Stupid Historical Inaccuracies

So in general I don't mind historical novels although I've never enjoyed historical novels where people speak forsoothly and whatnot. Just because their language sounds archaic to us doesn't mean it sounded archaic to them.

I can't write historical novels because I'm too self-conscious about the problem of decades. In the movie Somewhere in Time, the character played by Christopher Reeves meticulously researches the time period of his great love and then buys the appropriate clothes to match. But when he actually shows up in the past, he is wearing a suit that is about twenty years out of style. (A lady praises him for showing off his grandfather's suit.) Think of it this way: suppose some future writer created a 1950's drama and stuck DVD players in everybody's homes? Not a big deal to future historical fiction readers, I will grant, but a very big deal to us. Anyway, I'm always afraid that I'll make those sorts of errors, which is why I stick to fantasy.

Normally, however, when I read historical fiction, that kind of inaccuracy doesn't bother me so much as a lack of historical understanding. I don't fuss if Jane Eyre is wearing the wrong kind of crinoline, but I do fuss if Jane Eyre starts acting like Gloria Steinman.

I recently began reading a take-off novel about Elizabeth and Darcy (not the original and not mine; in fact, this post--which was written a few years before I wrote my adaptation--was in my mind when I wrote my adaptation). I got about ten pages in and gave up in disgust. The author has Darcy watching Elizabeth breastfeed, during which he comments on how odd his newborn baby looks. It's a sort of "oh, isn't it cute how dumb the new father can be" moment.

Oh, pleeeaase.

First of all, Darcy is the owner of an estate, an agricultural estate. That is, he makes his money off of pigs and sheep. Specifically, he makes his money off of his tenants' pigs and sheep although it is likely that Darcy would have some of the land farmed directly for the estate.

In addition, Darcy is a good landlord. The [original] book makes that very clear. A good landlord means that (1) Darcy gets along with his tenants; (2) Darcy has a clue about agriculture; (3) Darcy doesn't spend all his time gallivanting around spending his income elsewhere. (See (1) and (2).)

In other words (and this is something the last movie, which I otherwise enjoyed, got completely and utterly and stupidly wrong), this is not a guy who runs around buying marble statues. This is a guy who pays very close attention to his estate, visits it regularly and has a working relationship with his tenants. (Very few people seem to realize that you don't fund a big estate like Pemberly with the views. Darcy is collecting income--think rent only more of it--from his tenants on a regular basis. That's where the $10,000 a year comes from. The fact that he can do this without them hating his guts means he does it wisely.)

Second of all, Darcy grew up on this estate and regularly rode his horse to the nearest village. Darcy's "rank" did not prevent him from associating with villagers or, for that matter, his gamekeeper's son (Wickham). There is a point here that I'm not sure Americans grasp. We think class is the Astors or the Van der Bilts who enforced their sense of superiority through a rigid untouchability factor. But for someone like Darcy, the fact of his class would be so engrained into his soul, he wouldn't need to enforce it. (If you doubt me, read Middlemarch, where the gentry have a far easier give and take relationship with their tenants than they do with the burgeoning, ambitious middleclass in the town. Also check out BBC Emma and Mr. Knightly's easy, but lordly, relationship with his tenants).

Darcy's pride is at fault NOT because anyone (least of all Elizabeth) thinks class doesn't matter (like us Americans) but because his pride prevents him from making Wickham's character known. In his efforts to protect himself, he exposes another gentleman's daughter to risk. When Elizabeth claims her right to love Darcy, she does not say, "Because, after all, who cares about rank?" She says, "I'm a gentleman's daughter. I am in the same class. Get over it." (Or, specifically, "Get over my crazy mother.")

The point is that Darcy's sense of class is not something he would need to protect by holding aloof from the uncouth lower classes. It is likely that Darcy, being Darcy, would find it easier to associate with his tenants, where class would be an acknowledged but unremarked-on reality, than in more ambiguous social engagements. One of the things that the last movie got absolutely right was the Bennett father's easy relationship with his servants. Darcy, also an agricultural landowner (albeit with a lot more land), would have the same relationship ... as his housekeeper attests (and he wouldn't be a collector of marble--blech).

Finally, people in Regency England (and for that matter, Victorian England) were a lot less obsessed about privacy and childbirth and other bodily functions that we Americans.

What this all means is that the boy Darcy, running around on his father's estate, in and out of his tenants' cottages, and taking rides into the nearby village, would have seen women with newborns ALL THE TIME, funny-shaped, dead and otherwise. And he would have seen them nursing ALL THE TIME. And he wouldn't have thought anything about it. The man Darcy, an agricultural landowner, would have had a working knowledge of birth, maturation, breastfeeding, etc. etc. etc. And he wouldn't have cared much.

And he certainly wouldn’t have had time to watch his wife breastfeed. (Supposing Elizabeth would breastfeed her own children which, no matter how enlightened she was, is unlikely. But not impossible.)


Anonymous said...

My god you have way too much time on your hands, P&P was a heartfelt and very well done movie based on an excellent novel. Get over it.

Kate Woodbury said...

I think you should read posts before you comment. I am not referring to Pride & Prejudice, the A&E series which I think is absolutely wonderful and THE definitive Pride & Prejudice adaptation. (I did not care for the latest movie as much, but, if you read my post, you would have noticed that although I took issue with the last movie, "I otherwise enjoyed [it]" and actually praise it! I talk about other Pride & Prejudice versions elswhere.) Nor am I referring to the actual novel by Jane Austen, which is without compare (and not a historical novel since for Austen, the setting would have been contemporary). I am referring to a "take-off" historical fiction novel written circa 2000, based on Darcy and Elizabeth's characters, which is altogether totally horrible since it completely undermines the facts and essence of the original.

By the way "you have too much time on your hands" is the de facto comment people make when someone has said something they disagree with; it removes the need to actually build a cogent argument. Disagree with me by all means! I don't mind. But disagree with what I actually wrote.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed your rant. It really annoys me when people don't take historical inaccuracy seriously. And you'd think that if someone was writing a book for publication, they would at least do a large amount of research into the time period. After all, that author was making money from the book!