We’re always talking about how much the READER loves to suspend disbelief, and about the READER’S craving to indulge in escapism.
But what about the WRITER’S own, deeply selfish motives for escaping the brash, brutal modern quotidian?
Here are seven candid reasons why I like to set my books in the past.
In the 18th century and early 19th century,
1. TRAVEL. One’s characters can gallop about on horseback or be thrown into fascinating company in post-carriages. Or proceed in gondolas with cabins curtained for mischief. Mobile phones do not ring on trains, and nor do attention-deficient businessmen while away long journeys braying the same inanities to ten colleagues, one after another. One’s characters can credibly leave babies in handbags on platforms, unchided, for there are no station security announcements. There is no Gatwick Airport, that cheerless sump of the imagination and of hope. In Venice, you can walk down the street without bumping into a 30-strong tour group with a guide shouting historical inaccuracies into a megaphone.
2. FOOD. There is no McDonalds. There is no nouvelle cuisine. No supermarkets with their ghastly corpse-light. No Finest, Taste the Difference or Everyday labelling on the food: it is visibly good, bad or maggotty. One’s characters can attend, even give sumptuous dinner parties. (And writing a dinner party beats shopping, cooking and cleaning up after a real one – in fact, beats it raw, dips it in egg and rolls it in sage-sprinkled sourdough breadcrumbs and fries it in extra-virgin oil made from olives picked by blind nuns in the shadow of an ancient convent).
3. WATER. One’s characters can go to the well for water, which also allows them hear all the gossip and simultaneously contract a dangerous disease with compelling symptoms. Thames Water did not exist, and nor did their automated dialling system for reporting a burst water main in your street: the one that keeps you holding on indefinitely, without ever speaking to a human being.
4. HEAT. Building regs did not disallow flues for open fires in listed buildings. There was no mains power to cut off. EDF did not exist, and nor did their Customer Service Department have a list of picturesque but conflicting mendacities to recite: Thames Water cut through your pipes/ Our engineers have not yet been assigned a time to attend due to the overwhelming demand/ the wire that is needed to fix the situation is on a truck that is snowbound in Yorkshire/ we had to send our engineers home because of Health and Safety – It is too cold for them to work. (‘What about the Health and Safety of your CLIENTS?’ One bleats, pathetically, nursing the elderly cat who is already wheezing with the cold, after 22 hours without power. But EDF Customer Services is trained in Obfuscation and Mendacity, not Irony.)
5. WORDS. One’s characters can talk in sentences. They know the subtle joy of the semi-colon. They can say, ‘Whereupon I mentioned the very salient fact that …’ instead of ‘I’m, like …’ Or ‘Are not the noble EDF engineers equipped with warm vestments so that these grand fellows may verily execute their appropriate labours in the service of your esteemed clients?’ instead of ‘What the …?’
6. WHAT TO WEAR. One may dispense with the dismal inevitability of thermal underwear, bobble hats jeans and crass designer labels instead indulging in Swiss spotted dimity, tarlatan, salmon-pink surah, crepe, poplin, batiste, pique and lawn, not to mention mousseline-de-laine, organdie, voile, gauze, jaconet and pompadour sateen.
7. (LEGAL) DRUGS. Instead of today’s brutal stuff, gruffly named and garishly packaged, you have the whole lovely lexicon of quack medicine to work with. Such as, Dr Worden’s Water for Weak Women, Dr Bowder’s Compound Syrup of Indian Turnip and Dr Wynkoop’s Katharismic Honduras, The Original Widow Welch’s Female Pills, Vogeler’s Curative Compound, Irristum, Fitch’s Kidney and Liver-Cooler, Pesqui’s Uranium Wine, Hoffman’s Harmless Headache Powders, Dr Brodum’s Nervous Cordial and Botanical Syrup, Dr William’s Pink Pills for Pale People, Chameleon Oil and Dr Vincent’s Anti-Stout Pills. All these were eagerly bought by a literate public (and feature in my next book, The Mourning Emporium).
So - is anyone out there going to tell me you can have as much or even more fun with Max Factor, cars, mobile phones and aeroplanes?
Michelle Lovric’s website www.undrownedchild.com
EDF’s website www.edfenergy.com