How realistic must we be when writing historical fiction? Victorian San Francisco Mistresses and Maids

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?

11 Replies to “How realistic must we be when writing historical fiction? Victorian San Francisco Mistresses and Maids”

  1. Even authors of non-fiction are allowed a modicum of conjecture in interpreting long-ago events and relationships. However, it is the principle OBLIGATION of the (historical or any other) novelist to create singular/unique/idiosyncratic characters who then act within the carefully researched world of their time. Every detail of Annie Fuller’s world is demonstrably accurate, but it’s Annie herself – smart, gutsy, struggling-to-survive-in difficult-circumstances Annie – who carries this character-driven series. A criticism of her friendly relationship with her maid, Kathleen, seems a bit odd. Countless diaries and other historical narratives document every variety of relationship between domestic employers and domestic servants – cruel, nurturing, exploitative, familial, comradely, etc. But even if that were not the case, as a fictional person Annie has complete license to be the only employer in human history who treats an employee thoughtfully! She can’t dash around San Francisco in Adidas or call Nate on her cell phone, but she wouldn’t be Annie in ANY time period if she were the arrogant, condescending stereotype this reviewer expected to see. Annie as she is in her time is fictional, and the reason people read fiction.

  2. I concur entirely with this splendid essay by M Louisa Locke and Abigail has also hit the nail on the head. A fictional story of any kind is meant to be enjoyed, meant to be entertaining first of all. Accuracy in either historical or contemporary fiction is considered more important nowadays than in the past when writers such as Walter Scott bent history and facts to suit a story. Sure he romanticised greatly but I’d rather read Ivanhoe than many a modern Regency romance crammed with ‘facts’ and typecast characters. I was once accused that The Long Shadow was improbable but it was based on many real facts. Truth is stranger than fiction and our stereotyped notions of the past should be blown away. There is no’s an imaginary dividing line. People go against society and tradition in every century.

  3. Sometimes it is the exception that helps point out a social norm so that we can look at it from all angles. As writers of fiction, we can make social statements by using such a tool and help the reader to a fuller understanding of the conditions of the time. It can make for much deeper meaning and more interesting reading. I choose to write Fantasy because it allows me more freedom to do just that.

  4. I haven’t read your book, so I can’t speak to the reader’s complaint about it (I came here via an RT in my Twitter stream). I agree that when someone says that some event, relationship, or attitude “couldn’t have happened,” they are most likely wrong.

    That said, I do point out what I consider misleading and/or inaccurate depictions of employer/servant relationships when I review, and I’ve written about why on my blog. The problem for me isn’t that servants and their employers couldn’t be friends, but rather than the asymmetry of the relationship (and its consequences for each party) are often neglected in historically set works written today. Of course they had friendships and other types of close relationships. But they weren’t equals, and the way they related was shaped by the period. If the author writes in a way that makes the friendship sound contemporary rather than historically grounded, then I’m going to take note of it.

    1. Dear V.MInx,

      Thanks for the thoughtful reply, I did go to your post and enjoyed it a good deal. Yet I do think that this gets to my question of what responsibility does an author have when writing fiction. In my lectures, articles, etc as a history professor I would be making the same points you did about the importance in understanding the impact of unequal power when considering master-slave, master-servant, secretary-boss, teacher-student, or even husband-wife relationships in the past.

      Yet as a reader of light romantic fiction, or historical mysteries, I don’t always want constant reminders of this truth if it gets in the way of the story. A lot depends on the style of the book. My expectations for cozies are very different from police procedurals in terms of how close they conform to reality, my expectations of a Wolf Hall will be different from a regency romance. I personally stay away from some of the more “serious” historical fiction because it feels too much like work to me, and I do get picky with issues of historical accuracy. Instead I am more inclined to stay with light fluff or books set so far out of my expertise that it is easier for me to suspend my critical voice. So I guess I am saying that I think that some of the responsibility rests with the reader as well has the author in terms of expectations.

      In any event, If you ever do read either of my books, I would certainly love to hear your take on them!

