Thursday, July 19, 2007

Lady, Hold Thy Tongue!

As a change of pace from space, our theme today is the problem of women who talk too much, particularly in historical fiction and kindred subgenres of Romance. The problem is not limited to women - though it is most conspicuous with them - and strictly speaking it isn't simply that they talk too much. It's the godawful things they say, feminist rhetoric being not the only offender but surely the worst.

Have I dug myself in deep enough yet?

This subject came up - not for the first time, not for the last - in a comment thread on Carla's blog a few days ago. (A nod in passing here to Susan Higginbotham, who wrote a spoof of bad historical romances only to learn that there's actually a novel out there with a heroine named Topaz Plantagenet. Yep.) A link via Alianore's blog led me to a 1998 article by Anne Scott MacLeod, which lays out the problem neatly. The article, in The Horn Book, deals specifically with YA hist-fic, but the problem is nearly as bad in adult historical fiction.

The problem isn't women talking, even talking back - the problem is women who sound like time tourists from 2007 even though they supposedly aren't. All too often this leads to even a worse situation, where the bad guys all have and display attitudes that are authentic to the times, while the protagonist spouts hopelessly anachronistic rhetoric.

I suspect the problem is not quite as bad in guy books, because (stereotyping madly here!) we are not looking for correctitude. Introduce us to a hero called Hrothgar the Ostrogoth, we expect a good honest barbarian, nothing more. If we learn some cool stuff about the Ostrogoths that is all to the good, but we don't really expect Hrothgar to fret about how representative democracy would be so much better than barbarian kings.

(Where guy books are more likely to go astray is having Hrothgar come up with every military innovation short of the gunpowder era. Trouble handling cavalry charges? No problem! Simply lengthen your spears into pikes, invent pike-square tactics, and teach 6th century Italian latifundia peasants that they can be world beaters just by holding their ranks. No problem!)*

Culturally, women have it tougher. A heroine isn't supposed to be casually indifferent even to minor things like brutalizing the peasants, let alone to her own marriage being treated as a real estate transaction.

Understand here that I'm speaking of Romance, in the broad sense, not bleakly serious historical fiction such as (so I gather) Kristin Lavransdatter. Romance, in all its subgenres, is not primarily about realism. Accuracy in details is desireable, and in some subgenres critical - ladies in waiting at a royal court who talk and think like the Sex and the City gals will blow the willing suspension of disbelief as quickly as starships that maneuver like airplanes.

Yet the worlds of Romance are in essence a theme park where readers go to escape our pretty boring and constraining everyday lives. In real life you may have to kiss the boss's ass, or accept that the sweeps-you-off-your-feet guy is a jerk who will be sweeping some other girl off her feet a week after the marriage. In Romance he falls completely for you, forever, and we'll see just how long the boss can stand up to a 500-megawatt UV laser focused through 10-meter mirror.

Yet it isn't enough just to believe in the hero; at some level the reader has to like them. Which includes relating to their attitudes and values. The quandary is a real one, and it probably makes some settings all but unusable for Romance. I'm not sure that anyone now can really write an antebellum Southern plantation owner as both plausible and sympathetic. American slavery is far too raw, its consequences too much with us, and they can't be swept under the rug the way they could 50 years ago. Even a "good" slaveowner would have attitudes repulsive to us now.

In more remote settings, things are easier to finesse. Classical slavery and medieval serfdom have been defunct long enough that both characters and readers can accept them as part of the world. The test becomes more personal. It's surely plausible that the lady of the estate feels some noblesse oblige toward her peasants, without requiring her - out of nowhere - to reject the basic assumptions of her culture about hierarchy and rank.

(Military experience is helpful in dealing with hierarchical cultures. An officer can and should have regard for their troops, and respect a petty officer's greater experience and knowledge, without challenging the basic social and authority distinction between the wardroom and the lower deck.)

These finesses offer plenty of variations. In Catherine of Lyonesse, the male lead is a corsair galley captain, first seen at the local bagno purchasing some galley slaves - yet so detesting the institution of galley slavery that he immediately frees his purchases, with offer of a bounty if they sign up for his crew. No, no nonsense about the Rights of Man! His concerns are more practical: he merely wants his engine room gang loyal, and able to rise up from the benches with arms in hand when it comes to push of pike.

Because this is Romance, I am pushing the limits just a bit, but only a bit. The Venetians struggled for decades before giving in to slave or convict rowers in the late 16th century. They knew the advantages of free rowers, but with 150-odd oarsmen per galley it became too expensive to man a fleet that way. William de Havilland only has to man one galley, and is willing to pay for performance. (Years later, as Lord High Admiral of Lyonesse, the cost of rowing crews will force him - rather reluctantly - to embrace sailing men-of-war instead of galleys as backbone of the royal fleet.)

I still get to have my cake and eat it too, though, because the reader comes away from the passage thinking he's a pretty decent guy for freeing some slaves, without requiring him to channel Abraham Lincoln.

When it comes to the social roles of women the finesses may require more finesse, but they are possible, and next post I'll discuss some of the available tricks.

* Martin Padway does a lot more than that in Lest Darkness Fall, but he has the excuse of being a time traveller. Elegantly, his attempt to invent artillery fails - he's not able to come up with the right mix of sulpher, charcoal, and saltpeter for a proper bang.

