When I was an adjunct professor and teaching classes that involved history, it was not unusual for a student to raise a hand and say, “Prof, if Thomas Jefferson was so great, why did he own slaves?”
But it isn’t just Jefferson. If you pick any historic figure who did something amazing or forward-thinking or just brilliant, you usually will find something that is “backward” or oppressive or, even, just plain stupid.
Why is that?
In short, because they’re human and they didn’t live in a vacuum.
Over the course of time, historical heroes become idolized. We tend to reduce them to basics and remove them from their location in history. So, when we learn something new about them we may feel let down or confused.
Here’s an example: Lincoln pondered sending freed slaves to Liberia. But how could the guy who wrote the Emancipation Proclamation even toy with the idea of sending away the very people he freed? Answer: because he lived in the nineteenth century and no one had a clue what to do with a large group of formerly enslaved, now-freed human beings. What would they do for a living? Where would they live? How would they live? The nation’s leadership had a limited imagination. The governmental and cultural tools on hand were not up to the task. And let’s not forget all that was mixed up with racist and prejudiced attitudes that had developed over centuries. And that is how a seemingly brilliant and compassionate man could also be seemingly uncaring and cold.
The truth is human beings, regardless of their impact on history, are still human beings located in a specific time, and it is helpful to see their actions, words, and thoughts in that light. I don’t say this to let them off the hook. I’m saying it more as a way of helping us get over our shock when our heroes do not live up to the hype.
A similar challenge exists when writing fiction, whether it is historical or otherwise. Characters need to be complicated and rooted in their time.
Let’s look at Eli and Maggie Smith.
Eli is quite supportive of Maggie. In fact, although she enjoys writing, she previously had understood her primary responsibilities to be running a boarding house and raising her daughters. She would have liked to have written professionally but believed that other things demanded her allegiance. Maggie therefore had a very nineteenth-century “woman’s sphere” take on life, to the point that she turned her boarders into family. In her mind, Maggie was keeping house, rather than running a business. Eli is the one who sort of helps her get “woke.”
He encourages Maggie to edit and write articles for his newspaper. And he stands up for her when she embarks on new, and possibly controversial undertakings, such as a school for children of color (found in my current work-in-progress). Eli steps up takes care of the children, even to the point of giving Bob baths and changing Faith’s diapers.
So, kudos to Eli for being an enlightened man and freeing Maggie to follow her muse!
Oh, wait, a minute. Have you ever seen that guy do the dusting? Or doing the back-breaking weekly task called the laundry? And when did he ever cook? Okay, he did roast things over a fire while he and Carson were following their muses and covering the war as correspondents. But has Eli ever cooked at home to give Maggie a break? Hell to the no! In fact no to all three of those things.
How could such a loving, enlightened man like Eli not see that his wife just might need help with the housework? Answer: because he’s a nineteenth-century man. He lives in a culture that presupposes men are not supposed to do housework. So, as forward-thinking as he appears to be, Eli does hit a cultural wall.
I can point out more things that illustrate how my characters might have absorbed the norms of their times verses other, more enlightened behavior, but that would take more time than I have today and probably way more than you want to read.
To sum up, what is true in fiction is true in real life, and what is true in real life is true in fiction. Everyone is flawed in some way and everyone is located in time, and that includes historical heroes.
Disjuncture is more normal than it is hypocritical.
Perhaps disjuncture is simply “being human.”
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder