Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Past is a Foreign Country

by Nancy Kelley

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” ~L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between

Hartley’s opening line has become a proverbial truth about history, and historical fiction by extension. Oftentimes, the biggest challenge of reading or writing historical fiction is remembering the customs and mores of the day, instead of viewing the events through our own cultural understanding.

Take some of the iconic moments in Pride and Prejudice for example. Lydia Bennet, youngest of five sisters, has been allowed to go to Brighton for the summer with the militia. While there, she is wooed by George Wickham, a very undesirable man, and when he finds it necessary to leave town because of gambling debts, she decides to go with him. In her mind, it’s an elopement, but he has no intention of marrying her.

They live together in London for at least two weeks before they are found by Darcy. He persuades Wickham to marry her (read: he gives the man enough money he can’t refuse) and takes Lydia to live with her aunt and uncle until the ceremony. However, everyone knows she is a Fallen Woman. When Lady Catherine calls on Elizabeth a few months later, she refers to the event as an “infamous elopement” and a “patched-up business.” Elizabeth herself is fully aware that she and her sisters will share in Lydia’s disgrace and believes Darcy will want nothing to do with such a family—even if George Wickham was not part of the equation.

You are likely familiar with The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a modern adaptation of Pride and Prejudice told as a series YouTube vlogs. I finally got caught up on The Lizzie Bennet Diaries a few weeks ago--just in time to watch the Wickham Drama unfold. Given Hentley’s line about the past being a different country and the shift in social mores since the Regency, how did The Lizzie Bennet Diaries modernize Lydia’s fall from grace? Instead of an elopement, which would mean nothing today, Wickham launched a website where you can purchase a sex tape starring Lydia Bennet, YouTube star.

The reaction from fans brought a point home to me. We no longer understand the full implications of being “ruined” in Regency society. Many have argued that this adaptation is worse than what happened to Lydia in Pride and Prejudice. Certainly, the emotional implications are far greater. Austen’s Lydia never realized or cared that she had been manipulated. She figured she and Wickham would be married at some point and she didn’t really care when. She doesn’t care in the least what people think about her, as long as she has her dear Wickham.

But while the emotional impact for The LBD Lydia is far greater, her social status has actually risen. We see her as a girl who has been used, and we feel sorry for her. We want to take care of her, we want this situation to be fixed. We know that she is not at fault at all, except in choosing a bad man to fall in love with. Unlike Austen’s Lydia, who knew very well how wrong it was to run away with a man, The LBD Lydia had no warning whatsoever, no reason to believe there would be negative results to her relationship with Wickham.

The whole affair was of particular interest to me, since George and his Dastardly Doings play a vital role in the plot of Loving Miss Darcy. Loving Miss Darcy begins three years after Georgiana's almost elopement with Wickham. She's now 18, and Richard and Darcy decide it's time to find her a husband. She feels... unworthy, given her past, and uneasy with the idea of lying to everyone she meets. The threat of scandal looms over her for the entire book, and generates the final conflict.

It's easy for us to say, "What's the big deal? She didn't even go through with her elopement." We even have a hard time seeing an elopement as negative, though Georgiana’s age of 15 would give us pause.

The fact is, elopement was absolutely Against The Rules in Regency England. Georgiana was lucky enough to call off the elopement before anyone knew it had been planned. Darcy was somehow able to keep both Wickham and Mrs. Younge from spilling the beans, but as her Season approached, she was mortally afraid someone would find out.

What would have happened to her if her attempted elopement became public knowledge? Some of her family would have refused to receive her in their homes. (At the very least, we can count Lady Catherine in this group.) She would no longer be welcome in Polite Society, and in a world that was all about knowing the right people, that was the kiss of death.

So readers, the next time you’re reading an historical novel and you don’t understand why the characters are doing something, remind yourself that the past is a foreign country. The novel you’re holding is a travel guide that will explain how things are done there. And writers, remember that you are writing that guide. Things you’ve researched that make perfect sense to you will be foreign to the reader. Try to find ways to work in an explanation or two, and the culture shock will be greatly diminished.

Nancy Kelley—Janeite, blogger, and chocoholic—is the author of two Jane Austen sequels: His Good Opinion: A Mr. Darcy Novel, and Loving Miss Darcy. Her third novel, Against His Will, will come out in fall of 2013.

If Nancy could possess any fictional device, it would be a Time-Turner. Then perhaps she could juggle a full-time library job, writing, and blogging; and still find time for sleep and a life. Until then, she lives on high doses of tea and substitutes multiple viewings of Doctor Who for a social life.

You can find Nancy on Twitter @Nancy_Kelley, at and on


  1. This is a truly important point that very few novelists and readers seem to understand. I've written about it on my blog several times under various guises. It's just so vital! And you are so absolutely right in saying we don't take in at all what it would have meant for the family to be ostracised, as they would have been, had Lydia's disgrace not been sorted out by Darcy.

    All of the sisters and the mother would have been cut--again a term we don't get the full implications of--when they went into a shop, no one would talk to them, their former friends would turn their backs on them in public places, they might not even have been served when they went into a shop, local tradesmen might refuse them credit and the gossip would just never, ever, cease. So thank you for pointing all of this out...although, it should be said that with her money, Miss Darcy would have found her position in society restored, after a suitable period of reflection, shall we call it. Caroline Lamb was not ostracised by the highest society for her affaire with George Webster soon after she married--but then, she was the niece of the Duke of Devonshire, daughter-in-law of Lady Melbourne (who was privately shocked, though with a disreputable reputation herself), and daughter of Lord and Lady Cavendish (another set of dirty dishes...) So, hypocrisy? Yes, I think so...

    1. True, Georgiana's money would have bought her way back into Society after a while. For her, the issue is more how her personality would handle stigmatization. How would being ostracized affect someone naturally shy, already unsure of her own guilt or innocence? (Not being naturally shy or unsure, I can only guess.)

  2. Perfect. Another absolutely 'lightbulb moment' and a perfect saying to illustrate it. Thank you.

  3. I've used this quote before, because I truly believe it. Without an understand of the cultural history, there is nothing. I had a beta reader ask me why my heroine didn't want a reputation a a jilt when she wanted to be left alone. Being left alone doesn't mean she want's a bad reputation. My job to make it clear.

    1. It's easy to forget about cultural history when we do research, or especially when we read historical fiction. It's my favorite part of reading this genre, but it does make your brain work!

  4. The past may only be 50 years. My niece asked me why the girl getting pregnant in Dirty Dancing is such a big deal and why getting an abortion almost killed her. The times change and history changes with it.


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