Don’t You Wish You Lived Then? (Musings on Class and Fantasy)

December 4th, 2008

I used to get asked that question a lot in my Regency-writing days.  The short, simple answer: No.  No painless dentistry, eccentric provision for sewage, no penicillin and no concept of asepsis, and the condition of most women was not one that I aspire to.  But the women who asked the question usually had been complimentary about my writing, and I am weak, and did not want to blurt out the first thing that came to my mind (which would be: Whaddaya, crazy?) and so I’d say something like “Well, they sure knew how to dress, didn’t they?”  Because twenty seconds’ musing on why these readers of mine thought that the Regency might be a swell time to live returned the conclusion that they were talking about a fantasy of the Regency, in which they would be duchesses in pretty clothes, and always say and do the right thing, and they would get to marry a prince, and all their trials would be wrapped up by the end of the last act.

It was easy (particularly when I was younger) to see this as a rather childish wish; with the wisdom of age, give or take, I think that life is hard enough and if the fantasy of living in a magical then-and-there and being beautiful and clever and well dressed helps a reader get through the day, I’m glad to have provided that service.  For me, however, part of what I love about writing about the past, or the future, or fantastic societies, is the chance to play with the fallout from that most human of pastimes: organizing ourselves into castes.  

Anyone who has ever watched kids at a playground with something other than a rosy eye knows: from an early age social strata play a huge part in our social functioning.  Why?  Maybe it’s easier to handle the needs and ideas of a big group of people if you can simply say “they’re not as cool as we are, so we don’t have to listen to them.”  Maybe, like Border Collies, we just can’t keep from herding each other into neat categories.  I don’t know why this is a part of human behavior; but I’m not horrified just because a fantasist creates a world with dukes or grand high viziers at one end and peasants on the other.  Nor am I horrified when a character on the low end of the totem pole doesn’t rebel against their place in the universe.  People vary infinitely: I’m pretty sure that for every feisty peasant who dreamed of overthrowing the dominant paradigm and becoming a land-owner, there were others who either had too little imagination, too little leisure, or too much imagination to think of such things. 

I do think, however, that one of the jobs that fantasy can and should do is to let us play with what power does to people on either side of the equation.  And I think one of the ways in which fantasy can fail is when the writer doesn’t take his/her/its own preconceptions into account.  Some years ago I had to do a comic-book adaptation of the Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel.  The book is jaw-droppingly racist, anti-semitic, and jingoistic.  There are good peasants– English, of course–and they are respectful, hard-working, and know their place.  There are bad, smelly, bloodthirsty peasants–they’re French.  All aristocrats are good, though some are weak and fussy.  The middle class (of which I think we can count Chauvelin a member) is very sketchy.  And the last third of the book sees the Pimpernel disguised as an elderly Orthodox Jew, riding over the countryside next to Chauvelin, and even the villain keeps ruminating on how stinky and repellent Jews are. I have no problem with Orczy’s depiction of anti-semitism, which was certainly a fact of life in the 18th century; what gave me collywobbles was her lip-smacking certainty that this was not only the way of the world, but entirely right.  Even for the adventure-romances of her period (Prisoner of Zenda, The Four Feathers, Beau Geste, and their ilk) Orczy was over the top.  Granted, she wasn’t writing a hard-hitting tale of class warfare, she was writing a rousing adventure fantasy.  It just drips with class and race prejudice is all.

On the other hand, assuming that all peasants are virtuous and all aristos are evil is just another fallacy, and as just as uninteresting.  Feudal lords had responsibilities to their dependents as much as the dependents owed their lords duty and income.  Some took these responsibilities very seriously; some not so much.  And most of them didn’t look much farther than the status quo, or question why they got to sleep in a keep and have meat for dinner and the guy who plowed the fields didn’t.  God set things up that way, right?  And I hate hate hate fantasies and historicals where the author sets up a status quo and then has the heroine/hero fight against it for no discernible reason other than because it’s what we, 21st century readers, would do.  Where does that will to rebel come from?  What does the hero/heroine want out of the rebellion?  To be king, or simply to have a full belly for once?

