Historical fiction has always been one of my favorite genres right behind fantasy. While I love all kinds of historical fiction, I enjoy reading about the lives of women since their experiences can be so different from my experiences today. However, I’ve noticed historical women being modernized too much in ways that don’t match their time periods. Making a main character relatable without too much modernization can be difficult, but I love seeing historically accurate representations of women.
Sometimes I pick up a historical and think, “Wow, this main character reads as though she stepped right out of the current day and into history.” Looking at you in particular here historical fantasy novels. It’s true that some women were ahead of their day, but often the modernizing of women in regards to their views and attitudes aren’t always historically accurate. I’ve noticed a trend of historical and historical fantasy gravitating around women who don’t want to get married, usually for reasons that wouldn’t fly in their time period. Views about their own place in society are often modern as well. While I appreciate the women who fight against society to make progress or refuse to accept the double standards placed on them, I also find myself longing for stories about the average woman and how she navigated the social mores cast upon her. While women who were ahead of their time can be easier for a modern author to write about, reading about the average woman helps me appreciate the progress made since their era and how different my life has been from theirs.
The Victorian era is heavily represented in historical fiction and historical fantasy, but often with women who are modern in their attitudes and outlook on society. For this very reason I adored reading Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners by Therese Oneill. It’s a book I’d recommend to anyone interested in how life would have truly been like for Victorian women. The author aims this book at those who tend to romanticize the era and she rips those fantasies to shred with historical accuracy. The writing style made this book approachable and fun to learn about the era, even for those who tend to shy away from non-fiction. It will, however, destroy any romantic notions you have of the era.
So why are women modernized so much in historical fiction? I think this happens for two reasons. One, authors are writing from their own experiences as a woman and using those for inspiration, and two, it can be hard for modern readers to relate to historical attitudes and sexism, not to mention other issues like racism. That’s why in Flight of the Sparrow Amy Brown made her main character more sympathetic to the Native Americans who captured her. The true Mary Rowlandson was racist in ways that would disgust modern readers and make her harder to connect to. By making Mary more modern in her views of the Native Americans, it’s easier for readers to place themselves in her shoes.
This creates the conundrum that sometimes we have to push the boundaries of historical accuracy to make the characters more likable and easier to relate to for modern readers. It can also be easy for readers to disagree with decisions by characters when readers would have reacted differently because we aren’t limited by the same social mores as women in the past were. If we forget the limits placed upon the women as well as the family pressures and how little say they actually had in matters like their own marriage or work opportunities, it can be easy to get annoyed because the main character won’t run away with the charming penniless artist instead of marrying the wealthier nobleman. Sometimes you have to marry the man you don’t love while dreaming of would could have been, and the author has to remind us of why.