Further Thinking With Kim: Abuse in Historical Fiction Novels

Credit: RainGarden Source: http://raingarden.deviantart.com/art/Glass-Lucent-Heart-74527789?q=boost%3Apopular%20broken%20glass&qo=100

Credit: RainGarden (Source)

So I’ve been wanting to get my own series on the blog for a while now, but haven’t had any good ideas on topics to discuss etc.  I’ve primarily stuck with writing book reviews but have recently been looking at novels in a much more critical light.  As such I’ve found a plethora of topics that I want to discuss with other book addicts.  The first subject I thought to discuss was something that came to light when I was reading Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (Here’s my review).

In my review of Outlander I wrote the following:

At times Jamie and the other men of the period are barbaric, but when you look at the time period (the 1700’s) it’s historically accurate.  There is one scene in the book where Jamie whips Claire for disobeying him and putting his clansmen in extreme danger.  While I don’t agree with the beating, his explanation of why he did it (it’s expected by his clansmen for retribution due to the danger they’ve been placed in) makes sense.  Even Claire understands and accepts it (and she’s a modern woman!)  Jamie is extremely remorseful over the entire incident and agrees to make a pact to Claire that he’d never do it again, regardless of the traditions he lives by.  This brought a question to my mind: are we able to accept abuses of women when placed into the context of the past?

I wanted to delve further into this line of thinking.  If I read a book that took place in contemporary times there would be NO WAY IN HELL that I’d accept abuse as a viable plot point. (Unless the story was ABOUT abuse)  But when placed into a story where it’s truly indicative of the way people acted, I can accept it as “historically relevant.” Am I an anti-feminist for accepting abuse as part of a historical fiction novel’s plot?

On top of that I pose the greater question: when is the cutoff?  If we say that we can respect and understand how abuse of women is “historically relevant” in some books, when do we say that it’s not ok in others?  I’m not naive enough to think that abuse of women doesn’t exist anymore.  It does, and unfortunately probably always will.  I just think that it’s not as in your face now as it might have been in the 1700 and 1800’s.  Women have so many more rights now and places to escape from battered marriages and relationships.  With the invention of the internet it’s easy to find resources to help.  Therefore, although it is still a problem today, I think it’s also interesting to look back on these historical works and mull over these questions.  What we learn from them can be applied to the future, where hopefully soon these abuses will cease to exist.

So in closing, I ask:

A. Do you agree about accepting abuse of women as “historically relevant” in certain instances?

B. What are some books you’ve read that you accepted/rejected abuse as plot points?

12 thoughts on “Further Thinking With Kim: Abuse in Historical Fiction Novels

  1. The cut-off for abuse would actually be really up into the 1950s. It was still accepted but abuse of women started to dwindle actually right before World War II. But when I first saw the headline I thought you were going to talk about historical accuracy abuse!

      • WWII was very interesting you can see it as a kick-off to our modern era. Women were going in the workforce to replace man. There was an invention it seemed like every day. The atomic bomb. Black people started getting real recognition in the army. Our world was beginning to be globalized. It was a prerequisite to our modern era.

  2. You bring up a really good point, but I think the question would I accept abuse in “historically relevant” depends on alot of things. One of my favorite books is To Kill A Mockingbird, I read that in highschool and YES there is a rape scene. I typically avoid any type of foul language in my books or steamy sex scenes but I have never thought on this question. I guess it would have to depend on the factors, how descriptive is it? does the writer take it too far making the scene drag out chapters? who does it involve in the abuse (children)? Now I can say I really haven’t come across this in the H.F. that I have read other than the occasional maybe slap or hair pull, those are little and I can take that, I personally would not condone abuse. However the point too you could make are these are books, not life. I don’t condone killing children but I have read The Hunger Games, also I don’t condone lying, cheating, killing or such but I have read books about it. Books are fiction, in classic books such as Huckleberry Fin there is racism at its best and I would not condone that either. I really don’t think in reading a book with abuse or any other kinds of unmoral acts makes you accept them in any way. If you find it bad or offensive stop reading. But to pick up a book and read it with a questionable moral scene would mean all we could read in year 2013 were a very select few. I do however appreciate when a reviewer or fellow book junkee as myself is told before picking a book up this has bad language, a abuse scene or something that might make you think twice. I actually think that some books should have a small disclaimer so victims of violent abuse can not be reading this or people who chose not too.

    Also I am Mormon, so in the account of reading the Book of Mormon or the Bible there is horrible scenes throughout, but I would never condone it in my life. Reading a book people have to seperate fiction from reality. Some readers have a hard time doing that. I do I have been in love with Mr. Darcy and Edward Cullen since I was a teenager LOL

    Good people read questionalbe books, haven’t you read 50 shades of grey that is full of abuse but wanted abuse, I think if I read it still doesn’t mean I accept it. Hope that answers your questions for me.

    Great question sorry for the ramble I was thinking as I wrote…. Great point!!!

    • I think rape is a separate issue then the one I was thinking about with this post. I don’t think that rape being a good/bad part of the plot of a novel depends on the time period. Rape is definitely a touchy subject (understandably) and whether or not a reader can accept it as part of the plot is entirely dependent on it’s value in the plot. I’ve read books that have had rape scenes that were graphic but added value to the work (Outlander) and I’ve read other books where the rape scenes weren’t graphic at all and really had no point being part of the plot.

      I think there are definitely things in all historical fiction novels and classic novels that we’ll question the value of down the road. Huck Finn definitely did have a lot of racism, but in the context of the work (the time period/location) it made sense. I think that’s where I was ultimately going with my whole post. If we accept abuse of women, racism, etc in historical fiction novels does it make us anti-feminist or immoral in our present time? I personally don’t think it does, but wanted to get a perspective from other readers.

      • Agree, I personally am OK with reading it just matters how far it goes I guess.. Considering myself immoral for reading, I don’t think so, too me what would be immoral is seeing it then doing nothing in a book its just words on paper.

  3. Not to say the Bible or the Book of Mormon is an act of fiction. I believe in both to be true, after reading my comment I realized I put that in there and for christians and LDS I don’t want to hurt anyone. I believe the Bible and Book of Mormon to be fact not fiction sorry about that. Need to read my comment before I post it!LOL

  4. I felt the same way about Outlander. Jamie made me angry with the beating but it really was an accurate depiction of what would have happened.

    I’ve been researching some family history and found that just a few generations ago both infidelity and abuse were pretty much the norm. So, even into the 1930’s-1940’s it would be part of a true picture of their lives.

  5. One of the things I most love about Diana Gabaldon’s writing is that she tries so hard to keep her characters historically accurate, even if that means you get really really mad at their behavior. She has already made you love the characters, so it is “safe” to get mad at them and to disagree with their actions while understanding the context. I especially feel this way about time travel historical fiction–the beauty of the story is often in of the clash of cultures.

    It would be a mistake to rewrite history–and abuse happened. It is what makes her writing and her characters authentic and three dimensional.

    • Definitely love the accuracy of Gabaldon’s characters. The honest appraisal of them is probably my favorite part of her writing. There are no “perfect” characters. They all do things that are ethically questionable, yet they each have amazing quirks about themselves that you just can’t help but love them for.

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