Posted in 2010s

An unnecessary 21st century makeover

As I’ve said many a time, if you’re uncomfortable with historically-accurate terminology and attitudes, hist-fic isn’t the genre for you. It’s important to separate your own views from ones which might unsettle you but were widespread. E.g., it took me years to feel comfortable using the word Negro in narrative text (beyond just dialogue), but it finally got through to me that the term African–American was really anachronistic.

That commitment to historical accuracy applies perhaps a hundredfold when adapting someone else’s story to the screen. Knock yourself out being anachronistic if you must, but show basic respect to your source material!

That’s exactly the problem with Anne with an E, adopted from Lucy Maud Montgomery’s classic Anne of Green Gables. The screenwriter has openly declared her intention was to “update” it with 21st century Woke values. Laughably, she truly believes the lines between the scant original material she retained and the stuff she invented are seamless. Nope, anyone familiar with the book knows exactly what’s out of place.

By all means, put your own spin on a story that’s already been adapted multiple times. You can draw out things which were unsaid in the original but quite painfully brewing in the background during that era, or emphasise certain themes with parallels to current worries. Fill in gaps with stories of your own creation.

However, you need to stay true to the voice, style, and spirit of the source material instead of taking it in an entirely new direction to correct what you see as unenlightened omissions or embarrassing attitudes. I’ve zero problem with hist-fic including things like racism, bullying, gay and lesbian characters, child abuse, or menarche, but none of that was in the original!

Here’s an idea: If you feel so strongly about checking every single SJW box, create your own story instead of hijacking someone else’s and giving 19th century characters 21st century Woke Stasi values.

The first book in the series was published in 1908 but set in the 1870s. It’s beyond laughable to believe anyone in that era, particularly in a small rural town, would’ve done or tolerated any of this! There are so many outright inventions, distortions, and anachronisms, such as:

1. Anne never adds Marilla and Matthew’s surname to hers with a hyphen!

2. Diana’s maiden aunt Josephine is a lesbian?

3. And hosting a freaking “queer soirée” at her mansion?

4. Teacher Mr. Phillips is a closeted gay man?

5. Rev. Allan is now a raging, heartless misogynist instead of a kindred spirit?

6. Anne never ran back to the orphanage after the misunderstanding re: the missing brooch, and thus Matthew never rode like a madman to bring her back.

7. Gilbert’s dad never dies!

8. Anne never told sex stories to her classmates!

9. The relationship between Anne and Gilbert is twisted into soap opera-esque garbage, almost nothing in common with the source material.

10. Anne was never brutally bullied, despite some early difficulties fitting in.

11. Cole is an invented character, and it goes without saying any gay character would’ve been deep in the closet instead of coming out to anyone he didn’t already know was a friend of Dorothy. Even the most radical, open-minded person wouldn’t have been so nonchalant and accepting.

12. Sebastian is a wonderful character, but he’s also invented. There aren’t any significant Black characters in the books, though The Bog is a real neighborhood in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.

13. There’s no menarche storyline either. People just didn’t openly talk about menstruation in that era!

14. Also no storylines about lost loves Matthew and Marilla had.

15. Anne never investigates her family history at the orphanage or local church.

16. Ka’kwet is also an invented character.

17. Josie not only is engaged to Mr. Phillips, but leaves him at the altar?

18. Anne was brutally abused by her prior caretakers?

I hate this SJW mindset of depicting historical characters as the worst racists, sexists, homophobes, ignoramuses, and bigots who ever lived, while making sure to give the sympathetic characters anachronistic 21st century values. Even the most radical, against the grain people operated within certain parameters.

And if you can’t accept that, do us all a favor and stick to contemporary settings.

Posted in 1860s, 1930s, Historical fiction, Movies

GWTW at 80, Part VI (Historical accuracy)

Margaret Mitchell did a great deal of historical research for her novel, which didn’t stop after she found a publisher. She spent six months checking her facts during the editing process. Much of her research was conducted at Atlanta’s Carnegie Library, since razed to build the Atlanta–Fulton Public Library. Its replacement, in the same spot, has a permanent Margaret Mitchell exhibit on the third floor.

But just as with all hist-fic, there are some elements which were uncommon for the era. Unlike many historical novels and films today, though, they’re within the realm of plausibility, and other characters react to them as the anomalies they are, with the obvious notable exception of the romanticised Old South.

The Atlanta Historical Society has hosted many exhibits related to GWTW, among them 1994’s “Disputed Territories: Gone with the Wind and Southern Myths.” Subjects explored included “How true to life were the slaves in Gone with the Wind?” and “Was Scarlett a Lady?”

