When we write historical fiction, we are really—as much as we do research and strive to be accurate—creating a universe that is parallel to what would be historically truthful. It is impossible for a person to go back in time, 150 years into the past, and not take with them their knowledge of the present, their understanding of how things turned out, their perception of what matters in our own time, their assessment of what is socially acceptable, and what being ethical means now…
Is it possible to talk about social justice in a Victorian-era romance?
My unequivocal answer is yes! But of course, in the process, we have to try and abide by the rules of that long word and important concept most of us need some help spelling: verisimilitude.
I’ll explain. When we write historical fiction, we are really—as much as we do research and strive to be accurate—creating a universe that is parallel to what would be historically truthful. It is impossible for a person to go back in time, 150 years into the past, and not take with them their knowledge of the present, their understanding of how things turned out, their perception of what matters in our own time, their assessment of what is socially acceptable, and what being ethical means now. And that is all fine because we are in the business of world building, of creating a universe that is different from everything that ever was and everything that will be. This is our artistic contribution; it is, in fact, one of the reasons why storytelling is art—it presents our own interpretation, recreation, reorganization, and imagination of what could be.
Of course there are aspects of an era that are easier to reproduce. In A Love Made to Measure, I did my best to represent fashions of the time exactly as they were. In dialogue, I avoided words that were historically inaccurate. I described Regent Street and museums, parks, and houses as they looked in the 1800s. I had my characters eat foods that Londoners would have eaten at the time.
But when I wrote this story, I did it with the contemporary reader (their sensibility, their experience, their interests) in mind. And we, women and men of the twenty-first century, are interested, among other things, in social justice. In 1870 when my story takes place, social justice would have been formulated in different ways, with different understandings, encompassing different practices, and certainly it would have been called by different names. Remember: we are talking about a time when women were not even allowed to vote (Cora Larsen, my heroine, is a suffragist). Married women of the Victorian period were only allowed to control their own property after the Married Women’s Property Act in 1882. How do we reconcile that with our present-day sensibilities?
Because I am writing for the contemporary reader and because I feel passionate about ethics, fairness, and justice, I could not help but make my main character excited about them too. And what a wonderful thing it is that she found a hero, Grant Galavyin, willing to uphold the same ideals. Therefore, in the end, it can all make sense if the inclusion of this arguably modern concept does not break the rules of my imaginary universe. This is what verisimilitude is all about. What you write in a novel has to appear to be real, rather than be real, and it does so by making sense in the universe you have created.
So if I did my job right, when you read A Love Make to Measure, you will feel right at home reading about social justice in the 1870s, and you will cheer and hope that Cora’s and Grant’s worthy actions are rewarded with love in the end.
Eliza Emmett is a pseudonym for Patricia Friedrich, a professor of English with several academic books and journal articles published. She writes historical romance, inspired by the work of Jane Austen and her contemporaries, though her stories are set a little later, in the Victorian-England era. A Love Made to Measure is the first of a series of three romances about strong women navigating a time of great social change and finding love on their own terms.