Probably my favorite example of how to write an individual at odds with her society is Jane Eyre.  Jane is sometimes characterized as a feminist, a term which would doubtless have fried poor Charlotte Brontë’s brains to charcoal.  Jane doesn’t want to do the things men do; she doesn’t really expect that her status can change (and when change threatens–when Rochester wants to shower her with jewelry and fancy clothes, she’s dismayed); she doesn’t even want to be chiefest among her sex.  What she wants is almost more revolutionary: Jane Eyre wants to be taken seriously as a person with feelings, ideas, and something to contribute, an idea which her society is almost entirely unable to compass.  Only a few people she encounters in the book are able to fathom that, and I think one reason she loves Rochester is that he gets it, and her, which makes their respective status unimportant.  (On the other hand, as Elizabeth Bennet notes about Mr. Darcy, “He is a gentleman, I am a gentleman’s daughter.”  Jane may be poor, plain, and insignificant, but she’s not a goose-girl or laundry maid.)

I love that in the Lord of the Rings* movies Samwise Gamgee never forgets that Frodo is Mr. Frodo and he is plain Sam.  That strikes me, not as regressive, but as utterly true to the time and place (likely to Tolkien’s prejudices too).  Of course, in five hundred years maybe the hobbits will have progressed to greater social equality (without elves in the picture to look down on mere mortals, that might be easier).  

What it comes down to is, if you’re building another time-and-place, class should be a part of it.  Just don’t forget to examine what your assumptions and aspirations are and what class means to you as a writer while you’re building your world.


*Confession: I have never been able to get through Tolkien’s Rings books, although I can hear them read with great enjoyment.  Someday, someday.

21 Responses to “Don’t You Wish You Lived Then? (Musings on Class and Fantasy)”

  1. Peteron 04 Dec 2008 at 2:47 pm

    Jane is sometimes characterized as a feminist, a term which would doubtless have fried poor Charlotte Brontë’s brains to charcoal. Jane doesn’t want to do the things men do…[text sacrificed to Shub-Internet]. What she wants is almost more revolutionary: Jane Eyre wants to be taken seriously as a person with feelings, ideas, and something to contribute, an idea which her society is almost entirely unable to compass.

    Perhaps this is a generational thing, perhaps a geographical one, but wanting ‘to be taken seriously as a person with feelings, ideas, and something to contribute’ strikes me as pretty much the core definition of feminism.

    All of which ties back into the question of authors not taking their own preconceptions into account. I think much the same can be said of readers, of course – I suspect that the attitudes in The Scarlet Pimpernel that to us stand out like sore thumbs were quite invisble to Orczy’s contemporary readers. It’s amusing to consider what the SF fans of a hundred years from now will make of [insert author here].

  2. Madeleine Robinson 04 Dec 2008 at 4:11 pm

    I agree with what you say about the definition of feminism, but often the people citing Jane as exemplar of Feminist appear to be talking about a more…explosive…sort of feminism than mere social equality. Jane sees the world very much through the lens of a religion that still saw women as helpmeets to men.

    As for Orczy–after I read Pimpernel for the work I was doing, I went back and read a few of the romantic adventures of her time. Even for the time she’s pretty out there.

    And you don’t have to wait a hundred years to see that the social attitudes of some genre authors haven’t, um, aged well. Early and mid-century SF writers mostly have women characters who are there to provide sex and coffee; even the work of writers who have women characters in positions of power or ability have an undertone of “isn’t she cute how she’s, like, a scientist and all?” We are all products of our time; the trick is to know it.

  3. Marie Brennanon 04 Dec 2008 at 4:30 pm

    Yes, yes, yes. It’s something I hope to play with over time in my Onyx Court books, class ideas shifting as we move closer to the present. One of the protagonists of the upcoming book is a baronet, not because I think it’s cooler if he has a title, but because no seventeenth-century man who was not at the very least a gentleman would ever be allowed into the position he occupies. Birth matters to these people. And the only time anybody remarks on it is when another character, offered that same position, tries to decline on the basis that he’s only a gentleman, and not well-enough born.

    I think what a lot of people miss is that you don’t have to have someone rebelling against and trying to overthrow the status quo in order to show the shortcomings of the system. Then you get people falling off the rail in the other direction, making all those feudal lords be nice and considerate to their peasants, without anybody ever being a jerk. There’s a middle ground, but it’s hard to balance on.

