Madeleine Robins 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.