A friend mentioned the other day that she’d run into a novel set in the mid-19th century in which everyone addressed each other by their first names. All the time. Under every circumstance. It was driving her nuts; her interior historian kept being thrown out of the story. Wouldn’t there have been more formality? And if the author was fudging this aspect of etiquette, what else was she fudging? Or getting wrong? Or figuring just didn’t matter?
It would drive me nuts too. I’m a very forgiving audience, except when I’m not–I can gloss right over what I believe to be an error in world building, if the story and characters are sufficiently engaging that I just don’t care. But make an error before you’ve got my heart and you’ve lost me.
So: how did people talk to each other in the Olden Days? How did they talk about each other? When did the new informality, if I may call it so, become a Thing? As so often happens when such questions are raised, I turned to Emily Post.
In times of change it’s always useful to remember that everything is a time of change. Since the advent of print-on-demand, and then of e-books, there have been approximately 47 trillion articles written on The End of the Book As We Know It, the End of Publishing As We Know It, and so on. It’s easy to believe that the old ways were handed down from Mt. Olympus: a trade book shall require 9 months from the moment it is handed to Production, neither 8 months nor 10, but 9, and 9 shall be the number, forever and ever, hallelujah. Yea, verily, there is but one way to distribute books. Etc. But that has never been so; it’s a rule of thumb, not an amendment to the Constitution.
We forget that, in Jane Austen’s time, the author shared the expenses of publication. We forget that in many cases books were purchased by subscription: when the new canto of Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage was announced, you went to the bookseller and reserved your copy. The publisher didn’t create a big advance printing, he (it was pretty much always a he in those days) printed and bound enough for the subscribers, plus a small overage. Which meant that if something really caught on the publisher–and the printers and bookbinders who worked for him–were suddenly in overdrive. Even a hundred years later, when bookshops were more prevalent, this was the case.
I have been doing research on apprenticeships for a project I’m working on, which led me to a book from 1747, The London Tradesman, a survey of many of the occupations available to the workingman. In the course of discussing bookbinding the book notes that journeymen bookbinders “seldom earn more than ten shillings a week when employed, and are out of business for half the year.”
Wait. Bookbinding is a seasonal trade? Or was? Are the poems not ripe until August? Is there a spawning season for travel journals? Say what? (more…)
So I’m writing this book, set in England in 1812. And somehow a group of the people sometimes referred to as Gypsies, or Travelers, or Tinkers, has appeared and is playing a role in the story. And the research, and the ramifications, and the competing needs to be accurate in both my depiction of these people, and my depiction of the attitudes of the society around them, is making me a little crazy.
Let me just say: I am one of those people who gets a little testy when I encounter historical fiction where the attitudes of the past are retconned to accommodate our current, more enlightened (we hope) viewpoints. Many of people in the Olden Days™ held views regarding women, people of color, people of classes other than their own, etc. which are downright abhorrent to the modern reader. Pretending this is not so, or softening those views so that they seem less awful, or attributing those views only to the Bad People, is false in a way that no amount of carefully researched set-dressing can disguise. As a writer I find the opportunity to put an awful comment in the mouth of an otherwise sympathetic character (one for whom the comment would be in character) to be almost irresistible. It’s what she would have said, given her upbringing and the mores of the society she lived in, so–say it, right? Show how widespread the attitude was.
And yet. (more…)