Historical Fiction (Again)

I’m still thinking about what makes some historical novels so much more convincing than others, and about my annoyance that the protagonist of The Linnet Bird was so predictably progressive in her attitudes. The problem can’t be as simple-minded as not finding it believable that a 19th-century woman would be anti-imperialist; of course, on such issues there were contrary opinions in the 19th century, just as there were men and women who advocated women’s rights and the abolition of slavery. These were attitudes that went against mainstream assumptions in many ways, and that is part of what gives them drama as fictional positions, as the characters who fight for such enlightened views get to be rebels for our causes: they are fighting for what we widely accept as right. But does this mean that it is impossible for historical fiction to appeal to modern audiences if its protagonists accept the mainstream attitudes of their time? This week I watched an interesting period drama called Far From Heaven, in which the main character is a “perfect” 1950s wife and mother with liberal views on race who gets into a sympathetic relationship and then a romance with her black gardener. It becomes clear to them that what they want is so far out of step with the norms of their community that they cannot persist: his daughter’s safety is threatened, for instance, and both of their sets of friends condemn their attempt to cross the racial line. At the same time, the film explores the struggles of her “perfect” businessman husband with his homosexuality. The film makes very clear that both his love and hers are forms of impossible desire because of the historical moment in which they arise. I thought all of this was movingly presented; the highly stylized character of the film prevented it from being maudlin or cliched, as did the absence of heroism or simplistic happy endings. In the context of the thinking I’ve been doing about historical fiction, though, I found myself wondering if it would be impossible to do a sympathetic story in which a character who is not tolerant of such divergence from the norms was the protagonist: Kathleen’s best friend, for instance, who feels sorry for her having a gay husband (but has no liberal views on homosexuality), and whose sympathy seems to dry up when Kathleen admits her feelings for a black man. Of course we do not accept or want to sympathize with those attitudes, but does her (historically typical) mindset put her outside the pale? Is this why Gone with the Wind is not an entirely respectable novel today–because, among other things, its main characters are almost all quite satisfied with racial discrimination and slavery? But isn’t that realistic, in terms of majority opinion in the antebellum south? Can you depict that society as it was historically, depict its Weltanschauung without a layer of overt critique, and not appear to be (or really be) endorsing past values which we have learned to reject as immoral? Perhaps it’s time I put aside the Lymond Chronicles for a while and took another look at GWTW.

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