Brita Addams

Guest Post: Don’t Be Offended by History by Brita Addams

keep-calm-and-embrace-history-1My writing often requires I research the obscure as well as the blatant. I’m also an amateur genealogist of over twenty years, so I’ve dug into many a family history, including a thorough, if incomplete exploration of my own. You’re never done.

I’ve learned how people lived and died over many centuries, discovered things I’m thrilled about and things I’d rather weren’t in my genealogical record. But the cringe worthy episodes are precisely what make for interesting, sometimes uncomfortable reading, and show how far we have come.

I write historical fiction because I love history and my hope is to convey that love to readers. As any author of historicals will tell you, research is key to gaining the authenticity in a piece. Note the word authenticity. While we create fiction, we place our characters in authentic settings, surrounded by the authentic circumstances of their times. This can be backdrop or in the forefront of the story.

Is history sometimes uncomfortable? Of course. But unchangeable. Yesterday is gone. The question is, should we as writers, portray history as it was, or should we participate in the growing movement to create a revisionist history?

Anyone who knows me knows I am firmly in the camp of authenticity. Why? Because we can’t pretend that women, for instance, were treated as they are today. Men ran the world and women had their place. These are facts.

A recent article exposed this, saying that we as writers shouldn’t portray women as the wives and mothers they were, but as kickass, feisty, independent, and able to function without men, because the writer of the article felt that to portray them different demeaned womanhood as a whole. I called nonsense and had I wanted to argue, I’d have left a comment stating the writer should read history before trying to change it.

Why would a woman today be offended by the roles women played in the past? Why judge women characters whose actions are in accordance with the period in which the story is set? Prepare here for a little harsh reality.

history_teacher_joke_explain_not_understand_necklace-r66ede6a34ff44eeaa913890a6d3ae857_fkob8_8byvr_324Women did not run countries (with the exception of a queen here and there,) or states or cities. They were, however, the backbone of the family. They ran households. They bore children, cleaned, cooked, did laundry, sewed clothes and sheets, and coats and hats. Knitted baby booties out of necessity, even spun the yarn. They taught their children their prayers and manners, ate less at meals so the children could have more, wore threadbare clothes so her children could have a new pair of shoes when the old ones pinched. She taught her brood to collect eggs, pump water while warning them not to lose the prime, feed the old wood stove, and peel potatoes and carrots with a knife, not a scraper. Mothers tumbled into bed long after everyone else had gone to sleep and rose before the others to provide a hot meal before starting her day all over again. Mother was the center of the small universe each child lived in.

Fathers worked hard, sometimes fourteen to sixteen hours a day to bring home a meager wage. He sacrificed too, for the sake of his wife and children. Some weren’t good men, much like in today’s world. Some drank and beat their wives. Worse, their children. No excuse for them. They likely learned all they knew about being men from their fathers. Life wasn’t easy and I don’t say that cavalierly. I lived in such a household.

The good men, though, are often maligned. The good men who worked hard, but had a traditional view of women – as the weaker sex, creatures (in a kind sense) he needed to take care of, protect, provide for. He took his responsibility seriously and did the best he could.

Were men disrespectful of their women because they didn’t include them in “important” discussions? A subjective question. Some women, I’m sure, considered such exclusion a blessing, my mother included. Poor thing. Her eyes glazed over when my father discussed anything headier than Red Sox scores.

You see, women were taught to care for the home, while men were expected to work and support their families. Being a parent was treated as a job and housewives were respected for fulfilling that job. I have nothing against women who work, I’ve done it. I’m speaking here about history. My mother had worked before marriage and she often said she’d like to bring in some money, but her job was to raise her children, four in her case, and cater to my father. She understood this.

During periods in our past, women didn’t inherit from husbands or parents. This is illustrated in detail in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The father dies and the fates of his wife and daughters are left to Mrs. Bennett’s ability to marry off her daughters to wealthy husbands, as the estate was entailed to the nearest male cousin, William Collins. Unfair by today’s standards, but a way of life in times gone by. The simplistic reason behind the practice was that the daughters would be raised to attract a man able to provide for her, but the son had to do the providing. Archaic by today’s standards, but no less factual in the course of history.

