Katherine Webb writes on the evolving nature of historical fiction, and how the interpretation of history depends on the author’s present reality.
In the early days of writing my current novel The Misbegotten, people often reacted to hearing it would be set in Georgian Bath with a comment about, or comparison to, Jane Austen, which always caused a vehement rebuttal from me. And that got me thinking − why should I mind, when Austen is such an icon and her books so enduringly popular?
The answer is a matter of altered perspective. From my twenty-first century perspective, the Georgian era is a different place to the one lived in and portrayed by Austen, and I wanted my novel to reflect that.
I think this altered perspective is what makes reading history or historical fiction so much fun − it’s endlessly fascinating that while people haven’t changed at all, the rules, beliefs and attitudes that governed their lives have changed, and dramatically. So the things people did and said in the past will always be strange and as least partly mysterious to us, and trying to understand them is what understanding a historical era is all about.
Naturally, what will strike us most about the past are the things that have changed the most, and for me, with Georgian England, that thing was the role and treatment of women.
When Austen was writing she was living within Georgian society and by its rules, as were her readers. She could poke fun at, satirise and ultimately sweeten her reality with happy endings − she could bring love and romance into the often prosaic transaction of marriage, and rescue her female characters from penury and social disgrace.
In short, she could provide escapism from some ugly truths. From my modern standpoint, however, the injustice of women’s inferior position was something I couldn’t get away from. I wanted to highlight it, to decry it; and so, ultimately, it shaped the story and colours the whole novel.
The storyline and characters of The Misbegotten portray what I imagine to be the worst-case scenario for women at that time − I’ve taken the vulnerability of those women and run it along an extreme course, to demonstrate why it outrages me so, since for every woman who managed to live happily within her prescribed role in 1820, there must have been others whose lives were made hell by it.
The female characters in my story are wholly dependent upon and subject to the men in their lives. They are constrained, sometimes kept all but captive; they have little or no control over their own destinies; they suffer violent physical and sexual attacks, and have no subsequent recourse to law. Ultimately, they can be made to disappear.
The story is at times dark and troubling, and entirely reflects my feelings on the era − my wholly modern viewpoint on that society. Whether such a story would have been written by a female author even as recently or the 1940s or 1950s, when a woman’s place was still largely in the home − I somehow doubt it. And perhaps this is true of all historical fiction − it can only ever be the author’s interpretation of that era, and so it will always be shaped by whatever that author’s present reality happens to be.