I know a lot of people, myself included, who have said that they feel like they belong in another period of time. Yes, I feel that at times. All the time. Absolutely. I think the idea of being, say in 19thC London, away from the thrall of Facebook (and away from the evil trolls who frequent it), could mean me spending more time… focusing on my pox-ridden body.
And that is the reality. We probably couldn’t manage living in those times. We romanticise it because of people like Mr. Darcy, but the truth is that we would likely be those people lying in the streets, struggling to survive because illegal immigrants like Heathcliff have taken our jobs!
Also, let’s not forget how women couldn’t vote, women were property, women couldn’t own property (unless they were lucky enough to be in a family with no males), and so on and so forth. So, if you were a guy, things might be all right for you then. That is, if you weren’t poor!
This brings me to the next subject of focus in my historical fiction blog posts: research.
In my ideal historical fiction, is a realistic (and honest) portrayal of the setting and lifestyle of the period. But even writers like Jane Austen weren’t that honest, and she lived in those times! It was all very pretty, the idea that we could choose who we wanted to marry, but that really wasn’t true. Marriage was for social or financial benefit. And for that reason, Mr. Collins is the most realistic character in Pride and Prejudice. He might be boorish and ugly, but he is realistic.
But really, Mr. Darcy. What a hunk of a man! Or was he?
I imagined Jennifer Ehle (of the BBC’s miniseries Pride and Prejudice) was a more realistic portrayal of Elizabeth Bennet than Keira Knightly (in both physique and acting ability!), but I never questioned whether Colin Firth or Matthew Macfadyen were realistic portrayals of Mr. Darcy.
Keep in mind, it’s never a good idea to challenge the romantic image of Mr. Darcy as he has been conveyed in film and television. Women will come at you with pitchforks! But, I came across a number of articles looking at that very idea, and I’ve come to the single conclusion:
We’ve been lied to!
A study, conducted by Professor John Sutherland of University College, London (where Eleanor attends, by the way), revealed that “the revered Darcy would have had powdered white hair, a pointy chin, a pale complexion, a long nose and sloping shoulders. Not quite the brooding, chiselled chap portrayed on-screen by modern-day actors” (Thompson). Feeling heartbroken yet? Go ahead and read more.
“That’s all well and good, Cadence,” you might say “but that was in the film, not the novel.”
“Well,” I would respond. “please let me explain.”
Mr. Darcy is described by Austen as “handsomer than Mr. Bingley” (8), which is interesting considering the unappetising description given by University College, London’s study. And so, the “brooding, chiselled chap” in Pride and Prejudice is probably just as brooding and chiselled as The Marquis de Sade!
Geoffrey Rush was aptly chosen to represent Sade, in my opinion. Perhaps then he is the closest to Mr. Darcy? But I may be wrong. What do you think? Would you watch Rush as Darcy in the next Pride and Prejudice film? I know I would!
As readers, we aren’t given much to go with in terms of description — “fine, tall person, [with] handome features” (Austen 7) — and I imagine the BBC series and film have clouded our judgement and given us a biased image of the “handsomer than Mr. Bingley” Mr. Darcy.
But enough of Mr. Darcy, and his lies!
Emily Brontë offered us a much more detailed, and rich description of the brooding and chiselled Heathcliff. Nelly describes Heathcliff, upon his return:
He had grown a tall, athletic, well-formed man; beside whom, my master seemed quite slender and youth-like. His upright carriage suggested the idea of his having been in the army. His countenance was much older in expression and decision of feature than Mr. Linton’s; it looked intelligent, and retained no marks of further degradation. A half-civilised ferocity lurked yet in the depressed brows and eyes full of black fire, but it was subdued; and his manner was even dignified: quite divested of roughness, though too stern for grace (Brontë 69).
And upon their meeting, Mr. Lockwood describes Heathcliff as:
…a dark-skinned gypsy in aspect, in dress and manners a gentleman: that is, as much a gentleman as many a country squire: rather slovenly, perhaps, yet not looking amiss with his negligence, because he has an erect and handsome figure; and rather morose (3).
Though, of course, our image of beauty changes with time. Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley will always adhere to our image of beauty because the description is lacking. We then see Pride and Prejudice as timeless, in that regard. The reader is able to create their own image of what beauty is, or should be.
So… should I be creating a detailed image of beauty (my own interpretation, or rather the depiction of beauty of 19thC London) or, instead, should I consider the readership’s desire for a timeless beauty?
To accommodate this need of the reader, and like Austen, I too have not given detailed descriptions of characters, such as Eleanor’s love interest, Mr. Ashwood. Yet, part of that stems from Eleanor’s own rebellion from her duty in finding a husband. She is more concerned with content of character, in a friend or confidant (who she sees Mr. Ashwood as). And therefore, does not consider his appearance too deeply.