In many ways, Scarlett perfectly fits the mold of a Southern belle. She dresses the part, understands the importance of marriage, isn’t an intellectual heavyweight, steps up as a volunteer nurse (much as she hates the job), comports herself with dominance over her house slaves.

In other ways, however, Scarlett violates several codes of her culture. It was extremely unusual in that era for white women of means to work outside the home, let alone run a business like Scarlett’s sawmill. She also flouts the dress code with her low-cut gowns, and tries to resist Mammy making her stuff herself before the barbecue near the beginning of the story. Scarlett doesn’t think a normal appetite is unladylike.

In contrast, Melanie fully embodies the archetype of the Southern belle, though her life is much less interesting in consequence. Melanie doesn’t seek work outside the home apart from wartime nursing; she’s utterly devoted to her husband and child; she’s self-sacrificing to a fault; she’s extremely loyal and trusting. She naturally fits the mold, whereas Scarlett chafes against much of it.

Though ages aren’t mentioned in the film, there are several age-gap relationships in the book, and it’s obvious Scarlett is much younger than her second husband Frank even without the film specifying their ages. Frank originally fancied Scarlett’s sister Suellen, who’s about thirty years his junior. Scarlett’s parents are also 28 years apart, and Scarlett and Rhett are 16 and 33 when they meet.

Both Scarlett and Melanie marry at all of sixteen, early in the story. As I mentioned previously, it wasn’t common for 19th century women to marry that young, nor to much-older husbands. On average, first-time brides after Antiquity, with certain specific, notable exceptions (e.g., Medieval Eastern Europe, the U.S. pioneer West), were 18–25, usually near the upper end of that range. Their grooms were typically 1–6 years older, not old enough to be their dads.

In upper-class society, however, there was more precedent of girls marrying in their late teens, and to much-older men. Though this was still unusual, it was somewhat less unusual than in the non-wealthy world.

Even with that caveat, the age gaps in GWTW still weren’t typical! Whereas it might be relatively common to find, e.g., an 18-year-old marrying a 32-year-old, or a 21-year-old marrying a 30-year-old, it was highly unusual to find the massive gaps of GWTW.

Mourning practices in the Victorian era were strict and highly regulated. Scarlett flouts custom by dancing and attending a charity function while wearing widow’s weeds. Widows were expected to wear black for four years, often the rest of their lives. Young, attractive widows transitioning to colours like grey, lilac, and lavender “too soon” were assumed to be sexually promiscuous.

Those mourning relatives, friends, employees, and acquaintances were subject to strict rules too, albeit not as severe as those for widow(er)s. Melanie only has to wear black for six months after her brother Charles dies.

As mentioned in Part V, GWTW takes a very rosy-coloured view of the Old South, one atypical for both races. Though Margaret Mitchell grew up hearing stories of this vanished world and did a lot to further popularise that image through her novel, even she admitted it wasn’t common.

In a 1936 letter to poet Stephen Vincent Benet, she wrote, “It’s hard to make people understand that north Georgia wasn’t all white columns and singing darkies and magnolias.”

Like many people of her generation, however, she believed the Dunning School of Reconstruction, which falsified history in a very damaging way and supported the KKK. It was a very wise decision for the screenwriters to significantly tone down that aspect of the book!

Posted in Books, Historical fiction, Judaism, Religion

A novel of tedium and infodump in Medieval France

I was excited to find this among the $3 books at a used bookstore. My parents bought me the second book years ago, for my birthday or Chanukah, but I’d never read it. Sadly, I yet again had the exact opposite reaction from the crowd re: a very popular recent hist-fic.

Why might that be this time?

1. Ms. Anton gets an A+ for research, a D for storytelling. It’s a bunch of ideas and historical facts patched together. The narrative plods along tediously, with no compelling, well-developed characters or strong prose to compensate.

2. Showing off her research. Ms. Anton dumps in detailed information that has nothing to do with the purported main story, like Medieval French politics, parchment-making, wine-making, and Rashi’s mother’s diary.

3. Stilted, infodumpy dialogue conveying said details. Enough said.

4. Head-hopping deluxe! When we’re in too many heads, too close together, for not enough time each, we’re ultimately in no one’s head, and can’t care about the characters. The trick to handling an ensemble cast is to weave the POVs, just as a great figure skating program weaves the elements in and out instead of clustering them.

5. By the time an actual plot finally emerged (over 200 pages in), I was long past caring about anyone. At least in A Farewell to Arms, I felt bad for the baby for about two seconds!