When a woman of parental means married, her father conveyed a dowry upon the husband, to help the man take care of his new wife. A poor woman’s parents often put together a hope chest, filled with handcrafted blankets, clothes, pottery, cutlery, a Sunday hat, Grandma’s lace handkerchief, and other things needed to start a household.

Unmarried women were chaperoned until after marriage. A man was expected to sow his wild oats, but he married a chaste girl. A double standard, but the way life was.

When a woman broke the mold and eschewed marriage, her career options were limited. She’d most likely work as a schoolteacher, secretary, or maybe a store clerk. Growing up, I knew many “old maid” school teachers. If a teacher married, she retired from the profession and took her place as the center of her family’s universe. The belief, shared by men and women, was you couldn’t have both a profession and a successful family. Something would suffer and best it not be the family.

Married women often took in sewing or laundry to make ends meet. Husbands worked their farms or factory jobs. Women helped harvest crops, feed the animals, slaughter cows, and myriad other jobs on the farms in this country. My husband’s grandmother loved to talk about harvesting potatoes and how she had a baby in the potato patch, and went right back to collecting the harvest. I don’t know how true her story was, but knowing her, I imagine pretty damn accurate.

To view these peoples’ lives through the enlightenment of generations negates who they were. I’ve lived long enough to have known some of the women and men who had to work as described above. Long hours, no matter the weather, just to put food on the table. Did the women think their lot unfair? Hell no. No one they knew lived any differently.

Women weren’t oppressed by the standards of their day. Men weren’t oppressors. Each person had their job to do and they were well aware of their responsibilities.

Why did women stay in abusive marriages? Because you married for life in those days. Divorce was a shame on the family as it meant failure. The stigma affected not only the parents but the children. For the most part, and of course there are exceptions, women didn’t go home to their parents when things got rough. They stuck it out rather than place the financial and physical burden on them and to keep the family together. I am the product of parents who shouldn’t have stayed married, but they did, for fifty years. My mother carried that marker as a badge of honor. She’d weathered the bad times and thought the good more than enough to make up for it.

Critics of historical fiction lament the accurate portrayals, wishing apparently, a costume drama where the author dresses up the heroine in period clothes and has her act like a twenty-first century woman. Or they rail against the treatment of homosexual men and the laws that prohibited them from having a happy life. My favorite is the “too stupid to live” heroines people cynically malign in romance novels. I argue that they are oftentimes, the characters written most accurately. They adhere to the mores of their time. They don’t sleep with men before marriage, they listen to their fathers and mothers, and their husband. And they don’t leave when the going gets tough. Historically accurate, but somehow offensive to some readers.

We as historical authors are faced with a fine balancing act. If we truly wrote history as it was, we’d offend a great many people, because history is either misunderstood or poo-pooed as something before our time, out of step with modern thinking. If we dress it up and attempt to revise the truth, our stories are better received, but in doing so, we’ve done a disservice to history and our need to tell an accurate story.

As I get older, I care less about accommodation and more about truth. Times, throughout history were hard. Women, men, races and creeds were treated unfairly, by all standards. Little Suzy Q didn’t get a new dress every time she blinked, she actually had to learn to take care of a household. She and her brothers had to learn that money didn’t grow on trees and every time they experienced a shortfall, they couldn’t run to Daddy for relief. Sometimes life isn’t fair.

Beloved Unmasked Banner

Please mark your calendars for October 16, when the third book in my Tarnished series hits virtual shelves. Beloved Unmasked is a standalone in the series (for now) and takes place in New Orleans, shortly after the turn of the twentieth century.

Here’s the blurb:

BelovedUnmaskedBorn in 1898 to a heartless prostitute in Storyville, the red-light district of New Orleans, David comes into the world as Picayune, meaning “of little value” or as his mother reminds him, “nothing.”

In the early 20th century brothels and clubs, his love of music sustains young Pic until a fortuitous meeting places him on the road to respectability, and Pic reinvents himself as David Reid.