      Mary Louisa

  5. When I read Uneasy Spirits it didn’t occur to me that the relationship between Anne and “the help” was unrealistic. Anne’s supposed clairvoyance, her financial prowess and management of her boarding house seem quite congruent with the historical timing. If I were critiquing your piece I may have looked at it differently. Instead, I just enjoyed it- enough that I am now reading Maids of Misfortune. Anne reminds me a bit of Victoria Woodhull. It can be said that while Victoria’s story was true, it was unrealistic. Imagine, a woman of those years attempting to get elected as President of the United States! Fiction does mirror true life. There are no hard and fast rules.

    1. Dear Theresa,

      You are so right about Victoria Woodhull. One of the reasons I decided to put all the newspaper ads in Uneasy Spirits was to show how prominent female spiritualists and clairvoyants were in 1880 San Francisco, because readers who don’t really know about 19th women’s history tend to think this period must be as limiting to women as the 1950s were. They think that Annie is unrealistic in her occupation or her feminism, yet most of the times when I have her make the most strident statements I am actually paraphrasing what numerous women’s rights advocates of the era said.

      You might find the following story about Regency women businessmen interesting.

      Mary Louisa

  6. I absolutely agree. So often people say “this couldn’t possibly have happened” when they mean they don’t want to be challenged. For instance I was told that it’s just not possible that a young girl in Regency England could have run away – despite the fact that we have several examples of young (working class) women who did manage to run away and join the army or navy, for instance Hannah Snell (d 1792). There’s Nadezhda Durova, who fought in the cavalry during the Napoleonic wars. No, these women were not normal. But they existed.
    I suspect, particularly with Regency novels, some people long for the days when people ‘knew their place’ and society ran along predetermined grooves. Doesn’t mean they’re right.

  7. One timeless truth is relationships are as varied as the people having them. Teddy Roosevelt reportedly treated his servants like family. When I read historical fiction, I like accuracy in atmospheric details. I’m bothered by any obvious anachronism. Yet with relationships in a historical context, anything is possible….the truth is in the characters’ traits not the time period’s details.

  8. Great subject Mary Louisa. As someone who is about to publish my first full-length historical romance, the research I did over several years convinced me that what Mary Matthews said above is verifiably true: One timeless truth is relationships are as varied as the people having them. As my book mainly takes place in the Bay area in 1893, with a subplot that is set 15 years earlier, in England, I was especially keen to discover what the people in the unequal status-based positions felt about one another. The results were amazing. As Abigail noted, countless diaries and other documents reveal a complex matrix that doesn’t actually lend itself to simple equations. And as she also pointed out, even if such historical documents did NOT exist, the fictional character can be and say whatever her creator wants! In Maids of Misfortune, I was very pleased to see how beautifully you recreated the rich tapestry of life in the City in the late Victorian era—a tapestry that has every bit as much of the atmospheric feel and authentic characters as San Francisco actually had in that era. I know because I’ve been neck-high in so much research about the era and the City for the past few years that I immediately recognized your perfect blend of historical accuracy as the backdrop for your most creative imagination! Keep it up, please! tarra

  9. Interesting topic. I don’t expect historical fiction to be faithfully accurate — that’s what non-fiction is for. Obviously, as a writer you need to take care to reflect the period your novel is set in, but I believe that poetic license is fully justified if it contributes to the story and makes the characters more memorable. After all, we don’t require contemporary fiction to be accurate to the last detail — especially not with respect to societal norms, because we know and accept that contemporary society is not monolithic and that individuals can be highly idiosyncratic. I wonder why historical fiction is often not given the same leeway? There’s an interesting prologue in Shirley Tallman’s book “Murder on Nob Hill” where the main character sets the record straight on a historical fact that was disputed by some readers! (they didn’t believe women could become attorneys at that time, a misconception the prologue proceeded to set right with real historical examples)

    BTW, Shirley Tallman’s books led me to yours, Mary – I have Maids of Misfortune waiting on my Kindle. Looking forward to reading it.


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