How to Understand?

One can study history, and read memoirs and letters, and devour historical novels by the bushel…and yet I find there are still some aspects of how people really lived and thought which it is hard for a modern person to really thoroughly understand.

Oh, one can have an intellectual understanding — but I mean a gut understanding, a real “feeling” for the way people lived, and thought — an ability to mentally step into their shoes, and see through their eyes.

A few areas that I think are particularly difficult for a modern person to truly grasp:

1) Just how different the attitude toward STUFF was. Nowadays, we have far too much stuff — we’re inundated by it, our homes overflow with it, we complain our kids have way too much junk… We have Jane Austen action figures and joke mugs just for the heck of it, our kids get cheap toys in cereal boxes and at the doctor, charities and realtors send us free notepads and coins and calendars and bumper stickers and postcards…

So how can we truly grasp a world where stuff actually cost money? Where things were used and reused and reused again? Where the Artful Dodger could hang for stealing a handkerchief, because handkerchiefs were actually worth something?

2) And how can a modern person raised in a democratic, multi-ethnic society ever entirely comprehend the mindset of a person who never (or rarely) met anyone who wasn’t a supporter of monarchy, whose whole society believed that men were smarter than women, that aristocrats had superior blood and brains to commoners, that people’s abilities were determined by their race and national origin?

3) And how do we, living in a world with good contraception, where women can support themselves (and their children, if need be) by working as a lawyer or doctor or police officer or computer programmer — a world that has heard from Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan and Oprah and Jennifer Crusie and The Joy of Sex — how do we get into the mindset of people who thought a woman’s chastity, modesty and “virtue” were her crown jewels, and who thought a woman’s duty was to obey her husband in the same way her husband obeyed the king?

Anyway, these are three areas that occur to me right off. Which of these seem hardest to you? Or what other things do you think are particularly hard to grasp?

All answers welcome!

Cara King, whose brain isn’t hampered at all by its common blood

About Elena Greene

Elena Greene grew up reading anything she could lay her hands on, including her mother's Georgette Heyer novels. She also enjoyed writing but decided to pursue a more practical career in software engineering. Fate intervened when she was sent on a three year international assignment to England, where she was inspired to start writing romances set in the Regency. Her books have won the National Readers' Choice Award, the Desert Rose Golden Quill and the Colorado Romance Writers' Award of Excellence. Her Super Regency, LADY DEARING'S MASQUERADE, won RT Book Club's award for Best Regency Romance of 2005 and made the Kindle Top 100 list in 2011. When not writing, Elena enjoys swimming, cooking, meditation, playing the piano, volunteer work and craft projects. She lives in upstate New York with her two daughters and more yarn, wire and beads than she would like to admit.
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14 years ago

This is a great subject.

I think the “stuff” issue is fairly easily coped with because of the lack of shops – yes there were a load, but particularly in small towns and villages you’d have a very small selection. They didn’t change their furniture as much as we did – if you bought a bed then you didn’t buy another one five years later because the style had changed, it became an heirloom immediately. It was built to last too.

From my own perspective i have more of these kind of problems, dealing with homosexuals in times earlier than our own. There’s so little documentation about the subject – for obvious reasons – so one has to really use the imagination. I get particularly annoyed (both in het fiction and otherwise) when the characters have modern sensibilities. Yes there were people who made an effort to change their world, but not every heroine can be one of those.

Sharon Osenga
14 years ago

I find it hard to understand how restricted society women were. The loss of reputation was so important with regard to their marriage prospects. It’s hard to grasp in a today’s world where we have so much freedom of movement.

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

This is one of the things I love about reading and writing historicals-imagining how they lived and what they thought.

The trick is to write in a way that readers get this historical feel but still tap into issues that resonate with modern readers or that are based on something very universal.

In the area of “stuff,” I think attitudes about clothing enter in here. I think it’s hard to imagine how much effort went in to making the clothes. They could not just go to Macy’s and pull them off the rack. Laundering them was different , too. I suspect clothing was a precious commodity that people attempted to take good care of.

Janet Mullany
14 years ago

Great topic, Cara. In addition to your point about “stuff,” everything was worth something. Virtually nothing was discarded–or if it was, an industry existed to retrieve and sell it (I’m afraid that dog feces are perhaps the nastiest example, used by tanners. Eew).

For instance, household leftovers like candle stumps or leftover cooking fat would be sold by servants, who then kept the money.

