Ten Tips for Editing Historical Fiction No.6 Status


Lady with a servant in a meadow Circa 1500 German Engraving

Writers of historical fiction are often concerned with the relationships between servants and masters (see this post) because your rank was extremely important in previous centuries. This picture above expresses it well – the servant sees a lot of her mistress’s back because she is always behind her, and this gives her a particular view of the world. In previous centuries, laws such as the ‘sumptuary’ laws about what you were permitted to wear applied to people of different classes, and unlike today, not everyone could vote or influence the decisions of governing bodies. So historical novelists seek to convey the era and the status of their characters by their behaviour towards each other. A rounded character is a person who fits their milieu and changes their behaviour according to the situation. A cardboard character never changes or adapts and is always the same.

I know this seems obvious, but it is also not as simple as that. Because how you write the status of a character in a novel will denotes the person’s strength. A decisive maid with a strong purpose might develop a higher status (to the reader) than a vacillating and weak mistress, although she in turn might have to concede status to a master who is ‘in control’ of his household (and more importantly, himself.)

In Wuthering Heights for example, Catherine falls in love with Heathcliff, who has a lower status, because he was found on the streets of Liverpool and taken in as a child by her father. But Catherine chooses to marry Edgar Linton instead, a man of higher social status than Heathcliff. After Mr. Earnshaw dies, his resentful son Hindley humiliates Heathcliff and treats him as a servant. The status is reversed when Heathcliff’s humiliation inspires him to seek revenge. Heathcliff becomes of higher status in the reader’s eyes because of his strength of purpose and intention.

A person loses status when he expresses emotion without self-control (cries, gasps, screams etc). A calm and controlled antagonist is always stronger and more threatening than a villain who curses, shouts and threatens. There is something too about endurance – naturally we have to push our characters through life-threatening ordeals, but their capacity to endure them, makes for a strong character. A silent, listening character is actually ‘bigger’ than a character who has lost his temper and his self-control.

From Punch, Maid & Mistress in Crinolines
From Punch, Maid & Mistress in Crinolines

Above, the mistress is not pleased when the servant apes her dress sense – because it confuses the order of rank. Status can be shown through body language and this is really effective if you want a person of lower status to come up in the estimation of the reader. Characters who slump, cringe, fidget or babble, are seen as weaker than those who look you straight in the eye, raise the chin in defiance, stand up tall, and walk and talk without hurry. So be careful if your protagonist cries or shouts; it will weaken them in the reader’s eyes.

So on one of my passes through my manuscript I like to analyse the status of each of the main characters. I check the person reacts differently to those of higher or lower status. Perhaps they might be kind and considerate to a servant, but the servant is often still, in their eyes, a servant. However, compassion and kindness raise the character’s status in the reader’s eyes.

In a moment of intense emotion, a person might deliberately be outspoken to a person of superior rank, but probably only then. So arguments between characters of differing rank must take this into account. The universal entitlement to express your own opinion (free speech whoever you are) is a modern sensibility.

In addition, if I’m looking at a main character I like to make sure they don’t lower their staus with the reader through indecision, lack of control, or lack of compassion.

Further Reading: Status, rank and class in Jane Austen’s novels

Posts so far on Editing Historical Fiction:

No 1 Light  No 2 Truth  No 3 Sound  No 4 Threads No 5 Foreshadowing plus more to come!!

Pictures all from Wikipedia

Blog Writing Craft

Historical Fiction – Seven Virtues. No 6: Servants and Masters


P Vermeer Lady Maidserbvant holding Letter
Vermeer – Lady and Maidservant holding a Letter

In my life today I have no servants living in my house. The work done by servants in previous centuries is now done by machines, or automation has rendered it unnecessary.  For a historical fiction writer the presence of servants in the house is a massive opportunity for drama and for insight.

