It is a little unfair, I think, to criticize a person for not sharing the enlightenment of a later epoch, but it is also profoundly saddening that such prejudices were so extremely pervasive. —Carl Sagan, Broca’s Brain
It’s called Values Dissonance.
As a writer, I love tropes—both using them (bad guy wears black hat) and subverting them (black hat-wearing bad guy loves his puppy). But while tropes are valuable shortcuts to values or meanings, that very cultural shorthand either makes it doubly difficult for them to survive across cultures or time, or makes them fodder for satire or parody.
- Shakespeare’s Juliet was thirteen. (13!)
- Almost every musical ever made. (Gigi–where a child’s female relatives prepare her for entering the sex trade, and the most famous song is “Thank Heaven for little girls.”)
- Pretty much every Disney film made before 2020, most of which now carry content warnings. “This programme includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures,” the warning says. “These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now.”
Consider Disney movie classics that now make us cringe. (Beauty and the Beast: kidnapped girl falls for her captor, which causes him to turn into a rich handsome prince with better table manners and they live happily after.) That makes sense, right? (And don’t even get me started on pervy guys who assault sleeping girls…)
Values dissonance—the difference between current values and those of the time and place you’re writing about—is particularly a problem for works with historical settings. Do you maintain the now culturally-discredited values of your historical setting, or does your story play out with recognizable contemporary (if historically invalid) values? Consider the Victorian era, for example.
Once upon a time, a mother lived with one panic-inducing certainty: her children would be homeless paupers, dependent on the generosity of strangers, in a society where they have no rights to property, education, or even vote. So the mother dedicated her very life, her every scheme and plan and action to the goal of saving her children from certain destruction.
In contemporary Victorian terms, she would be the heroine. But in the wickedly sharp observations of a brilliantly satirical writer? Well, Jane Austen named her Mrs. Bennet, the single-minded slightly-stupid mama who is butt of all jokes and humor, especially from her husband and daughters. While her family indulges in lofty sentiments and witty banter, Mrs. Bennet (whose first name is never mentioned) lives in desperately single-minded dedication to securing their futures in the only venue open to them.
Despite Jane Austen’s ridicule (and the BBC’s 1995 miniseries and later versions which add in physical contact, kissing, and even post-honeymoon references to marital bliss), from a historical point of view, Mrs. Bennet’s approach to her family’s circumstances is not only correct but heroic. She gets it. So too does Lady Catherine De Bourgh. Viewed through our values dissonance lens and Jane Austen’s wit, we see Lady Catherine as the symbol of an entitled and imperious upper class. But for Victorian times, she is acting in the very best interests of her family.
Values Dissonance Exercise:
The Diary of Hepsibah Heartburn
A Star-Crossed Historical Romance
by Barbie Snuffles Taubsalot
Hepsibah Heartburn is a well-ironed and obsessively neat beekeeper of almost average height (in the right shoes) who lives in the charming medieval village of Boggy Bottom. Her life is going nowhere until she meets Sir Rodney Dimplecheek-Longchin, a man with a passion for artisanal mead, an unconvincing hair comb-over, and a disturbingly small goatee.
Hepsibah takes an instant dislike to Rodney, describing him as someone a few-vermin-short-of-a-plague, who likes to remind everyone of his worldly sophistication ever since he made the Grand Tour to Great Snoring on the other side of the parish. She knows it is her place as a woman to agree with anything a man says, but whenever she pictures that small dead caterpillar on Sir Rodney’s chin, she throws up in her mouth a little bit.
However, when a heavily armored, blue-painted warrior named Gondul attempts to lure away Hepsibah’s prize queen bee, Rodney springs to the rescue. Hepsibah notices that Rodney is actually rather polite at heart, and tries not to look at his chin. Both Hepsibah and Rodney notice Gondul’s warrior braids, while trying not to look at her broad shoulders and armor-outlined breasts.
But, the pressures of Sir Rodney’s position as Groom of His Majesty’s Toilet Stool leave him blind to Hepsibah’s growing affections. Hepsibah takes to wearing particularly tight corsets to try and distract herself, spending more time with Goldul, who turns out to have a PhD in fermentation studies, and a hobby of painting haunting landscapes in shades of blue.
Finally, when Hepsibah’s Shakespearean-influenced arch enemy — leathern-jerkin, crystal-button, knot-pated, agatering, puke-stocking, caddis-garter, smooth-tongue, Spanish pouch rat-catcher, Lady Snobbia Chin-Intheair, threatens to sell Hepsibah as a slave, Sir Rodney and Gondul have to act fast. But will the trio ever find the star-crossed love that they deserve? Will Hepsibah ever become as kickass as Goldul? Will Goldul become a successful artisanal meadmaker using Helpsibah’s honey? And more importantly, will Rodney shave that goatee?