  4. Lois Tiltonon 04 Dec 2008 at 5:59 pm

    I do feel a certain rise in the blood pressure when Sam does his “Mr Frodo” thing because it does reflect the author’s prejudices, his vision – not of the way the world is, but the way it ought to be.

  5. Madeleine Robinson 04 Dec 2008 at 9:52 pm

    I always thought that the Sam-tugs-the-forelock thing was a reflection of Tolkien’s Victorian childhood, and maybe a wistfulness for a world in which everyone knew their place (which is ever so much easier if your place is to be deferred to and others are the deferees). Even in Victorian England the lines between the gentry and a farmer were pretty clear, but by the time Tolkien was writing LotR not so much. Mr. Frodo would have been deferred to in 1850, and (perhaps it’s the technological level of the hobbits) I always rather saw them as Victorian creatures.

  6. Lois Tiltonon 04 Dec 2008 at 10:25 pm

    If you read WWII British war fiction, you can see how much it is still alive in the distinction in characterisation between the officers and enlisted, which it is tacitly accepted as class-based, still.

  7. Maryon 04 Dec 2008 at 10:56 pm

    I suspect what they are really asking is whether it would be nice to live in a Regency novel. Presumably, not as one of the villains.

    Has to be nicer than the real Regency.

  8. Madeleine Robinson 05 Dec 2008 at 1:48 am

    Has to be nicer than the real Regency.

    That’s a good part of the fun of writing my Sarah Tolerance stuff: playing with the sordid underbelly of the Regency. After five novels which danced lightly over the frothy surface of upper-class England, it’s fun to get down in the muck and play with class and sex from a different perspective.

  9. Brendan Podgeron 05 Dec 2008 at 4:07 am

    It really amazes me how sometimes women are written about in fiction. While there are a lot of dodgy female characters written, mostly they are written alongside dodgy male characters so that is all right. But every now and then you will find an absolute stinker sitting in the middle of an otherwise worthy book. There are three types that particularly annoy me: The Goddess, the Glass Ceiling Girl and the Ring-in.

    The Goddess(also known as Mary Sue?): This is a character that can do no wrong. All the men may get drunk, swear, fart, fight each other instead of the enemy and
    do silly, mean or selfish things, but this lady is always right. Says the right thing, does the right thing and has everyone agreeing with her actions even when the reader may be wanting her to:
    A: shut-up
    B: Go away or
    C: try to burp(or for serious brownie points fart) the national anthem.

    GCG(If you can think of a better name please do): This character is strong. She can ride dragons, travel in time and stop alien invasions
    with the power of her mind. She is confident(sometimes arrogant), self-reliant and innovative. Despite this her story never seems to be complete until she has:
    A: Found true love and
    B: Put said lover into a position of authority over her. Every time I read this it just floors me. WHY?

    The Ring-In: Before describing this character (if I need to), I must digress for a mo. I have no problem with books with no girls in them(or in non important roles). They are basically Boys-Own adventures and have their place. I also read Girls-Owns as well even if I do skip a few paragraphs if I feel a group hug is coming up(Does anyone know where I can get a copy of “The Upper-Fifth Take Command”?. I have been wanting to re-read it for years but my grandmother’ s copy disappeared) .

    The Ring-In is the female who becomes a(or even worse THE) main character in a series of books that has up till then a Boys-Own adventure. Imagine Nancy Drew guest starring in a Hardy Boys adventure and showing them up as complete dills who can’t even tie a reef knot without getting it wrong. If you want to write about Nancy Drew, do it, but for the love of God don’t sully the rep of the Brothers Hardy in the process.

  10. Brendan Podgeron 05 Dec 2008 at 4:41 am

    When discussing Feminism and class structure my mother talks about her childhood in the 40’s and early 50’s. In her household people generally filled the typical roles that the lower classes filled. My Grandfather was a factory worker & blacksmith, and Grandma did most of the household chores and made sure tea was on the table when he got home. Although these were what is seen as the typical roles for Males & Females it was not thought of in those terms in Mum’s home. There were simply tasks that needed to be done and the person best able did that task. My Great-Aunt quite successfully ran her own green grocer; and there were many household chores like looking after the chooks (including killing, plucking and gutting the one destined for Sunday lunch), the veggie garden and the ornamental garden that everyone took part in.