In previous centuries a strict hierarchy was maintained and social classes were firmly divided. However it’s a mistake to think that all servants were lowly, as a life in service was usual, whatever your rank.  In Tudor and Stuart times wealthy children could become servants at court, and this was regarded as an essential part of their upbringing. Tradesmen’s apprentices were treated like servants, but could also live as family with their masters.

The beauty of servants for a novelist is that their level of invisibility can shift and change – for example in Victorian households it was preferable that servants did their duties silently and unseen. This was often so successful that the employers forgot they were there, and revealed far more than they had intended to those below stairs. Servants have always been in an ideal place to observe. Expert at listening, because they had to be, they were students of mindfulness before the term was invented, and could become experts at ‘reading’ what might be required, or what the mood of their so-called ‘betters’ might be. For a writer, an eavesdropping servant can create any number of misunderstandings. Likewise, the fact that servants were entrusted with personal messages and correspondence is deliciously open to abuse.

P JeevesThe relationship between a servant and a master can obviously vary enormously, but can be used by a novelist to great effect. Both tension and humour is created in PG Wodehouse’s books by the servant Jeeves, of whom Sebastian Faulks says;

The important things in life are handed on by subtler methods, by ‘breeding’ or instinct; and it is the life’s work of the gentleman’s personal gentleman to see that it remains so.

Here is a servant who has the upper hand over a master, feels himself superior, and this works particularly well if the ‘master’ is new, inexperienced, or lacking in status. The reader suspects that Jeeves has actually more ‘class’ than his master.

When Jeeves is first consulted his advice usually regrets that he is ‘unable to offer a solution’. Naturally the plot could not develop the necessary complications if Jeeves were able to cut through all difficulties in the first act, but whether help might be more swiftly forthcoming had he been feeling less affronted is something we can never know for sure. The suspicion however adds piquancy to the master-servant relationship. Faulks on Fiction

Some servants, such as Mrs Danvers in ‘Rebecca’ reverse the roles to such a degree that they become sinister antagonists to the main character. In the film based on the book by Daphne du Maurier, here’s how the chilling Mrs Danvers manipulates the second Mrs de Winter.

Mrs. Danvers: [moving towards her] You thought you could be Mrs. de Winter, live in her house, walk in her steps, take the things that were hers! But she’s too strong for you. You can’t fight her – no one ever got the better of her. Never, never. She was beaten in the end, but it wasn’t a man, it wasn’t a woman. It was the sea!
The Second Mrs. de Winter: [collapsing in tears on the bed] Oh, stop it! Stop it! Oh, stop it!P Mrs Danvers220px-RebeccaTrailer
Mrs. Danvers: [opening the shutters] You’re overwrought, madam. I’ve opened a window for you. A little air will do you good.
[as the second Mrs. de Winter gets up and walks toward the window]
Mrs. Danvers: Why don’t you go? Why don’t you leave Manderley? He doesn’t need you… he’s got his memories. He doesn’t love you, he wants to be alone again with her. You’ve nothing to stay for. You’ve nothing to live for really, have you?
[softly, almost hypnotically]
Mrs. Danvers: Look down there. It’s easy, isn’t it? Why don’t you? Why don’t you? Go on. Go on. Don’t be afraid…

The servant can often be more aware of the irony of their situation than the master. The master, intent on good works within his/her limited frame of reference, fails to see the exploitation within their own household. This is a gift for a fiction writer who can revel in the double standards that ensue. For example in the 1930s the socialist campaigner Ethel Mannin had a maid whose very assistance enabled her employer to campaign to abolish class distinctions. “It was snobbish; it was class distinction; it was exploitation but it worked,” the novelist Mannin wrote later. (Lucy Lethbridge, The Guardian)

In earlier eras it was an anathema for a servant to ape his master. In a Victorian play, when one character is mistaken for a coachman, another character explains:

I see the error, and hope you’ll forgive it; but when gentlemen associate with their servants, talk like their servants, do their servant’s work, and dress like their servants they ought not to be offended at a stranger’s not knowing the master from the man. Hit or Miss! A Musical Farce (1810)

It was imperative to be able to distinguish the master from the servant, so much fun can be had with ‘The Prince and The Pauper’ type reversals, and the cases where servants impersonate, either willingly or unwittingly, their masters. All my books have servants as major characters, and it is one of the reasons I love the historical fiction genre. So much so, that I’m chairing a panel at the Historical Novel Society Conference in September on the subject – Ears Behind the Door. I’m looking forward to hearing the views of Jo Baker, Susannah Dunn and Charlotte Betts, and a great discussion on the servants’ roles in their books.

