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.