I planted my garden last week. Sowing seeds took me back to my rural roots and memories of doing the same thing with my Mom. She let me plant the beats, beans and peas, but didn’t trust my small fingers with the fine seeds of lettuce, carrots and radishes. Mom was part of “The Greatest Generation,” born during WWI, grew up through the Depression and came of age in WWII. I’m sure it was that background that made her treat each seed as precious. That tiny black dot in my hand was food for the family, a necessity of life. No wonder she guarded it so carefully.
I’ve lived in a more affluent world. I plant a garden because I enjoy it, not because I rely on it to feed my family. If I drop a few seeds outside the row, I don’t worry. If I sow too thickly in one area and too thinly in another, it’s no big deal. My approach to the vegetable garden is much more lackadaisical than my Mom’s but that doesn’t mean I don’t understand her point of view and value the lessons she taught me.
And that brings me to my point. When I write historical fiction, whose values do I present? Contemporary Canadian society or the nineteenth century world of the story? What words do I use? What makes a character heroic?
Flower children of the sixties tended to deride the mores of the fifties, heaping scorn on their parents’ “unhip” beliefs. But I think it is unfair to judge one generation by the values of a later one. If you haven’t lived through the Dust Bowl, what right have you to judge the attitudes of those who did?
We’ve made drinking and driving a social as well as a legal crime. Does that mean that everyone of the “Mad Men” era was a social pariah? Of course not. It was a different time. Society was different. Cigarettes and alcohol were just part of the landscape.
I enjoy watching old television shows like “I Love Lucy” but, even when it’s part of the humour, the male chauvinism makes me cringe. But “I Love Lucy” is still funny and the world it presents is representative of its time.
I write books set in the late nineteenth century, when language was more blunt (cruel?) than now. A character in that time would use the word “cripple” as a simple descriptive, no insult intended. No one had ever heard the term “mobility challenged.” If I put a phrase like that in my character’s dialogue it would sound ridiculous. In the nineteenth century, the term “First Nations” hadn’t been invented? Do I use the term “Indian” as would have been the standard at the time, or do I perform convoluted hoops to describe the previous inhabitants of the territory in some other way?
The political landscape of the 1890’s was vastly different from ours. What present day Canada considers racist, was simply the natural order of things to the people of that society. Do I try to bury the issues of the time because they might offend someone today?
I’ve found many forums on this subject, but no consensus. There seem to be as many opinions as there are readers and writers. Here’s a sampling. https://writinghistoricalnovels.com/2013/09/28/on-the-use-of-politically-correct-terms-in-historical-fiction-by-jane-Kirkpatrick/
So, dear reader, what is your opinion? If a well-bred lady of the nineteenth century refers to her Asian servants as “Orientals” (the polite term at the time), will you be offended? If a no-account lout refers to those same people as “Chinks” (the impolite term at the time) will you be offended? Use the comment box below to share your views.