I’ve been doing research for my next book, and stumbled across something that reminded me of an important point about writing historical fiction.
A few years ago I came across the following quote by William Hazlitt (from a series of lectures he gave in 1818): “I am a great admirer of the female writers of the present day; they appear to me like so many modern Muses.”
What a patronizing jerk! I thought. Those women aren’t there to inspire YOU, they’re artists who do their own creating!
Then, while reading the essay “Representing Culture: ‘The Nine Living Muses'” by Elizabeth Eger in Women, Writing, and the Public Sphere, 1700-1830, which discusses this 1779 painting by Richard Samuel, I came across this passage:
“As Marina Warner has argued in her study of the allegory of female form, [the muses’] symbolic power is so universal that it seems that we are not meant to associate them with real women, let alone women artists. She is correct to make this point in a contemporary sense–we have for the large part lost a sense of the individual characters and functions of the muses, let alone the possibility that they might refer to real women. The muses form an allegory of ideas, in which the personification of abstract aesthetic categories is the primary device[…]Samuel, however, has painted his peers–living women who practiced the arts they represent[…]
Images of the muses or muse in the twentieth century have tended to be voiceless sources of male creativity rather than vivid practitioners of the arts. […C]ertain male poets, such as Robert Graves, have been responsible for perpetrating the myth of the muse as an eternally feminine and passive figure of inspiration. The Romantic and modernist concentration on the individual act of literary creation has tended to focus on the poet’s communication with the muse as an intimate and often highly sexualised relationship, obscuring the classical tradition of representing the muses as a group of independent, active, wilful and manipulative practitioners of the arts.”
There are things I know are different about the Regency gentry: they talked differently and dressed differently, duels were a reasonable way to resolve an argument, a woman who had sex before marriage was “ruined,” and not paying a gambling debt was worse than stiffing your grocer. I know those things because they’re big things and I can’t get away with not knowing them. (Although I still remember how shocked I was the first time I realized that “democracy” was a dirty word in mainstream society during the Regency! If I’d thought about it, I would have figured it out–but because positive associations with democracy are such a basic thing to me, I didn’t think about it.)
But it’s not just the big things that shift over time. Little things were different too, even things that seem “instinctive” or “obvious” to me. The muses represent X to me, so they must have represented X to a Regency person, because that is just what the muses are! But no, the human mind is a wonderful and fascinating thing, and many ways of thinking about things that seem self-evident are really just a product of culture.
Culture changes, even the little things. And if I want to write historical romance that really pulls the reader into another time and another world, if I want to really do justice to my time period, then I need to be as aware of that as possible.
(Of course, in searching for the quote for this post, I discovered that William Hazlitt goes on to say, “I could be in love with Mrs. Inchbald, romantic with Mrs. Radcliffe, and sarcastic with Madame D’Arblay”…so, I guess the women writers are just there to inspire him. He then mocks a series of women poets with such zingers as:
“Miss Baillie[‘s] tragedies and comedies, one of each to illustrate each of the passions, separately from the rest, are heresies in the dramatic art. She is a Unitarian in poetry. With her the passions are, like the French republic, one and indivisible: they are not so in nature, or in Shakespeare.”
Oh, snap! I’m now picturing his lecture as a stand-up comedy routine that bombed horribly. Probably that’s another anachronism, but hey, the more things change, the more they stay the same, right? Clearly I should have trusted my instincts about Hazlitt.)