As David realizes happiness for the first time, conscription forces his friend and first love, Spencer Webb, into the Great War. A telegram from the War Department deals a staggering blow and interrupts David’s pursuit of a law degree. He must gather his wits and move forward. While his future looks bright, specters from Storyville return.

The past holds both pain and love, and facing it head-on might destroy David or give him the freedom to live the life he has dreamed.

Buy Link: Dreamspinner Press

Dividers

BritaAddamspicAbout Brita Addams: Brita Addams was born in a small town in Upstate New York and has made her home in the sultry South for many years. In the Frog Capital of the World, Brita shares her home with her real-life hero—her husband—and a fat cat named Stormee. All their children are grown.

She writes both het and gay historical romance. Many of her historicals, as well as a few contemporaries, have appeared on category bestseller lists at various online retailers.

A bit of trivia—Brita pronounces her name, Bree-ta, and not Brit-a, like the famous water filter. Brita Addams is a mash-up of her real middle name and her husband’s middle name, with an additional d and s.

Readers can find Brita Addams at any of the following places:

Website || Blog || Twitter: @britaaddams || Facebook || Fan page || Goodreads || Pinterest || Booklikes || Monthly column at The Novel Approach

 

 

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21 thoughts on “Guest Post: Don’t Be Offended by History by Brita Addams

  1. I can’t say I agree with Britta Adams at all. She makes some good points, but clearly seems to fall into the same stereotypes others do of the past as well. Things and views were prevelent, not monoliths like she portrays them. Abigail Adams, wife of one of the founding presidents of the US was a feminist(I know this is a primarily M/M review blog, but I feel everyone should look at her life and opinions in order to see how feminist views never were quite as radical as people make them out to be.) and an early supporter of the abolition of slavery in a time we tend to think of as racist, homophobic, and sexist. She had her role as a woman of course, but an 18th century ideal bride was was the right hand general of her commander-and-chief husband. She had to be smart, well mannered in public but willing to let loose in the bedroom, and strong. All of these things were part of the perfect woman, and all these things many women were and more. The domestic goddess, the angel in the home, was an invention of the. Victorian age. The sentiment was one which lasted well into the 20th century.

    Beyond that, there’s the gay Prussian general who whooped our asses into shape at Valley Forge during the American Revolution. People knew he was a “Molly” but respected his experience and the fact he knew what he was doing millitarily. And many other things we would be surprised to know about how our ancestors really thought.

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    • ETA: Britta also gets the plot of Pride and Prejudice wrong, Mr. Bennet is alive and well. Sense and Sensability is the one where the dad dies. The Bennet estate is entailed away from the female line and it plays a big part in the events of the story, but he lives and doesn’t even catch a cold.

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    • Lillith, thank you for stopping by. I would say that, while certainly women like Abigail Adams and Dolly Madison and the many women who fought for women’s rights existed and were beacons of strength in their historical positions, but they were the exceptions and not the rule. They were uniquely placed to serve an entire nation and their contribution to history is immeasurable.

      I speak of the quiet women of the home, who worked alongside their husbands, built this country. They were the long suffering women who had no platform to share their vision of the world, because their world existed within their home. They were the rock upon which their husbands and children depended, while they in turn, depended upon their husbands for financial support, which was, in many cases, all they got from him. Many cases, not all. Nothing is absolute.

      These were women of all educational backgrounds, but most weren’t formally educated past the elementary level. Most women were taught to bear their wifely duty in the bedroom, while I’m sure, with the right partner, they learned to enjoy their husband’s attentions.

      More often than not, they were widowed, some at a young age, left with children yet to raise. They buried children with regularity due to disease and lack of medical care. My husband’s grandmother, for instance, gave birth to ten children, lost five at birth, one at four years, another at twenty-six. She bore the pain of those deaths with quiet dignity until she died at ninety-two. Her husband had died many years before.

      I strongly disagree that the Victorian age brought about the invention of the housewife. She has existed as long as recorded history, in every country, in every corner of the world. Women have sacrificed throughout history, for the sake of the family, standing shoulder to shoulder with their husbands in that endeavor.

