13 Comments
Jan 31, 2022Liked by G. M. Baker

This was such a superb exposition of this issue - of which I'm aware because I write historical novels - that I'm saving it. However, I'd be grateful for your permission to quote from it or use excerpts when I'm asked to speak to writing groups, schools, etc. (This doesn't happen very often, but your points are so important, and so cogently stated, that I really can't do better myself and would appreciate being allowed to poach yours. Thank you.

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Certainly. With attribution, if you would be so kind.

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Jan 31, 2022Liked by G. M. Baker

No question of that! I always give credit where it's due - and you've earned it.

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Jan 31, 2022Liked by G. M. Baker

Great article. I also write historical fiction. I had a reader complain that my characters, set in 1650s Massachusetts Colony, were unlikeable because of their beliefs and actions were reprehensible. What can I say? Welcome to the past!

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Feb 2, 2022·edited Aug 12, 2022Author

Indeed. If there is one thing that a good history and a good historical novel should both do, it is shake the reader out of their simple moral self-assurance. But, of course, there is more money to be made in confirming people in their simple moral self-assurance. Hopefully you will find readers who appreciate the opportunity you have given them to understand how a person in different circumstances might have very different moral opinions.

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Feb 3, 2022Liked by G. M. Baker

Well reasoned and interesting. I am a Canadian though and I was confused by this statement: "Once it was established that free trade led to greater prosperity, imperial powers ceased to defend and maintain their empires, letting some possessions go free and actually kicking some possessions out, as Britain did with certain Canadian provinces that were reluctant to leave. " When did this happen? What provinces were "kicked out" and when?

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Hi Mary, thanks for the comment. I was working from memory on this, and did not go back and re-research to topic. But from what I remember of what I read in the past, with a little confirmation from a quick check of Wikipedia:

* First of all, there is the obvious fact that Britain fought to keep America and did not fight to keep Canada.

* Confederation was deeply unpopular with a large section of the Nova Scotia population.

* PEI, despite hosting the Charlottetown conference, did not join confederation until 1873, at the urging of both Canada and the UK, because of their accumulated railway debts. They also they made overtures to the US about becoming a state, which alarmed Canada considerably.

* Newfoundland was not particularly thrilled about joining Canada either, with many preferring to remain a separate Dominion. Britain was pushing them to join Canada.

Of course, the story of Britain's move away from empire is far more complex than can be captured in a sentence or two. But that is the limitation one faces when pulling together examples to support a different point.

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Feb 4, 2022·edited Feb 4, 2022

Thanks. I was aware that Newfoundland joining Confederation was not really popular with many of its citizens and really came about mainly through the efforts of Joey Smallwood who became Newfoundland's first premier. Confederation itself in 1867 was also met with mixed reactions in all four provinces. I don't think Wikipedia is the greatest place to go for Canadian history though. But don't ask me where to look, I am not an historian LOL.

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But I really agree with your points about how very different people in the past thought than we do. Concepts that we consider 'normal' just weren't alive in years gone by. I don't think we can even imagine the mindset of a person in the past, even the fairly recent past.

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Agreed. I went as far as to put a disclaimer in the front of my “historical” novel that it was a work of fiction, not history.

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Well said! One of the joys of historical fiction for me is its flexibility as a medium. It can serve almost any creative end the author has in mind, as long as we remember it's _fiction_. I'm partial to the stories that don't deliberately distort the views and values of the period in an attempt to please modern sensibilities. I strive for that in my own novel. But I recognize that, even with the best research and intense sympathy, no writer can ever fully know the hearts, minds, or motives of people from another era (the past is a foreign country, etc.) We barely understand our own. In the end, we're all educated guessers.

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Only a few, but pointed words - Spot on, brother.

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I like this essay. I found myself agreeing with a lot of what you said and there are some pithy statements that I thought were useful. "We have an inbuilt fear of exclusion, since for most of human existence, exile was a death sentence" is one of them. One odd effect of this is you've managed to make me distrust historical novels and academic history in pretty much equal measure. In the final analysis, it seems we can never do much more than intuit the past in a vague sort of way, and it's hard to say, assuming I wanted to know about the Aztecs, if it would be better to read the novel about the Aztec dishwasher or the scholarly study of Aztec temple architecture. One of my favorite subjects for daydreaming is about time travel to observe events and meet people from the past. (Currently top of my list of people: Anton Chekhov.) Based on your essay, I might suggest the closest thing to an accurate (if subjective view) of history is to read what was considered the contemporary fiction of an era (assuming it exists). Of course, even that is flawed. Chekhov didn't write about stuff he thought was obvious to everybody, though for us much of the unstated would be a revelation. Anyway, enjoyed this. And it's true. The civil war reenactors are all wearing modern underpants!

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