I must have been feeling pretty
arrogant confident the day I decided to write a novel set four centuries ago in a country I have never visited, and largely concerning an industry about which I know little – either in the present time, or how it was practised in the past.
My work in progress, Kikimora, has required a LOT of research. And every time I think I’ve done enough and can get back on with the story, I immediately butt up against another detail I’m not quite sure about…18 months in I reached a turning point when I realised that making it too realistic would spoil the story.
Life was pretty miserable in the 17th century. It was squalid, rough, and disease-ridden. Justice and equality had far less meaning or import than class. Life was cheap, and none more so than peasant life.
Modern sensibilities do not sit easily on that foundation. We have to prettify it a little in order to connect with the characters. We would struggle to empathise with romantic leads who in their eventual clinch bring together sore lips, blackened teeth and foul breath; who are unaware of the concepts of tooth cleaning and deodorant; who might perhaps take a bath once a month, at best.
It’s good to bring in a taste of realism, of course. A certain grittiness is pleasant to read about as we sit in comfy, padded chairs in heated rooms, sipping hot drinks and nibbling chocolate biscuits. But too much realism would be overwhelming.
This is just one area in which reading has the advantage over watching films. Film-makers create their exact vision of the characters, sets, costumes, etc, and we the viewers see those characters and sets exactly the same way the creator did, and exactly the same way all the other viewers will.
But when we read a book there is a veil between what the author wrote and what we visualise in our minds. We might all read ‘dimpled cheeks’ or ‘kind eyes’, but the character I picture in my mind will be different to the character you see – and both will be different to the author’s vision.
Similarly, it is easy to ignore unpleasant details (so long as the author isn’t constantly bashing you over the head with them). You might know objectively that the historical protagonists will almost certainly have rotten teeth by their age, but since you can’t see it, and if the author doesn’t mention it, then it’s quite simple to picture them with beautiful white smiles. Most of the time I doubt we’re even aware that we’re censoring realism for a more pleasant storytelling experience.
It is far more glaring to watch a historically-set film but notice the heroine’s immaculately sculpted eyebrows, hairless armpits, carefully applied make-up, and perfectly straight, white, teeth.
A late update to this (April 2015)
I actually love Joe Abercrombie’s recent work, Half the World, and the grimy, awkward sex his protagonists eventually enjoy – all sour breath and uncertainty, but none the less passionate for it.