    To a large extent the idea of feminism and many other radical changes came from the middle class(my mum was in some of the same classes as Germaine Greer and said the big changes in the way their lives tracked was when mum had to go find part time work just to enable her to go to teacher’s college, while Germaine could afford the fees for University), simply because it was that class that had the leisure to contemplate change. Everyone else was too busy.

  11. Deb Son 05 Dec 2008 at 10:51 am

    True. Working as hard as they did simply to survive, I doubt the lower classes of old (or is that olde?:) had any energy to spare for simple imaginings, much less actual rebellion.

    As for wanting to live “back then”, I’ll happily visit via book, but my affinity for flush toilets prevents me from actually stepping into the time machine.

  12. EJadeon 05 Dec 2008 at 11:16 am

    I very much enjoyed this post – both for bringing up issues I hadn’t thought about before and for enunciating issues that I had thought about, a lot.

    One of my pet peeves has always been characters, especially female ones, set in contexts vastly different from the twentieth/twenty-first century, which act, behave and think like twentieth/twenty-first century people.

    One of the things I really enjoyed about the iTV “Lost in Austen” series is that it showed how hard it would be for a modern person to end up in one of Jane Austen’s books. No matter how well the main character might know the “books”, she has absolutely no clue how the world actually works!

  13. Madeleine Robinson 05 Dec 2008 at 11:59 am

    My grandparents emigrated from Russia in the last years of the 19th century. My grandmother, who was fourteen, stayed with cousins, learned to speak English, worked in a hat shop, and eventually married my grandfather. They had eight kids, and during their marriage Grannie kept a Kosher home, raised the kids, made the clothes, did the household religious tasks, helped in my grandfather’s business (he ran a store) and taught herself to read English (reportedly by reading mysteries while she was cooking). She and my grandfather were determined that all their kids would get a full high school education (not always the standard, even in the early days of the 20th century). When my aunt Eva, the fifth of the kids, came home one day and said “I think I want to go to college,” my grandfather, reflecting his time and place, shook his head and said “Girls don’t go to college; girls get married.” My grandmother was the one who pulled my aunt over and said “We’ll figure something out.” Five years later, when Eva was close to graduating from college, she said “I want to go to law school.” Same exact scene. My grandfather saw marriage as her career path; my grandmother was more open to change.

    My aunt, who died five years ago, became a lawyer, was very successful, wound up as an arbitrator (with annual box seats at the SuperBowl–the NFL was one of her ongoing clients) and never did get married.

    Of the two of them, in some ways, I often think of my Grannie as more feminist precisely because she was looking at what might be possible.

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  15. Hughon 09 Dec 2008 at 6:51 pm

    A very interesting thread, sorry work pressures (and a general slow-down I think happened on this site too) decreased the frequency of my visits so that I’m only just catching up!

    Some rather random reactions:

    I usually note at some point in my Euro Civ lectures precisely what you pointed out, Madeleine — that when we think “wouldn’t it have been exciting/interesting/cool/different to live then” we typically DO imagine ourselves as the laird in the castle and not the cotter in the croft. And I always mention flush toilets and hot showers, but it’s worth thinking that these amenities aren’t even universal in our world today…

    Baroness Orczy was Hungarian by birth and upbringing, not British, so her race/class/gender attitudes would probably have outdone even her contemporary British counterparts, for all that the Magyar gentry liked to see in Magna Charta and the British gentry an analog to them and their position vis-a-vis the Habsburgs. (According to Wiki her parents, a Baron and a Countess respectively, left Hungary in 1868 “out of fear of a peasant rebellion”). Originally receptive to Jewish assimilation (even into the aristocracy via titles bestowed as rewards for industrial or commercial success), Magyar political society became increasingly anti-Semitic in the new style by the last years of the 19th century. (The first big Pimpernel book was 1903). But even in Britain that kind of thing appeared a lot: think of the rant about international Jewry in Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, for example.

    Marie, I’m going to have to go get into the Onyx Court series, as I don’t know them, but you have the chance to do some interesting things in your 17th-century world if you play with the fact that Baronet was a title-for-purchase invented by James VI and I in “our” world, so it’s the thin edge of the wedge for class climbing by means of wealth…

    Madeleine, I think (from our family’s experience) that the Tolkien books work best when read aloud, as my father did with us when we were kids — almost as though his steeping in a literary tradition that began as oral even if it was later written kept creeping into his work…and the idealized Victorian, or even early-Romantic world is very strong (think Constable landscapes for the Shire, not Turner!).

