How do you write about the past when the past is ugly?
Much as I love the Victorian era, it’s a long-distance affair; I would never want to live back then. Society was racist, sexist, classist, homophobic and imperialistic. I don’t want to live in a society like that; flawed as the 21st century is (and right-wingers are working to make it even more so), it’s better to live now. And from a self-interest perspective the odds are better that if I reverse-reincarnated I’d be a struggling member of the working class than that I’d be to the manor born. It’s 50/50 I might be a woman; I might also be black, gay, Indian, etc. Writing about the Victorian age poses a separate question: how do you write about a world like that? There are several possible approaches:
1)Present the world in all its brutal ugliness, without comment.
2)Ignore it, if your story makes that an option. No One Can Slay Her takes place in the late 1950s; even though it’s an alt.timeline (gay marriage is normal, magic works) I suspect the U.S. otherwise looks like it does in our world. However it’s a fantasy-mystery short story where Jennifer Armstrong’s trying to save her wife from a killer; I don’t include any discussion of American foreign policy or Jim Crow because they’re not relevant.
3)Make your protagonist one of the disadvantaged. Matt Ruff told Lovecraft Country from the POV of a black man in the 1950s; criticism of the decade’s racism flows naturally from that point of view.
4)Find some other way to convey you’re not down with the bigotry of the past. Your protagonist is abolitionist in pre-1860 United States, sympathetic to gays despite the attitudes of the time, etc. While this can end up looking like you’ve just transplanted modern-day liberals to the past, it doesn’t have to: there have been people who opposed injustice in every era, even if they weren’t personally affected. In one story I’m kicking around in my head, the female co-lead (teamed up with a younger guy) had an uncle with the gay-rights Mattachine Society so she’s more liberal on that point than the average person in the 1970.
I don’t think any of these are “the” answer; they’re all valid options depending on what sort of story you’re writing and what you’re comfortable with. I doubt I could pull of #1; I’ve had a character use the n-word once, in a short story in Atoms for Peace (Available at Amazon as an ebook and paperback and at other retailers as an ebook); I think it was the right choice for the character and the story but I still wonder about it.
In Questionable Minds, Sir Simon Taggart is mostly a conventional Victorian. The British Empire is a wonderful thing and the class system is perfectly acceptable. However he does believe that even the poor deserve decent lives and a chance to better themselves; he spends a lot on charity to put his money where his mouth is. He has conventional views on women, but the women of the cast are an independent lot. That Simon’s okay with this shows he’s less conventional than he thinks, though he still expects his daughter to follow a conventional aristocratic path — no, she definitely will not be working for Scotland Yard!
Supporting cast member Francis DuQuesne is a flaming radical by companion. He’s traveled overseas and has no illusions about the empire on which the sun never sets: it’s an oppressive system and he wants it demolished. He’s allied himself with the Si-Fan, the secret society to which Sax Rohmer’s Dr. Fu Manchu belonged (that isn’t a real Chinese name and I don’t use it in the book). As I’ve written before, Fu Manchu’s goal in the books wasn’t world conquest but overthrowing British imperialism — though from Rohmer’s perspective, that was enough to make him a villain. If I sell enough copies to justify a sequel, I’ll be dealing more with that issue (I have some vague ideas already).
Even so, the book certainly isn’t a scathing social critique. I don’t intend it to be an endorsement of the Victorian way of life, either; hopefully it doesn’t come off like one. I guess reader reactions in less than a month will tell me.
#SFWApro. Top cover by Samantha Collins, bottom by Zakaria Nada.