Recently, another writer complimented the heroine in my novel when she read the first few chapters. She said, “I absolutely LOVE that Esther is not a 21st century heroine stuck in 1911! I can’t tell you how annoying it is to read about a character whose beliefs/thoughts/feelings are just not realistic for the specified time period.”
I appreciated this encouragement, and it’s also pretty accurate of Esther. She’s cautious about marriage but not opposed to it. She might be slightly annoyed every time she has to meet and entertain her father’s business acquaintances, but she fulfills her role of dutiful daughter and does it anyway. She loves to have her hair done and to wear beautiful gowns, and like most proper girls in 1911, she (gasp!) wears a corset without complaint.
At the same time, though, will this make it difficult for modern readers to identify with her? Thanks to feminism, a slow progression towards gender equality (we know we’re not there yet), and the growth of personal freedoms, it can be difficult for us to look back a hundred years (or more) and feel sympathetic with a fictional character. I think this is where we often find literature that features “spunky” heroines who are forever challenging societal, gender, or other conventions. The author creates a character who thinks and acts more like we do in the 21st century, making it easier to identify with her. But placing her in the past creates a dangerous anachronism.
The truth is, characters in historical fiction live in a world entirely different from our own. Even if it’s the same geographical area, the customs and traditions and expectations of the past are largely foreign to our modern sensibilities. And as a historian, I talk all the time about the danger of judging past worldviews by our own standards. It’s easy for us to criticize an arranged marriage or oppressive undergarments, but for many women in the past, this was all they knew, all they could expect or hope for. And many accepted it as their truth and reality. Does that make them lesser people, or people to be judged? No, it doesn’t. It simply makes them different.
So there must be some kind of trick to helping a modern audience connect to a person so wholly different than ourselves. Obviously it’s not impossible. Readers everywhere still fall in love with Lizzie Bennet, Jane Eyre, and Pip. I believe the connection comes through those old Universal Truths that remain constant no matter the time period. Love, loss, betrayal, guilt, family, friendship…these parts of the human experience don’t change, even when the calendar does. When writers bring these to the forefront, it highlights our similar experiences rather than our different ones.
And a reader must also be open. To read historical fiction is to read about a different culture and different sensibilities, just like a person from the United States might read a contemporary novel set in Thailand. We go into a reading experience like that expecting and accepting differences, so the same must be done when a 21st century reader makes a literary journey to the 18th. A character willingly submitting to become the property of her husband doesn’t make her an idiot; it makes her normal for her time, and we’d all do well to try and understand a frame of mind other than our own. It might even give us insight as to why women became eager to escape such conventions and stand up for themselves, perhaps even more insight than an atypical woman who defies her husband and societal norms all along the way.
There should be room in literature for heroes and heroines unlike ourselves, and there should be room in our hearts to fall in love with them, embracing our similarities, not our differences. I’d be willing to bet there are a lot more of those, anyway.