by Tamela Hancock Murray
As a proud native Virginian, I find it painful to read about the possibility that our early settlers may have practiced cannibalism when my state was but a mere colony. If you have been following the story, you have seen that much of the media presents conjecture as fact but at this point whether or not they resorted to cannibalism during the starving season is speculation. Speculation or not, the idea makes me shudder.
The Gallant Sir Walter Raleigh
My third grade Virginia History book opened with the story of how the gallant Sir Walter Raleigh placed his cloak on the mud for Queen Elizabeth I so that Her Majesty’s feet would not have to touch the ground. Then, as far as I can remember, we moved on to the House of Burgesses, the heroic Pocahantas (not the Disney version), and the founding of the College of William and Mary (not necessarily in that order). I’m sure they mentioned the colony’s hard times. An eternal optimist, I like to focus on success so those facts didn’t stick as well with me. Of course, we were told a few more brutal tidbits during high school, but still, according to my memory, the accounts were coated with frothy icing.
But Surely Everyone Was Rich!
As a teenager, I used to imagine myself as a heroine in an historical novel as being among the rich women who wore pretty dresses and drank tea all day. A more realistic scenario is that I would have been wearing simple clothing while toiling with my husband to eke out a living from the Virginia soil. Perhaps like my great-grandmother, I would have given birth to seven boys.
I especially liked reading about the 1920s because I could relate to the age of the motorcar and more conveniences than past eras. So when Grandpa Bagley told me, “The twenties were tight times,” I was shocked and disappointed. The people I was reading about were rich! Wasn’t everybody back there then?
Wine and Roses — NOT!
One of the most unromantic marriage stories I ever heard was told by a relative who came of age at the turn of the twentieth century. She said, “I could either work on the farm for my daddy or work on the farm for myself. So I decided to get married.”
Indeed, in fiction, we seldom read about the unromantic side of history. One element of city living that comes to my mind is the practice of throwing the contents of a chamber pot out the window, possibly hitting a passer-by. We read about war heroes, but not the mundane reasons some were sent home. For instance, my great-great grandfather was released from the Confederate Army not because of anything as dramatic as fire and bullets, but because of an intestinal inflammation known as dysentery. And even though some authors do mention the economic and social benefits of certain marriages, the hero and heroine nevertheless love each other dearly by story’s end. Unfortunately, the reality in many political and economic alliances was not so rosy.
No doubt I’m missing some gritty books out there, but I think most writers of historical fiction usually know far more about how life really was in their chosen era than they let on to their readers. We all want to read about conflicts far more interesting than bare economics, or the depressing reality of a political marriage where the couple goes their separate ways after producing an heir an a spare.
What We Really Want
When pursuing novels, few of us want to read in detail about the neverending battle against dirt, soot, and pests, the uncertain and possibly unsafe food supply, or the stench and crime of the city. We dress our characters in silk. We insist that our heroes be gallant like Sir Walter Raleigh. (Don’t believe those nasty rumors that the story is a myth. Of course it happened!) We demand that our hero and heroine find true love regardless of the circumstances. Because, in reality, isn’t happily ever after what we all really want?
If you write historical novels, what facts have your omitted?
Whether or not you write historical fiction, have you been glad to learn brutal facts, or wish you didn’t know them about our history?
As a girl, I was taken by the story of Sir Walter Raleigh and have been married almost 29 years to a man who is very gallant. What stories inspired you as a child?
What book would you recommend for writers of historical novels to use as a research tool?