Historical fiction dilemma #5: Projection

“I think of the past as the ultimate holiday destination,” Geraldine McCaughrean told the BBC History magazine last year.

“Life today is pretty safe and anodyne: adventure doesn’t abound for children. But in the past there were any number of ways you could meet a horrible end before the age of 12. So it’s possible to write a plausible-sounding, danger-packed adventure involving children in war, pestilence, fire and/or flood. That’s the only reason I go there.”

Philip Pullman agreed.

“It’s hard to put modern children in an adventure story because there would always be a parent or a policeman or social worker to tell them not to do things. So one way to put children in an exciting adventure is to set it in the past and arrange it plausibly.”

Quite so. But in the plausibility mentioned by both lies a thicket of modern and historical dilemmas for the author and dangers for the readers – particularly, I think, for adult readers who are the gatekeepers of the books children read.
For the writer of historical fiction, something that has been extensively researched and is perfectly plausible in an historical sense might appear to be utterly incongruous to the modern reader: either because it is so other-worldly that it seems almost fantastical; or conversely, because sometimes historical truth is stranger than fiction.
As readers we project the values of their own lives onto the past as well as the logic of 20th to 21st century thought – the unconscious knowledge of a whole raft of meanings, such as Freud or physics or atheism or racism/anti-racism. You might suspend disbelief when you read a book about a 12-year-old girl pirate, but you don’t suspend your entire world view.
We forget, for example, that until quite late in the 20th century (and today in many parts of the world) children worked at a very young age, girls got married off as soon as they hit puberty, people died in middle age as a matter of course, and everyone grew up much earlier than we do now.
Only last week, marine archaeologists in the US discovered the remains of John King, who was 11 when pirates captured the ship on which he and his mother were sailing in the Caribbean. John joined the pirate crew, led by Captain Sam Bellamy.
290 years later, John’s remains have been found in the wreck of Bellamy’s ship, the Whydah, 460 metres off the coast of Wellfleet, Massachusetts. The research team said, “While teenage pirates were common in the 18th century, John is considered to be the youngest ever identified.”
Gosh, people said to me when this appeared in the papers, you mean there really were kids who were pirates? Well, of course. Nelson went to sea at 13, Bligh at 9. There were eight-year-old farm hands and milkmaids, and ten-year-old fishermen and housemaids. Romeo and Juliet were kids. So are many of the characters in nursery rhymes and fairy tales, who have working lives, go to the market, milk cows and tend sheep and sleep in the fireplace and put kettles on – and are so often hungry.
This particularly applied, of course, to poorer families; that is, almost everyone. But most of the books we read in the past were about aristocratic children who had the luxury of growing up at a more leisurely pace. We must not confuse the fictional world of The Secret Garden with the harsh world of kids like Dickon.
So the writer has to know this is going on in the readers’ mind, anticipate her own projections, and sift through them all to see which ones are helpful and which should be avoided or addressed.
And then watch it all happen anyway.

I’ve lost count of the dilemmas list and Blogger search isn’t working, but here, I think, is the previous post: Historical fiction dilemma #4: Character.

2 thoughts on “Historical fiction dilemma #5: Projection

  1. I know I found good historical fiction a wonderful preparation for the ‘real’ thing later on.It’s a perfect opportunity to introduce children to the notion that their lives are very different from those of children in other times – and to show them some of these issues about putting yourself in the past, in an imaginative package of course.Personally I don’t know how it’s done – I take my hat off to you for working in this genre. Not only do you have to remember how you felt as a child reading, but you have all the history issues as well.Phew.I found it quite disturbing recently to read some very good biographical material about Laura Ingalls Wilder – I found I had accepted her view of the frontier and of her family fairly naively, and it was sobering, in fact it quite gutted me to be confronted with some observations of her daughter Rose Wilder’s in particular, about how the Ingalls coped/did not really cope with Mary’s blindness. Also apparently Almanzo Wilder was quite badly crippled after a severe illness early in the Wilders’ marriage – the revelation of these ‘warts’ was surprisingly upsetting. Perhaps I didn’t want them to be people? I dunno.

  2. You didn’t want them to be horrible people, which is perfectly reasonable, especially given the incredibly noble portrayal of the family by Laura. I always thought they were too goody goody to be true, but it’s easy to see how the author, and her readers, wants to believe in a certain view of her own history. We all do.Have you read March – or some of the background on it?It’s casts a whole new (and not very flattering) light on Louisa Allcott’s father/Mr March, and the lives of the Little Women.

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