Do comment with your favourite fictional servants!

In the Historical Fiction Virtues series, you might also like: Virtue no 1 – Bravery  Virtue no 2 – The Non-fiction Novel Virtue No 3 – Past Does Not Exist Virtue No 4 – Old Crafts and Writing Virtue No 5 – The Absence of Media


Faulks on Fiction – Sebastian Faulks

Alison Sim – Masters and Servants in Tudor England

The Prince and the Pauper – Mark Twain

Talking Like a Servant JL Hodson

Blog Writing Craft

Historical Fiction – deadly sin no 6 – the Aura of an Era

Frans Hals Portrait of Isabella Coymans (wikipedia)

One of the things that attracts writers of historical fiction, is the lure of the past – its costumes, its pageantry, its beautiful buildings and architecture, many imbued with a craftsmanship mostly lost to us today. Often great love and attention is devoted to describing these scenes in detail. In fact it is essential, to let the reader know from the outset whether we are in 1530 or 1830.

The trouble is, it is not these things that make a reader feel as if he or she is immersed in the past. The aura of an era is not conjured through describing its artifacts, although this does add atmosphere. The thing that really makes us understand we are in a different place and time is the attitudes of the characters.

If a character thinks that slavery is a welcome thing, then that sets our character firmly in another era. Writers are squeamish about this, thinking that readers will think these values from the past are their views. But surprise, surprise – the reader is perfectly able to distinguish between your fictional world and you. Writers also fear that the character will be unlikable, and that these views will alienate the reader. Actually, if handled sensitively, they will fascinate the reader. It gives the reader a glimpse of where we have come from – how far we have come in our thinking in the last few hundred years.

The aura of an era is portrayed mainly through the mindset of its people. By reflecting their concerns (‘Will the Dutch invade?’ ‘Will Henry’s men pull down our monastery?’ ‘Is the plague in the next town?’) we give a unique insight into a different society. So the society where men were encouraged to beat their wives was also the society which was passionate about defending ‘the weaker sex’, and the society where every man had to, by law, practice shooting arrows into a possible enemy, was also the society which feared literal brimstone and fire as the reward for taking another’s life. These contradictions within society form the inner struggle of your characters.

Adhering closely to the customs of the time lends reality, but can also lead to some difficulties in fiction. In earlier centuries women were not supposed to speak first, and had to defer to their ‘betters’. This can lead to female characters appearing passive and dull, as the society did not allow them to take the initiative. The solution is to give the reader the sense of that restriction – ‘She knew she should not speak, and yet she could not restrain herself. Her words burst forth in an angry torrent.’

The same sort of difficulties apply to the servant classes, and to anyone of perceived low status. But the answer to the problem is nearly always to use the restriction to give resistance and then show the character’s strength by having them break through those societal and cultural norms. It does not have to be open resistance – a secret rebellion can be just as effective. ‘She placed the mistress’s shoes side by side, left shoe to the right, and right shoe to the left. This small act of sabotage amused her.’

There is also a great article and discussion by Dave King on Writer Unboxed on making sure you take account of class, the structure of society which formed the bedrock of English history.

Others in this series:

Deadly Sin 1 – Melodrama

Deadly Sin 2  – Purple Prose

Deadly Sin 3 – Stuck in the Past

Deadly Sin 4 – Lost or Glossary?

Deadly Sin 5 – The Length of Time