Write Byte

Why We Love Books Set in the 1800's

(January 26, 1998)


Not too long ago, author Margaret Brownley contacted me about the rating I had given one of her Victorian era romances. I explained that although among my favorite movies are those set in the Victorian era - Meet Me In St. Louis, The Easter Parade, and Life with Father, I don't generally enjoy reading romances set in the same period. Still, I recognize that this is an era enjoyed by many romance readers, and I asked if Margaret if she would talk with me some more about books set in that time.

Authors, being the creative people that they are, don't always precisely follow directions, so when I received Margaret's piece and realized it was about a period larger than the Victorian era, I wasn't really surprised. After reading it, I realized it didn't matter that Margaret had blurred the beginning and ending points of my request because what she had to say was so very interesting. I think you'll agree.

Living in Southern California, I've become an escape artist. It takes but one short jaunt on the Los Angeles freeways to send me fleeing to my favorite reading chair. At such times, a contemporary novel with its realistic view of life simply won't do! Only a historical novel, one preferably set in the 1800's, can soothe my jangled nerves.

Who hasn't, at one time or another, wished for a softer, quieter, slower paced life? A time when community was of prime importance and courting a momentous occasion? A time when a woman could pour her soul into a quilt or take an entire day just to visit a friend?

It's easy to explain the lure of the 1800s. Harder to explain is my own personal love affair with historicals. Reading them is one thing. But write them? Me? Who failed practically every history class I ever took in school?

This paradox puzzled me for years. Then one day it occurred to me that I had been taught history from a male point-of-view. As such, the focus had been on battles and generals. In a nutshell - war! Like the majority of women I know, I'm far more interested in people than military strategy. Is it any wonder, then, that history put me to sleep?

Once I discovered romance novels, history, once the bane of my life, took on a whole new meaning when told from a woman's point-of-view. I was truly captivated.

Reading about the 1800s, we're reminded of how close we are to the history of our country. Not only do diehards like me furnish our homes with the furniture of the times, some of us are lucky enough to have personally known the people (ah, now I'm giving away my age!).

A few years back my local newspaper ran an article about the recent death of a Wells Fargo driver, a ninety-nine-year-old man who had lived and worked during the stagecoach era. We are that close.

Books set in the 1800s allow us to experience history without traveling outside our comfort zone. Most of us can more readily relate to the woman traveling across the prairie than to a 1700s countess. I've personally traveled across the prairie, touched the ruts left by those long ago wagon-trains, and thrilled to the stories told by elderly family members.

It's been said that a great book is not one that we read, but one that reads us. Books set in our grandparents' or great-grandparents' time instills in us a sense of permanence. When I read about heroines traveling west, I think about my husband's ancestors, who migrated to this country in the 1880s, and the challenges they faced.

Bold and courageous women can be found throughout history, but none can compare to the women who migrated to this country and helped tame the west.

Perhaps more than any other time, the story of the 1800's is the story of women and how we came to be who we are. Starting in 1830, when women were first allowed to enroll in our nation's colleges, we can track the changing face of womanhood.

Only twenty years after women joined the ranks of college graduates, successful women novelists began to emerge, and already the rumblings of what was to become the suffragette movement began to sweep across the land.

The strong heroines we love to read about are not just figments of writers' imagination. The westward migration freed women in ways never before imagined. Women flaunted convention to get the job done, and this meant abandoning restrictive clothing and prudish Victorian mores.

According to the 1880 census, women had successfully entered occupations that had previously been male-exclusive. Women were bank presidents, dentists, barbers, balloonists, and one was even an Indian agent. Women owned gold mines, ranches and vineyards. They drove stagecoaches, fought in the Civil War, and ran for office. One woman drove her own brand of cattle from Texas to Kansas. The word policewomen was first recorded in 1853. Women founded 50% of the newspapers in the west and a third of Dakota homesteaders were women.

Women invented everything from fire escapes to water conservation during the 1800s, and though they were not allowed to take out patents in their own name, nothing could stop the flow of feminine ingenuity.

Society's rules, once regulating a woman's every move from cradle to grave, were no longer relevant, and so the women of the west forged their own rules. These are the kind of forward-thinking, independent women I like to read and write about!

Reading books set in this period, especially books with strong female characters, helps us appreciate our wonderful rich legacy. We come to understand how our lives are part of a continuous chain linking generation to generation.

We can tell a lot about people by the stories they inspire. The women of the 1800s have certainly inspired more books and movies than perhaps any time in history. It's a tough act for women of today to follow.

But who knows? Perhaps in the year 2097, my descendants will read a historical novel and come to appreciate the great, great grandmother who bravely battled that strange network of roadways known in the 1900s as the Los Angeles Freeway system.

Oh, well, I can dream, can't I?

Margaret Brownley

When Margaret Brownley isn't fighting the freeways, she writes for Harlequin, Topaz and St. Martin's Press. She and Betty Duran (who writes as Ruth Jean Dale), also sold a two-year story projection to a CBS daytime soap. Margaret's madcap heroines have been inventors, shoemakers, and peddlers. One even raced across country in a Model T Ford, and another owned her own cycling school, but they were all inspired by actual women in history. Watch for Margaret's next book, a St. Martin's Valentine anthology, A Message from Cupid. This will be followed in the fall of '98 by a Harlequin Temptation.

Margaret's homepage: http://www.infoburst.com/wewrite

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