fifties, and you’ll see that even people on trial for murder aren’t handcuffed going in or out of court. 

This is why I was not surprised at the Supreme Court’s ruling that prisioners could be strip and body cavity searched when they were brought to jail no matter what they were arrested for, apparently even for littering. 

It’s all part of the endless, brutalizing overkill that has become standard operating procedure in the criminal justice system.

And “brutalizing” is the word for what this is.

I think that part of the reason I read things written in times not contemporary to my own is to find an escape from just this brutalization. 

I get to the point where I just don’t want to deal with it any more–not just the overkill of shackling people in jail for (I’m not making this up) contempt of court, but the automatic assumption that if a child is dead its parents must have killed it, that all marriages are ugly and violent, that all families are abusive, that everybody cheats and is dishonest, and all the rest of it.

And I don’t think I’m alone.

I think it’s something like this very thing that sends a lot of people not only to read or watch older works, but to write historical fiction.

I don’t, though, think that most people are fully conscious that this is the kind of thing they are looking for.

And that’s why we have what we have in contemporary historical fiction, at least in mysteries–that is, we have books that try to recreate an era, but that are always tripping over issues from this one.

Once you actually start working with a period, it usually becomes clear that you don’t actually want to live there–or, at least, that you don’t want to live there as it actually was.

We really don’t want to go back to an era where women were allowed to study at Oxford but not take degrees, or where class divisions were enforced rigidly enough so that a hardworking and brilliant man had virtually no method of escaping them, even if he got rich trying.  We don’t want to return to the days of racial segregation.  Most of us don’t want to return to the days when homosexuality could get you a term in jail.

What happens to a lot of writers is that they find themselves desperately needing to address the issues that make them feel uncomfortable about the period they favor–discussions about women’s voting rights or ability to do a man’s job come up in the narrative, although such discussions falsify the period. 

One of the characteristics of these periods is that such discussions did not take place in private and polite company except under very extraordinary circumstances. 

Read an Agatha Christie sometime, and you’ll find that even when the doctor is a woman, nobody discusses the fact or implies that she can’t do her job.  She’s just there.  The issue is left for the opinion magazines to do hammer out.

The really interesting question, of course, is whether or not it would be possible to have a less brutalized culture without also adopting some of the restrictions less brutalized cultures have exhibited in real time. 

And it’s a real question.

Cheryl said the other day that she was surprised at how many people don’t even consider the possibility that we should have laws that would restrict the actions of the majority because a minority might respond (as to gambling) in ways that are destructive.

And most of you know me well enough to know that I would not myself approve of such laws.  I do not think governments should be allowed to regulate our behavior for “our own good.”

Even so, every one of the gentler cultures that attract me have had some of these kinds of laws, if not always the same laws every time. 

So, no, here I am again, without a solution.

I have no idea if it would be possible to have what I want in a culture without having all the things I don’t want.

I just thought I’d say something.

Written by janeh

April 14th, 2012 at 10:58 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Barbarians at the Gates'

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  1. Those times had just as much brutality, though, but it was under cover. If you look at how women and children were treated, and the poor, and immigrants, and racial minorities…. I mean, a novel written in Victorian times might not make a big deal about mudlarks or the workhouse, but they were there.

    I think it’s like when people get past-life regressed and they were all duchesses. When I go steampunk, I dress as an upperclass Edwardian man–because there really isn’t another role from that period that I can imagine tolerating.

    Cathy F


    14 Apr 12 at 12:31 pm

  2. Two issues. I’m more open to historical novels–but then I’m more open to fantasy and SF. I expect the individuals to be credible in the society described, and the society itself to be plausible, but that leaves a certain amount of wiggle room. As to how accurately historical novelists capture the past–I’d run a little test: read five contemporaries set in London or New York in or about a particular year and ask myself whether THEY seemed to have captured the same place. Quite a bit of variance.

    Note also, I do not regard all societies as equivalent–but every one I’ve ever studied has a dark side or sides–and the very worst of them have unexpected moments of decency. Maybe a thousand years from now readers of historical novels will “know” that high-ranking Nazis couldn’t have been hiding Jews–and that Hitler couldn’t have had Jewish senior officers. But both are historical facts. I dislike anachronism–and that includes out of period whining–but there are a lot of different valid ways of depicting a historical time and place.

    As for a culture which has all the things you want and none of the things you dislike, I’d have to see a very specific list. Some combinations–equal pay and no compulsory work is the classic–won’t last more than a few hours. Some are more stable. I don’t think any state of human affairs is more than temporary. Parkinson (EVOLUTION OF POLITICAL THOUGHT) describes the process of monarchies becoming aristocracies, aristocracies becoming democracies–and democracies becoming monarchies. I’m afraid he’s right, and I can see for myself the cycles of libertinism and sexual restraint, and of massacre and “civilized” war.

    No human victory lasts. But neither do our defeats.


    14 Apr 12 at 6:48 pm

  3. “When I go steampunk, I dress as an upperclass Edwardian man–because there really isn’t another role from that period that I can imagine tolerating.

    Steampunk. As they say, you’re never too old to learn something new. Don’t forget to send pix, Cathy. :-)

    I like _some_ historical novels, eg Bernard Cornwell’s “Agincourt” and Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” are two excellent books that come immediately to mind. What makes them memorable for me is the absence of anachronistic judgmentalism. As they say, the past is another country; they do things differently there.

    What truly bugs me and destroys any possible enjoyment is when authors project 20th-21st attitudes onto period characters and even actual historical persons.


    14 Apr 12 at 10:23 pm

  4. Mique, you’re friends with Cathy on facebook. If you want to see some steam punk pics just go to the photos on her “timeline”.


    15 Apr 12 at 12:24 am

  5. Mike beat me to it! Photos on facebook….

    Cathy F


    15 Apr 12 at 12:27 am

  6. Hehe. Now that explains the photo you had up there for some time. I wondered why no monocle. Bertie Wooster to the nth. :-)

    I’m staying away from Timeline.


    15 Apr 12 at 6:03 am

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