I had planned to write about the social structure of Victorian San Francisco when two recent events got me to thinking about the tension historical fiction authors feels between accurately portraying the past and telling a good story. The first event was a mixed review I got for my most recent mystery, Uneasy Spirits. The reviewer suggested my treatment of the relationship between my protagonist Annie Fuller (who runs a boarding house in addition to being an amateur sleuth) and her staff was “unrealistic” because she treated her servants as friends and permitted them to have a Halloween party. The second event was an article in the New York Times Magazine entitled Nannies––Love, Money, and Other People’s Children, which reminded me how little the has changed between the Nineteenth and the Twenty-first century in terms of the problematic nature of the relationships between employer and employee in the realm of “domestic service.”
As the Times article pointed out, in modern urban America, economic success depends to a large degree on two incomes, which in turn has meant that many families have turned to nannies to care for their children (and I might add, cleaners to clean their houses and gardeners to keep up the yard). In the Nineteenth century, it generally wasn’t women working that increased the demand for servants, rather it was the new urban middle class ideal of gracious living, characterized by a plethora of consumer goods, multiple-course meals, and well-behaved children, Supposedly this was all made possible by an “Angel in the Home,” a middle class wife sitting firmly on her pedestal and making sure that all was quiet and serene when her hard-working entrepreneurial husband came home. This ideal was only possible to achieve if there were servants.
And, as is true today, there was often an uneasy relationship between the middle class women and the people, usually other women, who worked for them. Some of this came from cultural and class differences and some from a sense of guilt on the part of mistresses, who were handing over what is still characterized as “women’s work” to other women and the maids, who were forced by economic necessity to neglect their own families to do the work of other women.
My critical reviewer was therefore, partially correct. Many, maybe even the majority, of Victorian era mistresses would not have had the same friendly relationship with their maids that Annie did. In fact, one of the characteristics of domestic service in that period was the frequency with which servants, usually young and single, left their places of employment-––seldom staying long enough to develop any personal relationships between mistress and maid. The article on modern nannies made it equally clear that the relationship between mothers and the women who take care of their children can still be less than ideal.
But what the critical reviewer said was that the kind of friendly relationship I portrayed in my book would “not be allowed” and was therefore “unrealistic”–ie not real.
But this would only be true if everyone, now and in the past, behaved the way society says they should, and if there were no exceptions to the norm. But there are always exceptions to the norm, and as any professional historian knows, sometimes we can learn as much about the past from looking at the exceptions as we can from looking at what was “typical” behavior. For example, just as the author of the NYTimes article found nannies that had become valued “members of the family,” there is evidence of servants in Nineteenth century households who worked for families for decades, developing bonds of affection and mutual respect. The question an historian would consider is how exceptional were these examples and what factors explain them. But should that be the main question that the author of historical fiction should consider?
Having been both a professional historian and an author of historical fiction, I would argue that, while historical fiction authors are responsible for portraying the past accurately––no motor cars or electric lights before their time––they are primarily responsible for telling a good story with characters whose behavior the reader can understand and feel sympathy. It is fiction, after all, that we are writing.
I might have given my readers a better idea of the “typical” relationship between mistresses and maids if I had written a story where Annie had a cold and distant relationship with her cook and a story where Kathleen the parlor maid was resentful. However, this would have been an entirely different story, and Annie would have been a completely different character, and I believe the result would not be nearly as entertaining to read.
For example, Annie’s loss of her mother, her odd isolated childhood, her experience with her in-laws as badly treated dependent, all help explain why she would view the motherly cook, Beatrice, as a friend, or feel a sisterly affection for her maid, Kathleen. These relationships help define Annie, make her sympathetic, understandable. In addition, conversations with these servants make the story more dynamic since I can have Annie convey information I want the reader to know through these “friendly” conversations with her staff, rather than have everything come out as interior dialog. Elsewhere I have already addressed why the inclusion of the Halloween Party in Uneasy Spirits was an important plot device. How boring historical fiction would be if it stuck to the narrow confines of what you could prove “actually happened.” I have more than enough footnotes in my past, I don’t need any more.
However, whenever possible I did try to make the information I provided accurate. I made Beatrice and Kathleen Irish, gave the Vosses a Chinese male servant, and had Biddy, a servant in Uneasy Spirits, decide to leave domestic service for a manufacturing job, even though it paid less money, because all these were details based on the facts of San Francisco domestic service (see my blog post on this.)
It also wouldn’t have been historically accurate if I had portrayed every mistress and maid in my books has having had the same kind of relationship. From reading the diaries and memoirs of Nineteenth century domestics I know that some mistresses worked side by side with their servants, sitting down for a cup of tea with them, or asking after the health of their mothers when they came back from a night out, while others didn’t bother to learn their maids’ names, accused them of malingering when they were ill, and exploited them terribly.
In fact, one of the major themes of my first book, Maids of Misfortunes, was the insight Annie got into the life of a domestic servant and how other mistresses behaved (the hard work, the isolation, the snooty up-stairs maid, the uncomfortable intimacy with male members of the household, and the crabby mistress) when she became a domestic servant in order to uncover a murderer. This experience made my protagonist aware of how over-worked her own maid, Kathleen, was and it caused her to hire a laundress to share Kathleen’s workload.
Would a typical mistress be so thoughtful? Probably not. But then how typical was it to have a middle class woman go undercover as a maid? Not very, but that is why it is called fiction. In my choices of how to portray Annie and her relationship with her servants, I kept in mind my audience and the kind of mystery (a cozy––not a gritty explorations of the Victorian underbelly) I was writing.
Interesting side note, twenty years after the period when my protagonist went undercover as a servant, a social worker, Lillian Pettingill did the same thing to investigate domestic service, just as modern day investigative reporter Barbara Ehrenreich did as part of her research for Nickled and Dimed.
Finally, I wonder if authors and readers are holding historical fiction authors to a double standard when they demand complete accuracy, something they seem to do less frequently with contemporary fiction. I say this because the blogs and review comments are filled with discussions of how accurate or realistic historical fiction is or should be, from authors and readers alike. However, I don’t see similar debates over whether or not it is realistic to have circles of cozy quilters all agree to investigate a crime, or have a police detectives solve all her crimes by extracting confessions, or make most fictional private detectives conveniently single without children, so late night stake-outs are no problem. While I suspect that some readers do read contemporary mysteries to learn about the details of police procedures, and I certainly do enjoy learning about places and people and occupations I am unfamiliar with (a small Canadian town with Louise Penny, people living in Alaska with Dana Stabnow, or horse-racing with Dick Francis), I am very willing to suspend my disbelief and assume that they are not writing about those places, people, and occupations with complete accuracy. Yes, as readers we don’t want details to pull us from the fictional world we are inhabiting, but neither should the author agonize that they haven’t made all their characters behave in completely “typical” or “realistic” fashions.
What do you think?