6. The sex scenes are like Medieval Jewish porn fantasies! I also call BS on Rashi giving fairly graphic sex advice to his own daughters and son-in-law and giving the latter intimate details about his sex life! And enough already with the unrealistic trope of virgins having a mind-blowingly awesome first time!

7. I call BS on men waiting outside the mikvah for their wives and gossiping about who went there! Taharat hamishpacha, family purity, is an extremely private mitzvah, which even many women didn’t discuss with other women till a few decades ago. You’re not supposed to know who went there, esp. if she’s your sister, mother, or rabbi’s daughter! A brother also wouldn’t oversee his own sister’s immersions!

8. Was it really common for women to regularly come to synagogue, not just for holidays and the Sabbath, in the 11th century?

9. The word “gender” is anachronistically used in place of “sex” six times, including twice in dialogue. People in the 11th century DID NOT use that word in that way, EVER! It only became a euphemism for “sex” in the late 20th century, thanks in large part to the vile Dr. John Money and his grotesque experiment with poor David Reimer. The freaking Victorians weren’t afraid to say “sex” when referring to being male or female!

10. Either someone confused the dating, or Ms. Anton SORASed her characters. The timeline says Joheved was born in 1059, yet she’s twelve when the story opens in 1069. Miriam’s birth year is given as 1062, yet she’s nine when the story opens. Joheved’s husband Meir is depicted as four years older, yet he was born circa 1060.

11. Speaking of, I had no sense of these girls growing up. I know there was no concept of adolescence in the Middle Ages, but I never had a feeling for how old they were at any given time, or of going on a coming-of-age journey with them. It felt more like SORASing.

12. Zero character development. Enough said.

13. I call BS on the premarital kissing and making out! Traditional Orthodox couples aren’t even allowed to be alone without a chaperone or hold hands before marriage.

14. Every time a conflict appears, it’s quickly resolved, like when Rashi catches Joheved and Meir making out before they’re married.

15. The blurb makes it sound like the story is about Meir’s disapproval of Joheved’s Talmud study, but he’s totally cool with it after his initial shock. It was extremely unusual for Jewish women (and even most men) to be so educated in this era, yet we never gauge any long-lasting reactions to this from anyone!

16. The depictions of births and midwifery aren’t accurate, as a reviewer on Amazon and Goodreads explained in detail.

17. Constantly interrupting the narrative to define or explain things!

Rashi and his daughters (who really did study Talmud and pray with tefillin) deserved so much better. I’m told the second book depicts Miriam’s husband Benjamin as openly gay, and the community anachronistically accepts this.

Posted in Names, Writing

When to change a character’s name

If you observe Sukkot, may you have a joyous holiday!

Rare is the writer who’s never changed even one character’s name. It happens to just about everyone, growing to think of a character by one name and then suddenly realizing that name doesn’t work, no longer appeals to us, or just doesn’t have the kind of standout flair needed for a protagonist. Here are some of the reasons I’ve changed characters’ names, reasons also applicable to many other people.

It’s not culturally/linguistically accurate

This was a big issue with my Russian and Estonian characters until 2011. Even after I knew better, I engaged in some powerful cognitive dissonance to justify keeping English names. I innocently copied what I saw, and then just became so emotionally attached to these names. It was rather selective attachment, since I changed some names in 1996, like Alexis, Anne, and Kathie, yet kept holding onto names like Margaret, Amy, Elizabeth, Catherine, and Peter.

This is why it’s so important to use accurate names for characters in a culture outside of your own. Otherwise, you risk younger or less-informed writers copying you and assuming those are real names in that language. The entire world doesn’t speak English, and generally only certain people in reigning families went by non-native forms of their names. I only kept a few non-Russian nicknames, and found plausible reasons.

This also explains why my Jewish characters of oldest vintage have German, Dutch, and Polish surnames instead of names like Katz, Cohen, Kaganowicz, Lipschitz, and Rosenfeld. Many of them also have normal, secular names, or common Bible names just as likely to be used by Christians. However, this isn’t completely inaccurate, and I like how it makes my characters appear like regular members of their home cultures. I don’t want insular characters with shtetl names like Faige, Shternie, Avrumie, and Mottie.

It’s not historically accurate and is anachronistic

When I was younger, I naïvely believed the names I knew had always been used, either altogether or on girls instead of boys. Therefore, I created a few minor female characters named Ashley in my Atlantic City books. It’s one thing to have an outlier within the realm of plausibility, like a Jennifer born in 1940 or a Liam born in 1984, but there are some names which just weren’t used on girls prior to very recently, as well as names which simply didn’t exist. Either change the name entirely, or find a close-enough-sounding substitute.

