Last summer, my fam assembles for the usual 4th of July weekend. We swam, barbecued, lounged around. Someone made the inevitable comment about how my family is shamefully unpatriotic. This year I think it was Brianna, who hesitantly (and politely) observed that she grew up going to 4th of July parades and really celebrating our freedoms and national character.
That it seemed odd bordering on annoying that her husband was unable to quote the pledge of allegiance. (I think it was the pledge, my apologies in advance. It might have been the national anthem, which—thanks to watching hockey games, I can now sing with fair accuracy).
Carlie, my oldest brother’s wife, instantly perked and concurred. She started her marriage feeling that somehow our family was “normal,” and she was just exuberantly patriotic.
Somewhere along the line, my family just decided they would rather be English. I realize we’re not, and I realize how incredibly grating it is to real Europeans when Americans claim their heritage all willy-nilly. I get that.
We’re not really English.
We’re just sort of philosophically displaced, highly skeptical, culturally withdrawn Americans. Or something like that. I don’t really know.
I do know that my bookshelves look like this:
That our bathroom has lush shots of Oxford and Stratford. That we have an inordinate number of tea pots for a twenty-something couple. That I’m addicted to the British classics. That “The King’s Speech” was my favorite film of 2010.
That 4 of my 5 books have been set in England.
I’m not sure why that is, but I’ve started to wonder more recently. Obviously there’s nothing wrong with liking historical fiction. It’s escapist for sure, but escapist is a slippery term. All books—fiction or non—are escapist in the sense that they take you out of or beyond what you know from personal experience. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
So I don’t have a problem with writing historical fiction. I’m just curious why the unerring pull. And why, oddly enough, I switched periods this last book from Victorian to 1920s… and don’t have any interest in going back to the Vics. Am I working my way toward modern day? I think I might be.
The more I think about this, the more I suspect there’s really only one big reason why historical fiction and Englishness have always appealed to me (besides the bells and whistles and costumes, I mean. Those are always fun). Englishness is just an exaggeration (and mild displacement) of all the things I—and we—really do worry about. Americans don’t really like to believe that we have very many shades of “class,” for example. We all know there are millionaire celebrities and folks on welfare, but the middles are all pretty much equal, right?
So it’s fun and innocuous to write about the English and their ridiculously rigid class systems, social anxieties, arguments, and sticklers. But it’s also pretty much the way we are in the States. Only we don’t have the buffer of Amusing National Character. Here, it’s just ugly. And if you want to write about it, you have to write serious books that make people angry.
I’m not sure I want to write serious books that make people angry.
More so than any other type of novelist, historical fiction writers get to play the Man Behind the Green Curtain. We get to say whatever we think and point out the utter foolishness of those we deplore without taking any heat. After all, people are the same today as they were in the 1920s or the Victorian Era or ancient Rome, with basically the same factions and problems and quarrels.
The historical fiction writer just has more toys to play with.
At least, that’s what I tell myself these days when I start to feel a smidge guilty for avoiding all the “issues” of contemporary life and fiction. I don’t know. I don’t think I have a Great American Novel in me. I can’t imagine sorting through all the debris of modern life to find the right shiny bits to paste together. It looks like way too much work.
And I don’t know if I like the idea of writing a downer. Great Am Novs seem to all be downers. Something about the American belief that sadness is the only impressive emotion.
Eh. Too complicated for me. Shall go back to writing my vapid, self-indulgent, Brit-froth mystery now. This is a problem for the proverbial tomorrow…