I’m back on the historical fiction diatribe…

I’m about to talk a little bit about the movie “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” and the book “The Lions of Fifth Avenue” by Fiona Davis. There will be small spoilers of things that happen, so if you plan on watching/reading…proceed with caution.

I recently read TLOFA. It’s basic plot is a story about a family that lives in an apartment inside the large library in Manhattan. The lions guard the outside of the library and the Lyons family guard the inside.

The message that the book is trying (emphasize trying) to impart is one of women’s rights and gay rights.

Fine.

My problem isn’t with the message, both direct and indirect. My problem is the way that the indirect message is portrayed.

There is a scene in the book where two female lovers are openly kissing in front of their apartment building. In the middle of the day.

This is supposed to be 1911.

While this may have happened, I’m guessing that this probably wasn’t a common sight. There is nothing in the dialogue of the book to show that this was shocking and highly unusual- the book practically underplays the scene to the point where one could consider it common practice…

I’m now flipping to the movie switch: CYEFM is about a woman who begins forging letters said to be written by some of the greatest writers of our time. One of the reasons she gets caught is because she writes a letter that was supposed to be written by Noel Coward. In this letter, Coward purportedly writes with barely disguised innuendo about homosexuality. This leads the forger to be discovered. A friend of Coward’s who read the letter stated that Coward would never have written so openly about being gay…

Because in reality, people weren’t real open about being gay back in the early half of the 20th century…

So here’s my problem:

By rewriting history, we are taking something away from the pioneers who have fought to make sure that everyone is treated fairly and equally.

By suggesting that women normally intimately kissed one another in plain sight of everyone, as far back as 1911, will make people forget how hard the struggle was, and continues to be.

We are losing respect for the generations that stood before us.

We are losing the empathy of what others went through to achieve some of the things that we now take for granted.

Erasing or changing history does not make things better: in fact, it probably makes things worse.

Tread carefully when you read historical fiction…it may be more fiction than history…

37 thoughts on “A Little Bit of History

  1. very true. I write historical fiction but I’m extremely careful about learning the customs of the period I’m writing about. Good historical fiction can teach you a lot about life at that time. To me, it’s a great way to educate others on times gone past without resorting to history books. Good historical fiction can make history come alive.

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    1. Agreed.good historical fiction is wonderful. But, people today don’t necessarily know the difference. I read reviews after I’ve read a book. I read a historical fiction and the first review I read started out “in this non fiction book…” it scares me…

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  2. It’s true that people were not open about homosexuality back then the way they are today. But it’s also true that men and women showed more physical affection for people of the same sex in ways that we now consider sexual, but was not considered so back then.

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  3. It’s very difficult really getting into the lives of people a hundred years ago. Even if you read a diary how accurate is it? I mean, how accurate are our blogs at depicting all the minutiae of our lives? Mine, I confess, is a very cleaned up version of my life. I tend to gloss over the imperfections and ramp up the humour. It’s very difficult to tell where the line should be in historical fiction – there’s a very fine line between rewriting history and writing a work of fiction using history as a source.

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    1. What should the line be though? I admit I attempt to use humor to talk about my life, but in certain ways I’m blatantly honest. In other things, I’m hiding certain parts of my life…how representative am I of a middle class, educated, catholic white woman living in nyc in the 21sg century?

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  4. I kind of think it depends on the tone of the book. Historical fiction is really meant to appeal to the audience contemporary to its publication and is bound to be more reflective of that time and place. Reading Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar tells me more about Elizabethan England than Ancient Rome. And I think a lot of historical is really intended to be more of a wish fulfillment fantasy than authentic (especially historical romance, straight or gay)

    I think if you are looking for authenticity you should read literature from that time period. And you may find people are less repressed about sexuality than we realize–consider Anne Lister–while it’s true that she wrote her diaries in code to protect her private thoughts, she was astonishingly open in how she lived her life and her romantic interest in women. That came with consequences certainly, but such things did happen, perhaps more than we think. Because the stigma of it might also lead to people not talking about such and such aunt or uncle who were nevertheless cohabiting pretty unambiguously with a partner.

    I mean Gertrude Stein was living with her lesbian partner in 1911, and pretty much every in her circle got what that situation was.

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    1. I totally appreciate what you’re saying and agree with much of it. My problem isn’t for someone like me who actually has read a little history. It’s for those who read it and don’t have any background knowledge if a time or place and think that’s how things were at the time. I always read reviews after I read books, and I recently read a review of a historical fiction novel that began…” in this non fiction book”….I worry about people becoming more ignorant than they already are

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      1. Well… I’m not entirely sure what can be done for people who can’t distinguish fiction and non-fiction. Honestly have seen it the other way with some memoirs. Makes you really worry about people who take every opinion piece as fact too :S

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    2. My daughter read The Awakening as a high school junior or senior (a few years ago) she couldn’t believe that it was a feminist legend when it came out because she couldn’t believe how backwards thinking it was. Without historical context you can’t really read historical fiction

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  5. It is a peeve of mine when an author doesn’t get things like this correct. Yes, it is fiction and that means it is made up, but you lose a lot of impact if the pieces that tie your fiction together aren’t believable. In this case, it doesn’t fit the time that is being written about. Now, if you want to market it as an alternate reality history, I’m fine with that, but it needs to be made clear that is what it is. Saying something is historical and not have the historical pieces be accurate is really misleading (one of many, many gray areas in genre placement that is a whole other peeve of mine.)

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  6. This is such a great point. I feel the same way about certain contemporary non-fiction books I’ve read that deal with issues we are currently facing as a society. Sometimes I’ll read something and it just FEELS like it was embellished and I think to myself. “There’s no reason to do that!” Let their stories tell this story.

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  7. I’ve always felt that good fiction, especially sci-fi, is an extrapolation from either its past context, or the present if the author is projecting into the future. This makes the story believable, authentic, and enjoyable. To deviate radically from historical fact when the setting is from the historical past makes it trash. Unless the author is putting it in the context of an alternative reality. In short, I agree with you 😁

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  8. I agree, if you’re going to write historical fiction, make it as historically accurate as you possibly can. The other thing that bothers me is when we impose our current values on those who lived before us. Some of what they thought and said may seem horrible to us now, but they were just going along with the culture in which they lived….and some of them may have even thought of themselves as daringly progressive and brave. We also need to remember that future generations are going to be horrified by some of the “truths” we tell ourselves and each other now.

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    1. Excellent point. We seem to think people made poor choices instead of thinking that they made the best of the situation at hand. I hate when people make value judgements when they don’t have the actual feel or facts of a time period

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