The two oldest sisters in my long-shelved but to-be-resurrected 18th century series were originally named Marionetta (nicknamed Jinx) and Marilyn. Neither of those names existed in that century, so I’ll have to change them when I finally dust them off. Since the third, much-younger sister’s name is Labyrinth (called Lady), I found the perfect new names and reasons for them. Their mother is so enamoured of Greek mythology, she names all of her children after rather obscure Greek deities, including all the children she lost between the former Marilyn and Labyrinth. Jinx’s real name will be Iynx (pronounced like Inks), and Marilyn will become Myrina. Jinx is merely an alternate Romanized form of Iynx.

You want a more standout name for a protagonist or important character

A lot of the names in my hiatused or planned soft sci-fi/futuristic books have names which aren’t standout enough for a main character. There’s nothing wrong with names like Casey, Terri, or Shelly, but they just seem kind of “there” when it comes to an important character. The average reader is more likely to remember a character with a distinctive name one doesn’t encounter every day. I changed Casey to Arcadia, and will change the names of Terri and her two sisters to Esperanto names, since they live in a large Esperantist commune.

You’ve already used the name on more than one other character

You can get away with using the same name on multiple characters in the same series or story (as long as they don’t really appear together or go by different nicknames or titles), as well as using the same name on characters in different books, but it can feel kind of unoriginal or wrong to use the same name too many times.

I kind of reached my saturation point with the name Victoria. There are two Viktoriyas in my Russian novels (the elderly Mrs. Yeltsina and Katrin’s whipper-snapper little sister), and a Viktoria (Vikki) in my Atlantic City books. Therefore, I no longer want to have a Vikki and a Victoria Jane (V.J.) in two more books, despite those being the planned original names for those characters.

You just don’t like it anymore

You should never feel bound to keep using a name you no longer like or have grown to find boring. The unlikely Tsaritsa in my alternative history was originally named Varvara (Varya), but changed to Arkadiya, and the Tsesarevich’s name was changed from Stepan to Yaroslav (Yarik).

Posted in Historical fiction, Writing

Anachronisms to watch out for, Part V

In loving memory of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy on the 50th anniversary of his assassination.

This is the fifth installment of a series on potential anachronisms which can mar the plausibility and accuracy of a historical. In future, I may create more sections if I think of more categories.

Geography/neighborhoods

Some regions of countries didn’t exist, or had different names. Many former colonies had different names. Some cities under foreign rule weren’t officially called by their native names. (Side rant: Ukraine has been independent for over 20 years. It’s offensive to keep referring to their cities by Russified names.) Some streets had different names. The boundaries of neighborhoods were different sometimes. One of the obvious examples of this is that of the so-called “East Village,” which was just the northern, increasingly gentrified section of the Lower East Side till the mid-Sixties. I laughed when I heard of a YA “historical” set in 1950 in the “East Village.”

Personal grooming

As I detailed in Historical Fiction and Body Hair, one of my most-viewed posts (with a lot of creepy, perverted search terms finding it), women in the past didn’t have an obsession with being hairless. A woman in, say, the 1930s would’ve probably been considered touched in the head for shaving her pubic hair, and Western women didn’t shave their underarms till a very successful ad campaign in 1915. Leg-shaving rose in popularity around the same time but didn’t become uniformly popular till around the 1940s. On the male side, facial hair was out of fashion for a lot of the 20th century, and excess body hair was considered a turn-on, not a turn-off.

Toilet training

In the West, until about the 1950s, it was the norm to have your child out of diapers by the second birthday and dry through the night by the third birthday. There wasn’t this culture of keeping kids in diapers and training pants until age four or five, or waiting until the parent thought the child was “ready.” Having a three-year-old wandering around in diapers in 1900 would be pretty anachronistic.

Engagement rings

Until the DeBeers ad campaigns of the late 1940s, diamonds weren’t the most common engagement ring stone. Many people didn’t even have engagement rings, and if they did, they were often more affordable and modest. People 100 years ago would’ve laughed at the thought of an engagement ring costing two-three months’ salary. The alleged “engagement ring” I had to buy myself (and hence got to keep) has black diamonds with some small white accent diamonds, and was under $400 before tax.

Wedding dresses

White dresses weren’t the style until Queen Victoria wore one. And btw, white was meant as a display of her wealth, not some vulgar public proclamation of the state of her hymen. Until probably the post-WWII era, it was most common for American brides to wear simple, modest dresses, often dresses they made themselves and could wear again for ordinary days. In much of the rest of the world, red is the traditional bridal colour. If I ever marry, I’m going to wear a gorgeous black gown (with actual sleeves!) from a nearby designer who does a lot of Medieval- and Renaissance-style gowns.