Diversity in historical fiction

Many of my story ideas come with historical settings, so I think a lot about the characters I choose to put into those settings. Historical fiction is particularly prone to failures of the Bechdel Test or other measures of diversity. It happens, I think, because writers fear that diversity would seem inauthentic. (When it comes to gender, this is a particularly odd notion, since women have been at least half of the people of every culture, and often a lot more than half.)

I’m in the planning stages for a novel set among the literary set in London in 1703. The people who spring to mind from that culture are white men — Defoe, Swift, Addison, Pope, Pepys, Johnson, etc. — and so it might seem natural to people the book with white men. It’s natural to fear that introducing women of letters, or anyone of either gender who isn’t white or Christian, would be anachronistic and, horror of horrors, politically correct. If a woman crosses the stage, it must be as landlady, fiancee, servant — it must be because of her relationship to one of the men.

But the funny thing is that the literary culture of London in 1703 wasn’t nearly as homogenous as it looks through the backwards-telescope of history. It was very common for women, especially widows such as Elinor James, to run printing shops, to set up as publishers, to compose and publish broadsides. There were writers such as Aphra Behn. There were black writers such as Ignatius Sancho and Olaudah Equiano.

It’s a paradox: historical fiction makes history look more homogenous than it was, because we’re trying so hard to make it authentic, to make it look un-modern. Of course it would be silly, and disrespectful to the struggles of the past, to pretend that every citizen was equal in every culture, that bigotry and violence did not exist. But it’s equally silly to oversimplify those struggles. By trying to be true to the real injustices of history, I suspect we writers sometimes unwittingly perpetuate further injustice on already marginalized people, by erasing them entirely, or sticking Victim labels on them.

I’ve written and read a lot about the 12th century and I’m always amazed at how many powerful women made their mark on Europe and the Middle East in that period, and yet we have this notion that it was impossible for medieval women to be powerful.

I wrote a ghost story recently about prospectors in Manitoba in the first half of the 20th century. At first I was planning an all-male cast but after I dug around a little, I discovered that there were female prospectors, including — in my very region and time period — Kate Rice. And once I had her, I had the seeds of a better story. That one’s out in submissionland at the moment.

Of course my examples, above, are about finding the diversity in cultures that are known for their famous white men. Historical SF could still do with more diversity in its cultural settings.

This has been on my mind a lot lately. So I was thrilled to see a new Kickstarter to fund an anthology of speculative historical fiction called Long Hidden, set between 1400 and the early 1900s, featuring the kinds of characters who are too often edited out of historical fiction. I can’t wait to read it. I might submit, if I get an idea I like, and can carve out the time from the new novel.

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