8 comments:

Kedamono said...

To put the SF back into this blog, I've noticed that some of the SF written in the 1940's and 1950's have dialog that places them smack dab into that time frame. In some cases, you can that Brooklyn accent roll out of the lips of our Stalwart Hero.

I'm not a big reader of romance novels historical fiction. (Unless it's alt hist, but that's a different topic). I'm more likely to read old fiction written back in the day. Say something like Lysistrata, a Greek play about women standing above their station and ending a war by withholding sex. :-)

I think you'll see anachronistic attitudes occurring with regularity in historical movies and TV shows. (Xena was good for this, having Julius Caesar being a contemporary with Hercules and a host of other Greeks, long dead by the time Julie was born.)

Speaking of which, there was a History Channel show about Boudicca, and it covered how the Celts were fairly egalitarian, and let women have equal say in things. But what intrigued me the most, was the accent they chose to give the Romans: They gave them Italian accents!

In most Roman epics, the Romans speak with British accents. (Thank you Willy Shakespeare and I, Claudius) To hear a Roman speak with an Italian accent didn't sound natural, until you thought about it.

But back to topic: Creating accurate and realistic characters that fit their era is a challenge, but it's one that can make a story a heartbreaker, as you know that the Heroine will have taken two steps forward and still walk 8 steps behind the Hero of the story.

Carla said...

Don't forget Topaz' sister Amethyst :-)

This comes up regularly on various HF forums I read, and opinion is usually about equally divided between, "A medieval woman who accepts an arranged marriage and doesn't leave her husband when he has an affair is a wimp and a doormat, I'd walk out on my husband if he cheated on me and if she doesn't I don't want to read about her!" and, "A medieval woman who makes a fuss about an arranged marriage and her husband's affairs is anachronistic and I don't want to read about her!"

I think there's a continuum in HF readers with people who read it mainly for the H at one end and people who read it mainly for the F at the other. If you're reading for the history, it's presumably because you have some interest in the past and you may well be curious about how its values differed from your own. If you're reading for the fiction, having to confront values you don't agree with just gets in the way of identifying with the hero/heroine. Different goals. If you're somewhere in between (which most of us probably are), you can tolerate some non-modern values but probably not too many. I could accept William de Havilland not freeing his slaves, if you've shown me that Lyonesse is a society where slavery is normal, but I'd have a lot more trouble accepting it if he beat them whenever he was in a bad mood. Someone else might feel quite differently.

With SF, or an invented world like Lyonesse, you have a lot more freedom to invent social mores that aren't too far out of line with modern values, as long as the world still works with its internal logic. You don't have to have galley slaves in Lyonesse if you don't want, because you can decide to make the change to sail before your story begins instead of in the middle of it, but having them and letting William de Havilland free them for sound practical reasons gives a chance to demonstrate what a nice guy he is.

Bernita said...

"It's surely plausible that the lady of the estate feels some noblesse oblige toward her peasants, without requiring her - out of nowhere - to reject the basic assumptions of her culture about hierarchy and rank."
Exactly.
More than plausible.
In fact, given that the heirarchy was accepted by the classes in general, a heroine who burbled about "equality" etc. would probably be considered daft by the peasants of her period.

Carla said...

Another thought: characters who go on about their rights, or who lecture others about how they ought to behave, are at risk of coming over as either self-righteous bores or moaners, neither of which is very attractive. I wonder if that's as much a problem as anachronism?

Gabriele C. said...

It's not only a modern attitude towards slavery and marriage that makes me cringe, but all that tree hugging, pseudo Wicca shamanistic stuff that is sold as Celtic Religion.

Rick said...

Kedamono - All SF bears the marks of when it was written, just like you can generally date a costume movie by the leading actress's hair - whatever nod it makes to the supposed period, it will essentially be a style fashionable when the film was made.

How ignorant of that History Channel show - everyone knows that Romans spoke BBC English! (But really, giving the Romans Italian accents is way nifty.)

As I recall, Italian was in fact the last of the major western romance languages to gain a self-conscious identity - in a sense it took Italians longer to accept the fact that they weren't speaking Latin any more.

Carla - Surely most readers do fall somewhere in between on the H/F scale. If you're reading hist-fic or one of the kindred subgenres, you're probably interested in the past, but you still want to have some fun - otherwise you'd just read straight history. (Which of course can also be fun, to read about if not live through.)

I think you're onto something, though, that all the lecturing isn't only anachronistic, it's annoying.

Bernita - Daft, or worse. Like the peasants are going to believe the heroine's blather about equality? They'd probably figure she was up to something, and it would end with them paying more rent.

I'm also reminded of a line from Heinlein (in Starman Jones), spoken by a senior enlisted man: "I like an officer who acts like an officer. If he wants to tie one on, he should do it in his own end of town." Violating rank boundaries is unnerving, especially to subordinates.

Jim Baerg said...

In the case of the antebellum south, you can write a southern aristocrat who is sympathetic by basing him on Cassius Clay. The original, a quite admirable character I wonder why the boxer thought one of the previous people named Muhammed Ali was more worthy of being a namesake.

Jim Baerg said...

On reading a bit further I see his treatment of his wife wasn't good. I suppose you can write a character who is good in some ways but flawed in others, or just make your fictional character a bit nicer than the real Cassius Clay.