I read a lot of historical fiction. I’m sure that’s no surprise to most of the people on this blog. I also read older fiction, because a lot of the stuff published in the last few decades doesn’t grab me, especially stories in modern settings.
A trip through my library leads to a lot of weird trains of thought that jump back and forth in time. You see, the meaning of ‘contemporary novel’ changes over time, and what was a modern setting fifty years ago looks incredibly dated to us. How many mysteries have you read where the mystery could have been immediately solved by a quick Bing search or cell phone call?
It took me a surprisingly long time to really grok that Pride and Prejudice was a contemporary novel (I knew the publication date and a bit about the culture of the time, but it didn’t really sink in for a while). The culture of the time was moving toward acceptance of novels as respectable reading material, but fiction could still be a bit racy in and of itself. Possibly a better example is Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, that prototypical romance novel. It was viewed along the lines of a Harlequin romance- not the sort of thing that had brown paper covers, but also not quite the thing for a respectable young lady to read in public.
And of course, what’s culturally acceptable changes over time, but not always in one direction. We tend to think that societies gradually grow more free and tolerant of unorthodox behavior, but Georgian England (Jane Austen’s lifetime) was more permissive in some ways than Victorian England (Charlotte Brontë’s lifetime). The flapper era in 1920’s America would have been moderately scandalous to the ideal 1950s housewife. Whether anyone actually met these ideals is another argument, but the point is that people aspired to a certain code of conduct that would have garnered raised eyebrows and titters of amusement to outsiders.
Entertainers, including writers, usually compose material for a contemporary audience. Some things are timeless, but even you, writing in 2018 about ancient Carthage and trying to portray it accurately, are probably not going to treat child sacrifice as normal, unless you’re going for the shock value.
People in medieval Europe took this to a fascinating extreme, as shown in their artwork. Ancient Greeks and Romans were shown wearing the clothing and carrying the weapons of a knight in the 1300s. It usually didn’t occur to the artists that people in the past dressed differently. A medieval troubadour wouldn’t have even considered writing a song set in a world without noble knights and beautiful ladies; institutional democracy would have left him and his audience scratching their heads.
The upshot of all this is that what was completely normal to a past audience looks strange and disgusting to us. A husband physically chastising his wife jumps off the page at us, but a reader in the medieval era wouldn’t have blinked. Similarly, the first audience to see Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet would have immediately understood why Juliet’s reluctance to marry Paris was so scandalous (Paris was part of the ruling family of Verona, and by marrying him, Juliet would have increased her family’s wealth and status. Basically, she was making a bad business decision by choosing Romeo over Paris). We, accustomed to marrying for love, find the Capulets’ attitude distasteful.
In times of rapid cultural change, it can be difficult to know which audience a writer is addressing, and whether they’re using tropes seriously or ironically. There’s a twist at the end of du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, in which a previously gentle but deformed character turns out to be the villain. It came as a huge shock to me but I couldn’t help wondering if a reader in 1936 (when it was first published) would have realized the twist as soon as the character was introduced. In the past, people made a greater connection between a person’s appearance and the person’s character, which is why most fairy tales have a handsome knight as the hero and an ugly ogre for the villain. Nowadays, we know that beautiful people can have ugly souls, and vice versa, but this mindset is very recent. And a bit of research into the era suggests that du Maurier’s readers would have immediately suspected the deformed character.
My completely unsubstantiated explanation for this phenomenon is that in the days before antibiotics and modern medical care, people were terrified of catching any sort of disease, and shunned anyone who was obviously disfigured because they had no way of knowing if the disfigurement was contagious. Being shunned can make a person less than well-adjusted (doesn’t always happen, of course, but if you depend on the community for survival and they cast you out because you look funny, you’d be forgiven for having a dim view of the human race). Likewise, people tend to pay more attention to beautiful children, which can make them more bonded to their caregivers and likely to treat them well. Or they become unmercifully spoiled, but that’s another issue.
But Jamaica Inn was set during a time when people hadn’t quite moved away from the older mindset. And it shouldn’t be condemned for that. People do the best they can with the tools- mental and physical- that they have at the time. No doubt people of the future are going to look back at our books and say, “What on Earth were those idiots thinking? How could they have been so ignorant back then?”
You, as a writer, will be judged and found wanting at some point by some person. It’s impossible to please everyone. That does not mean you should stop writing, or write inoffensively for a ridiculously narrow audience. It means you should stop paying attention to what the self-appointed critics say. The glitterati are an audience, yes, but they’re a very small audience, and not likely to buy enough books to support your career.
Write what sells. More specifically, write what sells NOW. There’s no way to predict what will be popular a hundred years down the road, but you have a much greater chance of writing a book that will become popular in your lifetime, because you’re writing from a similar cultural perspective as your reader (and even if you aren’t, it’s closer than trying to write according to a culture that doesn’t exist yet). We’re still bound together by the remnants of Western civilization and have access to research materials that enable us to write about other contemporary and past mindsets. The future is more speculative, and all the awards from the self-appointed ‘in crowd’ won’t feed you when you’re starving in the gutter.