What other novels do you feel have not been entirely honest with the reader?
Let me know in the comment section below.
What do we see in terms of historical fiction, however? In my experience, in my readings of historical fiction, the image of beauty has been altered by the author’s personal bias, and not “limited” to the standards as set by the period. If we can go back to Wuthering Heights, we see this with Heathcliff. Although the character is seen as dangerous, violent, exotic, and sometimes that is attributed to his mysterious origins and colour of his skin, Heathcliff is still considered beautiful when compared to Mr. Linton for example, who is perhaps more aligned to the true standard of beauty for that period.
So, what is beauty? Should we be challenging our own standards, or leaving it open to interpretation?
In my last historical fiction post, I mentioned how I am trying to be more open to the demand for a romanticised history, and I think I have done that in Eleanor, at least I hope so. For example, Eleanor’s young sister, Vivienne, falls in love with a man whom she knows nothing about. He is handsome, yes, but as Eleanor and Vivienne grew up without a mother, they were without that person to arrange marriages or find suitors for them (such as Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice), they’re now going in blind. Vivienne knows that she should find someone to free her from her financial problems, she believes she has found someone to do that, but it was essentially ‘love at first sight’, that compelled her to fall for the mysterious Mr. Winters.
Eleanor rejects the societal expectations of her sex, and embraces the possibility of living life as a spinster. She sees that as the fate of someone of her social standing (particularly after the death of her father, and considering her money woes), therefore she believes it right to accept her future now, and prepare for it. She would rather that fate than to marry without love.
And yet, all the while, Eleanor is faced with the question of what love truly is.
Getting sidetracked! The point is, Eleanor is well aware of the consequences of veering off the path meant for her, in search of another.
But, what were/are the biggest research issues in writing Eleanor?
- Specifics about human anatomy, in terms of surgical procedures [both Henry (Mr. Ashwood) and Eleanor perform surgeries].
- Language. Trying to make accurate dialogue for 19thC London, which entails looking at other works written of that time. But I also like to write pretentiously, so it’s pretty easy for me! 😉
I recently happened upon a book on etiquette, which will perhaps be of the greatest help for me in terms of staying true to the lifestyle mannerisms of 19thC London. There are specific moments in Eleanor I have been uncertain of, and already this little book, Hints of etiquette: A shield against the vulgar (which contains, Hints on Etiquette and the Usages of Society: with a Glance at Bad Habits, 1842, and Hints for Etiquette; or, Dining out Made Easy, 1849) has answered a number of my questions. For instance, in regards to dancing.
I’m quite fond of this entry (on how not to be an arsehole!):
It has somewhere been observed that, ‘In good society, a tacit understanding exists that whatsoever conversation may take place shall be to a certain degree sacred, and may not honourably be carried out of it, and repeated to the prejudice of the utterer’ (Agogos, 68-69).
But, of course, I refer again to Eleanor and Vivienne’s naivety of such customs. It is a factor that surfaces again and again in the novel, and illustrates their poor decision making in some scenarios.
In regards to my issue with maintaining consistent and dated language… this is something I will delve into further in my historical fiction blog post concerning language. Most of the research was through reading, ultimately. That is probably the best advice out there — read, read, read!
In terms of my research of human anatomy…
Many universities have a program whereby members of the public can take full advantage of their libraries. This has been most beneficial to me, in particular with researching human anatomy. I often borrow books from a local university. And, as a former student with Curtin University, I am privileged enough to be able to continue using their library facilities both on-campus and online. That is just one of the many perks of choosing an education with them!
What is your research process?
Let me know in the comment section below.
I also attempted to research human anatomy and surgical procedures from videos. This is (or, would have been) something helpful for my research and writing process as I describe a particular procedure in Eleanor. Alas! I found it to be quite difficult viewing. Nausea was a problem! Instead, I had to rely on graphic images of the procedure from books and online. A book I found to be incredibly useful was, …. Wait, scratch that! I don’t really want to give it away. The specific surgical procedure is quite a pivotal plot point, so, just ignore this.
However, I will say that the late Dr. Clarendon (Eleanor’s father) was well-versed in human anatomy, as you know (he was a revered anatomist with University College, London), but his field of specialty, or at least his focus, was on the female reproductive system. He considered some theories like the ‘wandering womb’, for example. But, I will not go further. This is simply to illustrate an example of the research I have had to undertake for Eleanor.
I have so much more to say, but sadly this post is getting a little too long. Perhaps I will make a part 2, but for now, I will leave it as is. Feel free to message me, or comment below with your thoughts.
Please join me next time when I look at male characters in historical fiction.
What are your thoughts on historical fiction?
Who are your favourite authors?
Let me know in the comment section below.