      The point of this piece is that we should never forget these women, or consider them foolish or too stupid to live because they, out of necessity and not choice, served their families or stayed in marriages that didn’t feed their souls. Nor does it negate the accomplishments of the privileged. Without them, I shudder to think where we’d be today. My intention was to speak for the women who lived out their traditional roles, and say they should be recognized by today’s readers as having accomplished tremendous feats despite the odds. Being born female wasn’t necessarily a blessing to the millions of women in the past, but the women were certainly blessings to the children they bore, the husbands they cared for, and the communities they lived in.

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      • There’s no implication that we should forget these women, but our view of them is flawed. We either think of them anachronistically or underestimate their role in society. As I said, the 18th century ideal of what a good women is was different than the Victorian ideal. Drastically different actually, much closer to what the ideal Spartan woman was than the Victorian one despite the relatively short time between the two compared to the Ancient Sparta. Abigail Adams actually isn’t that extraordinary when you think like someone from her own time does, she simply is the ideal woman and they likely knew many others that were just like her at any income level.

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        • ETA: There’s a lot of accounts during the colonial era of women, normal women who wouldn’t dream of disguising themselves as men or spying for the war effort, in their own hand, about views we tend to think of as modern. There’s a lot of men who held similar views to these women as well, and they document their opinion as well.

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  2. Hi, Brita, wonderful job as usual. Your articles are fantastic and this is one of the best. Totally agree about how we have to respect history as it was if writing historical fiction. Congrats on your new release in your Tarnished series. That sounds weird but you know what I mean. Hugs to you and Clint. Way to go, honey! <3

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  3. I would never presume to speak for Brita, but I have to say I don’t see where she’s implied the Lady Godivas, Joans of Arc, Abigail Adams, Florence Nightingales, Susan B. Anthonys, or Marie Curies, etc., didn’t exist or play an important role in history. She’s merely stating a fact: that when we read historical fiction with modern sensibilities, we shouldn’t dismiss or discount the roles of women as wives and mothers throughout history because that role was prevalent and, furthermore, it was important.

    If we look at those wives and mothers from the standpoint of having given birth to the trend-breakers and instigators and risk takers who then grew up to buck the patriarchal paradigms of their time by being educated beyond their station, or speaking out against social and political injustices, we have to lift those wives and mothers up as either examples of the woman their daughters didn’t want to become, or as examples of women who were strong in their own way and had planted the seeds of a different potential in their daughters’ minds. For that matter, who knows if Abigail Adams would be revered as a historical feminist if she hadn’t had her husband’s position as President of the United States to give her a platform to do so?

    From a fiction perspective, I love reading historical novels with strong female characters, written perhaps somewhat anachronistically, because they’re women I can relate to. But, if a woman is portrayed as the backbone of her family, born and raised herself to marry, rear children, run her household but to defer to her husband–when often she had no other choice but to do so–I won’t dismiss that character as irrelevant because, historically speaking, she was more the norm than not.

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      • I agree. I love this post, Brita, because you touch on a topic that is really important to me: strong women. I hate the idea that women who stay in the home are not strong or that their duties are “soft” or not influential. I can see, too, your point that judging the past by our own standards is problematic. The women who were satisfied and even proud/happy/fulfilled by their traditional roles were not weak! I doubt I could last a day in the 18th century as a homemaker, LOL.
        But I also see Lilith’s points. I think there is a real danger of making “all” history the same, or speaking of “all women.” The “typical” lives of women vary dramatically depending on socio-economic status and geographic location. Poor women often worked outside the home. For these women, the woman who was not working outside the home might have been the exception to the rule. In the lower classes, the attitudes toward women were often very different than they were in the middle and upper classes. We should also remember, as Lilith points out, that different centuries make a huge difference when we discuss these things. Sometimes, even decades make a difference!
        I’ve done a lot of reading these past few months of old diaries, court transcripts, newspapers, and historical texts. It’s been enlightening to read the attitudes of average, everyday people in their own words. It definitely challenged the narrative I’d been exposed to in historical romances. :)

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        • Precisely this. Strong women and recognising what their role was in the past is important, but a Spartan wife wasn’t the same as a Tudor wife. Each period has its ideal and most women tried in their own way to live up to it, what the ideal was differed though.