When I was on my flying visit to England last month I was amused to see that my brother automatically put the wrappers from butter into the refrigerator, something we were raised to do by parents who lived through WWII. (You use them to grease, or line cooking tins.) A similar sort of attitude–never waste anything.

Kalen Hughes
14 years ago

You don’t have to go back in time to find just such a world, you just have to switch continents/cultures. Stuff = $, men > women, rich/well-born > poor, virtue important enough to kill for and women unable to determine their own path in life. Large parts of what many of us would call “the third world” still function in exactly this way.

Cara King
14 years ago

True, Kalen, but most of us don’t live there. (I wonder if that means a Regency author who grew up in a third-world country would have great insights?)

And stuff still costs less in the third world than it did two hundred years ago, I think…


Amanda McCabe
14 years ago

Great post, Cara! This is always a concern, as writers of historical fiction, and this is exactly what Megan and I hope to address in our Beau Monde conference workshop–how to get into the mindset of your historical characters, while making them relate-able as “real people” to readers. It’s a challenge, but one of the fun ones. 🙂

And I can’t see how anyone could possibly live without a Jane Austen action figure!!!

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon
14 years ago

Great post Cara. I was just reading the other day, about used clothing shops in Philadelphia where the servants would sell the cast-off clothing their employees gave them, and the African-Americans (among others) would then buy them and remake them. I’m trying to figure out a way to work that into my YA!

Julia Justiss
14 years ago

Now Cara, there are necessities and frivolities and all right-thinking people understand into which category a Jane Austen Action Figure belongs…

Good point, Kalen, about how the freedoms and attitudes we take for granted as “modern” do not exist in all of this modern world. Wow, are we women lucky to have been born in a western democracy! Stuff I could do without…but being considered a chattel, something my father could sell to the highest bidder or to whomever he wanted to please or for the most money/influence? Where if, after being sold off to someone I’d never met, I stepped outside the bounds of matrimony I could be stoned to death? Scary prospects.

Marriage was a scary prospect in the Regency, too, since all your worldly goods belonged to dh, who could literally beat you to death if the mood took him and get away with it.

As Diane said, one of the hardest things in writing a credible historical is maintaining an accurate sense of the period while still appealing to a modern reader who, if she is unacquainted with the times, may have no knowledge of what the restrictions on women then really were.

Louisa Cornell
14 years ago

One of the very worst parts of my job as bakery manager at Wal-Mart is scanning out food that is out of date (this food was on the shelves less than 8 hours ago and now it is considered out of date) or has broken packaging of some kind. After I scan it out (so Wal-Mart can get partial credit for it) I load it up in buggie(S) yes buggies plural and take it to the trash compactor and throw it in! Beautiful bread, cakes, cookies, pies, you name it. Decorated cakes. All of this FOOD and I just throw it away. It nearly kills me to do it. My father was an enlisted man in the Air Force in the 60’s 70’s and 80’s. We were a family of five living on an enlisted man’s pay. We didn’t know it, but we were poor. My Mom made hot dogs, spaghetti, mac and cheese NOT because we loved it but because it was all we could afford. My clothes and my brothers’ clothes were hand me downs from our more affluent cousins that my mother made over.

Wasting anything makes me NUTS!! I totally get the frugality of those times.

Now the position of women in that time would have literally killed me. The first time a man raised his hand to me I would be a widow. I laugh every time I think of a story my late dh’s best friend told at the funeral. He said they were all sitting around in a bar and talking about a colleague who was cheating on his wife. Each of them made comments on the subject, but my dh Roger did not. His BF asked him if he had ever cheated. He said “Nope.” they said “Why not?” He said “My wife’s an Indian. If I cheated on her she’d scalp me.” One of the guys said “With the right woman I’d cheat and take the haircut.” Roger said “She wouldn’t stop with the hair on my head!” Nope. I would not do well as a Regency lady!

Kalen Hughes
14 years ago

As Diane said, one of the hardest things in writing a credible historical is maintaining an accurate sense of the period while still appealing to a modern reader who, if she is unacquainted with the times, may have no knowledge of what the restrictions on women then really were.

Ah, the old “why doesn’t she just get a job?” question, LOL! One of my friends actually got it from an editor (at a major NY house!): “I just don’t really *feel* your heroine’s dilemma. I mean, why doesn’t she just get a job?” ARGH! I feel the Monty Python breaking out, a bit of SPAM SPAM SPAM accompanied by deadly rabbits and lumberjacks in braziers . . .

The hardest thing for me as a writer is not letting my heroines respond as I would to every situation.