VALUES DISSONANCE GENRE NOTES:
- If this is a hard-boiled detective story, Hepsibah may start out with a racist, sexist partner who is overweight, a very poor tipper, and someone who talks out loud in the theater. If so, said partner will probably be older, perhaps dishonest, but certainly not long for this world. (Especially if Hepsibah starts delivering a running monologue, at which point the only thing left for her partner to do is make sure the life insurance is paid up and the mead polished off.) The high mortality rates must make Detective Partnering one of the most hazardous lines of work ever, second only to those guys who wear the red shirts on Star Trek and get killed between the first and second commercial breaks.
- If the detective is a member of the police force who has an idiosyncratic reputation for ignoring direct orders from his/her superiors, it is a police procedural and the writer will have to drop the “idiosyncratic” bit because that’s way too long a word for police dramas. In addition, the detective will need to be bitterly damaged, preferably with a drug and/or mead dependency, and emotional issues. Big ones.
- If Hepsibah is a little old lady, speaks with a southern accent, bakes cupcakes, or has a cat, it is a cozy mystery. Sex and violence are strictly scheduled to occur behind decorously closed doors. If set after 1990, the little old lady detective will pack a pistol, swear like a sailor, and roll her own joints. She’ll still talk to her cat though.
- If the cat answers back, it is magical realism.
- If detective Hepsibah is actually an intergalactic were-badger, this might be Science Fantasy.
- If Hepsibah the intergalactic were-badger speaks in iambic pentameter, occasionally eats bits of Rodney, and now and then is inexplicably back on Earth-That-Was, it’s New Weird Fantasy.
- If everything happens too fast for you to keep up with clues but there’s blood everywhere and probably several explosions and chase scenes and Hepsibah has a knife to her throat at least once, it’s a thriller. (If it’s set after 1990, Hepsibah will be the one with the knife at Rodney’s throat.)
FANTASY & SCIENCE FICTION:
- If the cover has a half-naked woman and the two (or many) main characters die leaving only one alive, and that one’s got issues and (possibly) a talking cat belonging to a wizard detective, it’s urban fantasy.
- If the cover has a half-naked man and the two (or three) main characters end up mated or in love AND live happily ever after, it’s a paranormal romance.
- If Hepsibah wears goggles and a corset, carries a spyglass, and rides on anything powered by steam, it is steampunk. (Rodney might be a sky pirate if he’s lucky, but either way she will probably shoot him at least once.) If Goldul is just the dragon-shifter to magically float Hepsibah’s airship, then it’s a gaslamp world full of magically useful technology which, somehow, still requires corsets.
- If Hepsibah and Rodney join the crew of a lovable bunch of misfit space smugglers led by Goldul, and often have to shoot their way out of trouble, it’s a Space Opera. If there are horses (even genetically modified talking android horses), it’s a Space Opera Western.
- If Hepsibah is a teenager and Rodney is the new, stunningly brooding and gorgeous student with a devastating secret (hint: he’s a vampire), and Goldul is her best friend, a generally sunny (except when she goes bat-shit crazy during full moons or her period) were-badger, and there’s ANOTHER boy with a devastating secret that Hepsibah is kinda sorta also attracted to, then this is… well, frankly it’s totalcrap that will probably become a bestseller and spawn a movie franchise and a hit TV Show.
- If Hepsibah and Rodney have a meet cute, followed by a misunderstanding about Rodney’s true relationship with Goldul, followed by a Happy Ever After, it’s a romance. (If not, the reader is obligated to demand a refund and troll-post one-star reviews all over the web. Duh.)
- NOTE: there was, of course, no sex in history until 1966 when the US Supreme Court gutted obscenity laws. After 1966, if Hepsibah is a wacky, sexy professional woman with extremely high stilettos who is fighting for her big break in the City, Rodney is a smoking hot iBanker, and one of them has a gay friend with a small dog who gives good advice on clothes and relationships while the other one has a sister who just wants them to find The One and move to Brooklyn and make babies, but there are multiple triangles involving Snobbia the Heartless Bitch and the Deceptively Perfect Potential Love Interest (whew!), then it’s Chick Lit. (If one or both have chucked their meaningless City life, gay friend, and stilettos for post-recession life in the country because they’ve discovered What Really Matters, it’s Farm Lit. Brace yourself: there will be overalls.)
- if Hepsibah is an orphan and Lady Snobbia is her wicked stepmother whose evil plan is to steal Hepsibah’s inheritance, the solid gold family heirloom beehive (which, face it, is pretty useless otherwise because the gold is pretty soft), if her house in Boggy Bottom is huge and reasonably spooky, and if Rodney the butler is a vampire, it’s a gothic novel.
- If Rodney the butler speaks with a southern accent and bites Hepsibah when she’s dying in order to turn her into his eternal mate, it’s Gothic Paranormal.