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          • Yes and I think historical romance authors really should be as accurate as possible, even when that runs contrary to modern ideas (ideas about what is right, AND ideas about the past) because a lot of readers really do get their history knowledge from historical romances. (Sad but true.) These stories we write have an impact. We should write responsibly :)
            I posted on my own blog recently about a similar issue, and I brought up the problem of the “single story.” I think that same issue applies here. There is no single story of women in history. Instead, there is a rich variety of individual experiences. I’d love to see historical romance authors honor that variety, instead of repeating the one single story.

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            • I couldn’t agree more. Say you’re writing Historical M/M or F/F set during the American Revolution, you should know the exact wording of the soddemy law for where the story takes place. And that F/F relationships weren’t covered under soddemy laws, but under other laws and women could also be tried for breaking them. It affects how your characters view things and what is possible within the confines of the story, so many things effect them. You should know as much about their world as you can.

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  4. Amelia, so happy to see you here. In this piece, I took a microscopic view of history, for the sake of my point, that being in the reading of historical fiction, readers much understand that multitudes of women didn’t live as we do today.

    I research each period I write in, sodomy laws, as well as diaries, journals, period accounts, biographies, etc. I’ve read biographies on each and every first lady and presidents. Biographies were all I read for forty years. I’ve read books on every war, as well as visiting Revolutionary War and Civil
    War battlefields all over the country. I take research very seriously.

    The point is, authors are routinely criticized if they write women true to the period. “I hated this book. I can’t believe she put up with her husband telling her what to do.” There are those who have complained that gay men aren’t treated truthfully in historical novels. If that happened, and again, depending upon the period, we wouldn’t have a story. Yes, we must pretty up history, but we can’t succumb to the notion that we must, for the sake of reader’s modern day sensibilities, create modern day characters set in historical times. That was my point.

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    • I wouldn’t say you have to pretty up history at all in any time period in order to have something like a gay romance, that’s a bit of a simplistic view of things. There’s people living under the same rules and restrictions today who have relationships that last all their lives, just like men in the 18th century did as well. Danger really isn’t a preventative to love or enduring a great deal for love, it just means the consequences are more… well, dangerous.

      Also, I’m sorry if I sounded snippy earlier. It is clear you take research seriously, but even the best of us can get caught up in viewing history through the lense of our Victorian Ancestors. It’s a consequence of modern historical research preactices being more kin to Victorian ones than practices from earlier periods. As such, we tend to make generalizations about women, gay men, trans people, people of color etc. mostly without even noticing where doing it. To me your view as I said earlier, seems to have that Victorian film.

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    • It is a balancing act, isn’t it! Readers don’t always want a history lesson, they want a fun/romantic/interesting story, set in the past. Of course, we want to be accurate, but as you say, being 100% true to period doesn’t always make for a great story or sympathetic characters. And on top of that, readers always bring their own ideas and experiences with them when they read, and you never know how that will influence their view of our work!
      I’m so happy to know so many authors (like you) who do their best to honor history while still creating a compelling story. It’s awesome :)

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      • “And on top of that, readers always bring their own ideas and experiences with them when they read, and you never know how that will influence their view of our work!”

        And here is the crux of my point, as well as the admonition. Don’t bring your own experience into a historical. Take the story as written, and don’t project modern day views and expectations on the characters. Thank you, Amelia.

        It is a balancing act, but the longer I write, the less I worry about balancing. I write what is in my heart and, for the most part, that has served me well. Sometimes I scratch my head at why some people read historicals at all, because their remarks invariably show they’d prefer a contemporary. “I don’t like how they talk all old fashioned and stuff.” (An actual line from a “review.”) Sorry, toots. While I don’t do history lessons, I also don’t skim over that which makes the period come alive. Costume dramas I don’t do.

        Thanks for your comments. I appreciate you stopping by.

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