I was overly ambitious while writing my talk for last Saturday’s OCC/RWA meeting on Herstory: Writing and Researching the Historical Novel, so I’m going to excerpt some of the material I had to omit in my monthly blog post. This month, social mores.
One of the biggest traps historical novelists can fall into is writing historical characters with 21st century mores. And nothing can make the reader want to throw a book across the room quicker. This especially applies to women. The double standard still exists, but it was much greater in previous centuries.
War and social unrest have always upset the normal patterns of life, and social mores tend to fall by the wayside during such periods. Still, a historical female character who shows no regard for her reputation isn’t believable unless she’s already a fallen woman and has no reputation to lose. Personally, I don’t necessarily mind a heroine who flaunts society’s rules; I just need to believe that she knows what she is doing and is well motivated in her choices. The woman who doesn’t understand the consequences of her actions strains credibility. Women had a lot more to lose in the not-so-good old days. It’s especially tricky when you have a virginal heroine. People in those days set great store in virginity. But if we’re going to write sensual or erotic historical romance, we need to find a way for our heroines to bypass those restrictions.
Though the concepts may seem rather old-fashioned nowadays, honor and integrity were more important in the past, esp. for men of the upper classes. One of my favorite scenes in Downton Abbey is the one where the Earl of Grantham tries to buy off chauffeur Tom Branson if he will leave Sybil alone. Tom refuses and informs the earl that men in his class are’t the only ones with honor. Point, Tom!
However, morality did tend to vary by class. Upper and middle-class children were taught their manners and the difference between right and wrong while poor kids just tried to survive. In his childrens novel, The Shakespeare Stealer, Gary Blackwood introduces us to Widge, an orphan boy apprenticed to a dishonest clergyman. Dr. Bright teaches Widge a form of shorthand he has developed and then sends the boy to write down other vicar’s sermons. One Sunday, Widge hears Bright deliver one of the sermons heâ€™d copied. At first, Widge doesn’t think too much about it. As he puts it, “As nearly as I could tell, Right was what benefited you, and anything which did you harm was Wrong.”
In George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, the basis for My Fair Lady, Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle, talks about the undeserving poor and opines on middle class morality.
Morality and honor sometimes require our characters to act against their own best interests, which can be great for conflict.
So how do you know what the social mores of your period were? And how likely were they to be ignored?
See what was going on in the period. As I said, social mores often go out the window in wartime. And history being somewhat cyclical, periods of repression are usually followed by periods of licentiousness, like the English Restoration, a bawdy reaction to the moral restrictions of the preceding Puritan regime of Oliver Cromwell.
Also consider the prevailing religion of the time and location of your book. That will often provide guidance. Moral standards in Puritan New England and Cavalier Virginia during the Colonial period were quite different.
Look for etiquette books for the social niceties. For the Regency period, check out The Mirror of the Graces by A Lady of Distinction, first published in 1811. I have a paperback copy, but it’s available in e-book format format. Google etiquette and your period and you will likely find a lot of choices.
For those who missed the August meeting, I’ve added pages at the Reference Shelf on blog with two of my handouts. Primogeniture still to come.