- If Hepsibah’s into the biting and it’s consensual, and they live Happily (for)Ever After, it’s Gothic Paranormal Romance.
- If Hepsibah’s into the biting, but kinda misses Snobbia too, so she bites her and the three of them live Happily Ever After with lots more biting and maybe some tying-up stuff…it’s Gothic Paranormal Romance Erotica. Congratulations to the writer! You’ll probably make more than the rest of the genre writers put together.
- If Hepsibah wears a bustle, crinoline, or shift and talks to actual historical figures, it’s a historical novel. If she goes to bed with them and neither of them gets beheaded and/or castrated, it’s a historical romance. (If the beheading and/or castration does occur, it’s a History Channel documentary which will involve sketchy historical details and an emotional re-enactment.)
- If Lady Snobbia—or anyone at any point—is wearing a clown costume, this is horror. And I SO don’t review horror, so this would be the end of my genre overview if it didn’t show up in a couple of fabulous genre mashups. You’re welcome.
Got all that? We’ll see how you do on the final…
Meanwhile, to see how a talented writer deals with values dissonance in her historical romance, please see my review of Shelley Wilson’s enthralling historical romance, The Last Princess.
The Last Princess by Shelley Wilson
Northumbria, 866 AD
Edith still has much to learn about the art of ruling a kingdom, but when her parents, sisters, and mentor are murdered, she is faced with the much harder challenge of staying alive long enough to get her revenge.
As a girl in Anglo-Saxon England, Edith finds it hard to be heard above the Eldermen who are ripping the kingdom to pieces. She finds allies in the unexpected, and enemies closer to home, but nothing can prepare her for the arrival of the Vikings.
Torn from her homeland and sold into slavery, she is determined to survive at any cost. Edith clings to her dream of returning home one day to claim her throne.
As she builds friendships and finds love in a foreign world, she starts to believe in a better tomorrow until someone from her past arrives with a devastating revelation.
Can she do what must be done? And will the Vikings let her leave?
5 stars for The Last Princess by Shelley Wilson
We all know what a princess is, right? She’s beautiful, regal, and demure. She glides when she walks, and her main task in life is to marry to the advantage of her kingdom. No matter how much the historical novelist might wish to present a kickass, snarky heroine, the fact remains that ninth-century princesses were not warriors.
Or were they? Over the past decade, a lot of what we thought we knew about Vikings has been turned upside down. The bones of ancient Vikings, known to be male because they were buried with weapons and armor, were DNA tested, revealing that not only were some of them women, but they were high-level warriors, leaders, and strategists.
Edith, princess and heir to the ancient kingdom of Northumbria, knows all this, but she wants more. Trained to rule by her father, King Osberht, and taught to fight by her father’s trusted friend, Princess Edith dreams of leading her armies to victory over neighboring kingdoms, and defending against their most fearsome enemies, the Vikings.
That’s until the day Princess Edith’s family is slaughtered, her uncle usurps her throne, and she is to be married to an old man. Widowed before she’s even wed, Edith becomes a slave to pirates and then to her most feared enemy, the Vikings. The princess she was raised to be couldn’t reclaim her kingdom or avenge her family. Edith the slave must not only join them, but must become a Viking Shield Maiden, and lead them into battle against her own countrymen.
It was time to let go of any semblance of Saxon princess that remained within me and turn into a ruthless, cunning, and fierce Viking. It was time to change the course of history.
This is a coming of age story, where an outsider must not only be assimilated into a completely foreign culture, but must embrace its most violent aspects, returning to her kingdom as “their worst nightmare.” No longer is she the princess with a duty to make an advantageous marriage. Now she is a warrior whose mantra is, “The best way to a man’s heart is through his fourth and fifth rib.”
I was absolutely riveted by the descriptions of the settings, many of which I’ve seen in contemporary Britain, but now viewed through the eyes of a ninth-century teenager. The pace was perfect, an initial nightmare of blood and death followed by the slow, violent coming of age of the young Viking Shield Maiden.
But it was the character development of this very unusual princess which fascinated me. Caught between two worlds, the English kingdom of her childhood and the Viking world she now lives in, Edith’s life is a constant balancing act. Seemingly without the ability to make any choice in her life, whether as a young princess, a slave, or a Shield Maiden, Edith makes the biggest choice of all. She chooses a destiny for herself and makes it happen.
Of course, there are a lot of coincidences and elements that readers have to take with a grain of salt. Pirate slavers who don’t rape their captives, generous slave owning Vikings who allow their slave to take up arms in their defense, and above all a young girl who convinces an army to follow her.
The Last Princess is an incredible story of a young girl who steps outside of the world she was meant for but takes control of the world she finds herself in. I’ve followed author Shelley Wilson’s work for years now and marvelled at the way she grows and challenges herself with each new tale. The Last Princess is her best work yet, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to both young adults and to anyone who enjoys an excellent coming-of-age adventure.