Yes, Things Were Different Then

A few years ago, an editor I very much admire said something that made my eyes cross.  I’m paraphrasing here, because I’m too lazy to go look the exact quote, but, in answer to a neophyte writer who wanted to know if she had to do a whole lot of research in order to write historical fiction or historical fantasy, the editor said (paraphrasing, right?): you have to do some, but people are basically people, no matter when/where you set them.

Eyes crossing right now.

The world has changed since I was a young human.  I know this because every time I watch an older movie with my daughters there will be moments when they look at me, dumbfounded.  “Was it really like that when you were young?” they ask (about women wearing gloves to leave the house, or men condescending to female lawyers, sexual double standards, really weird hairdos), and I have to say, well, yes it was.  The far past is exotic, but we think we know what it was like because we’ve seen movies and read books and stuff like that.  But the near past, which we think we know because we were there (for some part of it, anyway) is just as exotic.

Case in point: a few years ago I was given the 1945 edition of Etiquette, by Emily Post (yes, that is Mrs. Post in the photo).  This book was published during WW II; women were working jobs vacated by men who went off to war; the world had gone through sixteen kinds of sea change since the end of the last world war (voting women! talking pictures! radio! sulfa drugs and penicillin just on the verge of being mass-produced!) and we think we know what it was like, how people behaved, what they thought and aspired to.

Then you read Etiquette and have to revise your thinking. Mrs. Post’s books may have harkened back to a more formal time, but she was still the arbiter of social usage.  Etiquette covers the waterfront, social usage-wise: exhaustive and exhausting information on weddings and advice on the protocol of engagements (“Correctly, the mother, father, sisters,brothers, aunts and cousins of the bridegeroom-to-be should go at once and call upon the bride and her family.”   I’m imagining the terror as this army descends upon the bride’s hapless family, brandishing visiting cards.  Also, Mrs. Post points out that “THE ENGAGEMENT RING IS NOT ESSENTIAL TO THE VALIDITY OF THE BETROTHAL.”  Caps hers).  She’s got the scoop on christenings and, speaking to the modern woman, she includes the wording for an announcement of adoption (“Mrs. and Mrs. Nuhome have the happiness to announce the adoption of Mary, aged thirteen months.”).

The section on funerals and mourning is fabulous (in the enlightened year of 1945 a widow need only stay in deep mourning for a year, with another year of second mourning–grays, I suppose–to follow.  And as always, men get off easier.  “Although the etiquette is less exacting for a man than for a woman, a widower should not be seen at a dance or any large and solely social entertainment for from six to eight months; a son from four to six months; a brother for three–at least! The length of time a father stays in mourning for a child is from four to eight months.”  A child under eight, however, should never be put into black, no matter what Charles Dickens says).  It’s revelatory to anyone who has been to a funeral in the last thirty years; I’ve never been to one where everyone wore black, have you?

And Mrs. Post talks about servants.  The staff for a large house (the Butler is more important than the Housekeeper, but just barely), includes the butler and housekeeper, footmen, chauffeur, cook, kitchen maids, house maids, lady’s maid, valet, tutor, nursery maid–I feel like I’ve wandered into a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery!  Advice is given to those who have persistent trouble with the help.  To her credit, Mrs. Post stresses rigorous firmness and fairness with the help; no taking your bad mood out on your social inferiors, that’s tacky.  And she talks to the woman with only one maid in a small apartment as well: the maid will of course live in, and you should make her room as pleasant as possible, and allow her a decent afternoon off once a week….

And on it goes.  I could quote you passages (“Business Women in Unconventional Situations: Certain jobs–particularly those of responsibility leading to the heights of success–carry with them the paradoxical responsibility of upholding a moral code of unassailable integrity while smashing to bits all rules of old-fashioned propriety!”) until your eyes glaze over.  Mine won’t; this is like catnip to me, a window into another time and another way of thinking.  Emily Post was not writing for the wealthy who had been wealthy all their lives–they knew this stuff.  She was writing for the people who aspired to be wealthy, or upper middle class, or middle class.  The people who wanted to know how they were supposedto be living their lives.

I would say to my editor friend: yes, if you want to create a different place, you have to do enough research to understand how the place shapes the beliefs and the behaviors, and vice versa.  If you’re looking at the near past, Emily Post is not a bad place to start.

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