    How often do I hear of strong family women such as Brendan’s and Madeleine’s stories include! My own grandmothers were in their own ways similar, even down to a grandmother who insisted that if the eldest, the boy, went to university, then they all (including the two girls) would go, and making it happen. And so my mother ended up pursuing an academic as well as a family career (her PhD supervisor at Harvard nearly didn’t take her because his previous – and I think first – female doctoral student had married and had five children. So did Mom, but she also made full professor before my father and had a complete career as well as a family — very lucky and due in some part to her strong mother’s example).

  16. Mark Tiedemannon 11 Dec 2008 at 10:01 am

    Usually when people express a desire to live “Back Then” what they really mean is they wish one particular aspect of the present were more like it was at (fill in date), assuming it was simpler, fairer, or just there. It amounts to cherrypicking the past for the nice bits and pretending the contexts (i.e. All The Rest) don’t matter.

  17. Madeleine Robinson 13 Dec 2008 at 2:48 pm

    It’s the clothes. /joke/

    I think people whose understanding of the past comes primarily from movies or fiction (even well-written fiction) tend to see the things that intrigue them. Ivanhoe may have Womba the Slave running about, but he’s there as a vehicle for Wilfred’s largesse. Mostly you spend your time with the well-to-do, who dress pretty, look like Elizabeth Taylor (the young, luscious Elizabeth Taylor with makeup by Max Factor) and either follow the code of chivalry to the letter, or being bad-hats whose job is to die painfully.

    One of my favorite slap-in-the-face reality moments in a movie comes from the film Robin and Marian, in which Marian kvetches that Robin went off to the crusades with King Richard for 20 years and never wrote. “I didn’t know how,” he says, rather plaintively.

    Some people doubtless like the idea of an ordered society in which everyone knows their place (and they doubtless think their place would be on top). Some people see the clothes and want to look that pretty, laying aside the fact that wearing a tight-laced corset for years on end could deform your ribcage and cause severe pulmonary problems. Some people think an agrarian society is more virtuous than an industrial one, although virtue is a conceit pasted atop landscape and technology (and if you’re the peasant it’s really hard to fill your belly with virtue).

    I just think it’s more interesting, more challenging, and more challenging for your characters to move through a world that has pitfalls, inequities, infections and pisspots than through a world of enameled stainless-steel backdrops.

  18. Andreaon 08 Jan 2009 at 1:54 am

    Our “realities” deal in the romanticisation of every prior period and of the archetypes within it. We want the Disney version that validates our perception and makes all history bland and available. Technicolor, bold and reinforcing status quo. We want the grit, sweat, labour, rott and stench only to glibly escape it in a timely ode to Dickens. This is where Joss Wheton’s Dr. Horrible fails; in the extension of the final indequacy of not being “made strange” enough to ourselves. The evil league of evil is a co-opted secondary system of capitalism. This is finally why the endeavour is so amusing. [I genuinely loved it prior to this thought.] As societies we escape into archetypes of times which have never been [past or future] and write about being awoken from “the Matrix” we fail to think or engage in political reality. If our society is becoming panoptic how can we mitigate a desire to engage with others in a real and meaningful way from not be drawn in to supporting a dialectic that anesthetises thought and merely maintains order?

  19. Laurelon 14 Mar 2009 at 2:25 pm

    And I hate hate hate fantasies and historicals where the author sets up a status quo and then has the heroine/hero fight against it for no discernible reason other than because it’s what we, 21st century readers, would do.

    Amen. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve read in “historical” settings that have set my teeth on edge for this precise reason. I’m also not so fond of the male bashings that go on merely to prove how stupendous the female heroine is. OK, I’m a woman, I like it when the female isn’t helpless. That doesn’t mean, however, that even the male “hero” has to be an inept slob who can’t even tie his own shoes without HER help. Does it? How about real equality rather than simple role reversal? Think about your poor sons people.

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    Don’t You Wish You Lived Then? (Musings on Class and Fantasy) (DeepGenre)

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