Kenilworth Castle

Kenilworth Castle
Kenilworth Castle, John of Gaunt's Hall

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Verisimilitude & Anachronism

Is it too much to ask that books maintain some kind of internal order that also adheres to external historicity?
In other words, if you're going to set your Paranormal Fantasy in Victorian London, then you need to know your 19th century  very well, or fussy readers like me are going to throw your book aside in disgust.

This is what happened when I tried to read Clockwork Angel. I hadn't read any of the Mortal Instruments books by Cassandra Clare, but the Clockwork Angel seemed potentially appealing, so I brought it home from the library.
I gave it a try, I really did, going at least 60 or 75 pages in before giving up. I just couldn't care about these two handsome young men and our feisty heroine. Or whatever magical world Clare has cooked up. I'm a bit tired of the Girl Who Has To Choose Between Two Handsome Men Who Love Her as a plot device, because lordy - hasn't that been done to pieces?

What got me most was a passage when Tessa and one of the Handsome Men have to flee from some monster, and Tessa says "oh god, o god" in fear.
Because in the Victorian era, no respectable middle-class Christian girl (which is what Tessa is supposed to be) would use the Lord's Name like that. It would be either truly prayerful, asking God to aid or deliver her (which is not how the text reads), or it would be some other expression of fear, worry, horror.

The spunky young heroine who refuses to be confined by the gender expectations of her culture is another anachronism I'm losing patience with. Yes, I know women and girls were bitterly oppressed and narrowly restricted for virtually all of history. And Yes, I know this makes for dull reading, especially for the allegedly-girl-centric YA readership. And there certainly are plenty of examples of women who managed to break or push on the bounds of societal expectations, and probably many more who wished they had. But the large majority didn't. And so again, and again, and again, to see the vaguely medieval narrative, or the vaguely Victorian narrative, of the smart, VERY well-educated (also unusual) girl who refuses to be married, who doesn't want to be married to a wealthy, goodlooking young man but instead is a Free Spirit who Finds Love while Pursuing Her Dreams in another location - this narrative is bunk-o. And I am running out of patience with it. I'd actually kind of love to read a medieval or early modern narrative about a girl who DOESN'T have all these secret (and then not-so-secret) hopes and dreams but who still manages to live a not-so-awful life. Because I expect there were scores and scores of women throughout history who actually lived pretty happy lives. Or maybe didn't even know what they were missing out on, so had no reason to lament their lot in life.

Finally, I just finished Franny Billingsley's Chime, which I frankly don't know what to do with just yet. As I read, I felt deeply thankful to Diana Wynne Jones for introducing me to the "True Thomas" tale, and to the woman who preys on young men - Fire and Hemlock stymied me for a long time, but eventually I figured it out. My reading of Chime probably would have been both better and worse without having read Jones's amazing novel first: I would have lacked the knowledge of the stories at work, but I also wouldn't have had Jones's brilliance to compare with Billingsley's novel (note: in virtually every contest, Diana Wynne Jones will win. She's just that wonderful).
Some aspects of Chime I liked very much indeed: Billingsley does some wonderful things with words, and I kind of liked Briony, although I also thought she was a bit thick (I saw where the book was heading quite early on, and again - is this because of Fire & Hemlock, and thus not a weakness in the text?). The dreamy odd landscape/chronoscape of the Swampsea was both appealing and infuriating - it's clearly fixed in a world like, if not the same as, ours - there's London and motorcars and electric lights and trains and such - but then there's also the Magical element. Which again, fine, but it seemed to be at odds with itself: real magic seeming like backwoods legend of provincial people except then it is real magic but no one's really fazed by this? How does London fit into the world of the Swampsea?
If you're going to build a secondary world, build it - don't draw half a sketch and knock in one nail to a scrap of lumber. There was just enough fixed detail about the "real world" to make the Swampsea confusing rather than dreamlike, although Billingsley's language counters that.
But Eldric (eldric? what is he, some kind of Elf?) struck me as a simpleton rather than a sarcastic, smart charmer; either I or Billingsley couldn't get his voice quite right. There were an awful lot of gaps that I would have preferred to be erased or left as tantalizing lacunae; instead, it felt a bit like a very carefully, beautifully dug hole that some random careless person had chucked a few handfuls of gravel into and considered it filled.

At one moment, late in the book, one character describes the twin faces of Briony and Rose (BrionyRose, ho-hum) as the result of "genetics."
We're also made to understand that we're a decade or so into the 20th century. Briony makes this clear several times.
The word "genetics" wasn't coined until 1905 or '06. Though the character using the word is known to be eccentrically very smart, it's still highly unlikely that a lifelong resident of the Swampsea would be conversant with the language of biological science to the extent that s/he would casually include "genetics" into daily discourse. Briony, we know, is extremely smart and well-educated, but she seems to have received a classical education in the good old tradition - and it's not terribly likely she'd have been coached in genetics. It was simply too new, and - quite possibly - not considered decent for girls to learn, especially in the Swampsea, especially not the daughters of the parson. And stripping down to trousers and a sleeveless top, alone with a young man - I'm just not sure how well that would fly in the loosely-fixed era Billingsley's creating.

There were other moments that felt chronologically discordant - I felt like I was reading a mashup of The Crucible and I Capture the Castle. This could have been really fascinating, really interesting, as a setting, but Billingsley somehow manages to give both too much and too little detail to seal her scenes.

Still, the plot wasn't a bad one, just not the most original ever, and the historical problems were a fairly minor annoyance (well, "genetics" really jarred me). Briony, and especially her sister Rose, were rather intriguing characters, and the Swampsea is also an intriguing setting [but again, I think of Jones, and The Spellcoats].

But is it too much to ask that writers and editors really cling to verisimilitude? It might be. Though if a large part of the interest of your story comes from its historical setting, then you ought to take care with that setting.

1 comment:

Library Diva said...

I am working on a 2-part blog post about women's roles in a series I've been reading, called A Song of Ice and Fire. Women were oppressed very much in that society, and you encounter different women who've managed to come to terms with expectations in different ways. They have a couple of Spunky Young Girls, to be sure. But I think he did a bit better at thinking outside the box. It's most decidedly NOT a YA series though.