14 years ago

In addition to how valuable “stuff” was back then, relative to now, I think it’s often difficult to relate to how different in value things were relative to each other. Nowadays in the U.S., housing is the biggest single cost for almost everyone. Clothing is cheap. Food is basically cheap as well. And labor which requires any amount of skill is very expensive.

Go back 200 years, and housing was (while still significant) a smaller proportion of income than now, but food and clothing were far more. Labor, on the other hand, was cheap. Even a modestly successful merchant or a minor gentleman could have several servants (and, given the lack of our labor-saving devices, needed them).

I’ve seen many (widely-varying) conversion factors quoted between money then and money now, usually accompanied by some caveat that boils down to “but this doesn’t actually mean anything.” It’s hard even to compare similar objects. You can buy candles now, and you could buy candles then, but their importance has completely altered.


Elena Greene
14 years ago

Another thing that I think can be hard to imagine is that servants were always around, doing the things we often use machines for now. Also I think there are often anachronistic ideas of how people would regard servants. I’ve read romances in which the heroine wanted to “liberate” them all, etc… I might find that plausible if she were a member of an eccentric family that was into Utopian theories or such. But in general, it’s more believable if a heroine just wants to treat servants decently as any good employer would.

Kalen Hughes
14 years ago

Also I think there are often anachronistic ideas of how people would regard servants. I’ve read romances in which the heroine wanted to “liberate” them all, etc…

House Elf Liberation Front! *grin*

I’m always greatly bothered by the heroine who is BFF with her maid . . . but then I’ve been criticized for portraying my characters as callous towards their servants (cause the heroine of my debut novel wasn’t prostrated with grief when her maid died in a fire). I think of servants in much the same way I do people I work with: There are some that I’m very close to, but most of them are just people I have a vague acquaintance with (and the proximity of our desks doesn’t always equate to how close I feel to them). And this seems a logical mind-set for my characters. Some of their servants are going to be old family retainers who have emotional ties to my hero or heroine, but many of them are just people who sweep and clean and cook and mop, etc.

Cara King
14 years ago

Oh, I totally agree on the servant thing, Elena and Kalen!

I do think modern Americans have very odd ideas about servants. Many seem to think that being a servant is inherently degrading, and so they exhibit great discomfort at the thought of even having someone to come in and clean their house once a week.

Now, setting aside the privacy issue (which is separate, and also makes modern folks uncomfortable with “help”), I think this discomfort is mostly due to skewed thinking. If you go out to a restaurant, there are folks making your food, doing your dishes, and cleaning the restroom you use. So why isn’t that equally “degrading” for them?

Well, all I can say is, I spent a summer cleaning people’s houses, and I wasn’t degraded one bit. (Though I was always rather entertained at the people who kept trying to explain to me over and over that they weren’t normally the sort of people who hired someone to clean the house, but that he worked and she worked and what with the kids they couldn’t keep the house clean etc etc…and I always wanted to say, “I need the money, I’m happy you’re paying for me to clean the house, why are you apologizing???”) 🙂

Sure, I preferred the folks who were happy with whatever I did, rather than the folks who always complained that whatever I did wasn’t done well enough…but, as Elena pointed out, that was an issue of being treated well in the job, not an issue of the job itself.

I find the best way for me to often think of it (when trying to put myself in a Regency mindset) in order to avoid these weird modern ideas about servants, is to think of it as a business. If I worked at Microsoft, I wouldn’t expect to be buddies with Bill Gates.


Kalen Hughes
14 years ago

“I find the best way for me to often think of it (when trying to put myself in a Regency mindset) in order to avoid these weird modern ideas about servants, is to think of it as a business. If I worked at Microsoft, I wouldn’t expect to be buddies with Bill Gates.

That’s perfect!

Keira Soleore
14 years ago

As an owner of a Jane Austen, Nora Roberts, and Nancy Pearl action figures and tons of precious junk, I can truly admit to being a packrat. That said, I’m an organized packrat. 🙂

Without getting too political on this blog, I would say that #2 exists in the here and now in all mentioned facets and more.

And I agree with Kalen about #3 with relation to countries other than the US/Can/UK/Oz/NZ.

Very good blog on how historicals are not modern people in period dress.

Keira Soleore
14 years ago

Sorry to bust in on the Microsoft thing. I worked there, Hubby works there, and while neither one of us are BillG’s buddies, there has never been a case when we’ve wanted to “talk” with him and haven’t been able to. Servants did not and do not command such liberties. More on this top of servants in modern-day developing world vs. the Regency in person when we meet, rather than on a public blog.