Not long ago I faced an unusual task: shifting my novel’s time period from 1897 to 1907. I won’t go into all the reasons for doing this, but it became clear that I needed to do it. Normally I wouldn’t be too concerned about a mere ten-year difference, historically speaking. If I had shifted the time period from 1887 to 1897, it would hardly have merited even a mention, much less a blog post. But moving from the nineteenth to the twentieth century seemed like a big deal.
My specialty is 19th-century England. It’s what I’ve studied as an academic and a historical novelist. I know it well, especially the Victorian period. And as long as details in a novel are recognizably Victorian, I suspect most readers wouldn’t notice the differences from one decade to the next, aside from the dramatic changes in women’s clothing. But the 20th century seems different. To many ears, 1907 sounds modern, whereas 1897 sounds almost ancient.
I plunged into an intense round of research on the Edwardian era (technically 1901-1910 but often extended a few years to the beginning of WWI). I do love research, and I followed some very interesting rabbit trails.The only major changes from the late-Victorian to the Edwardian period involved technology and transportation. In Britain, the telephone was well-established in workplaces and in wealthy people’s homes by the first decade of the 20th century. Motor cars were increasingly common, though even secondhand cars were still too expensive for the average middle-class family. At no other period in history was there more variety in modes of transportation: horse-drawn omnibuses, hansom cabs and other carriages competed for space on city streets with motor taxis, cars and motor buses.
To give you a visual sense of the situation, here’s a photo of a London street in 1910:
I also learned that Britain and North America were very different in terms of when they adopted these technologies: North Americans used both cars and telephones much earlier than the British did, likely because of greater distances to travel and more limited railway systems.
Even though my research was extensive, the actual changes I needed to make to my novel were few. Here’s an easy one:
All of this got me thinking about the trickiness of historical accuracy in a novel. It’s not enough to find out when a new technology was invented. Most technologies were slow to be adopted by the general public because of the expense or the resistance to trying new things. And a novelist must think of her characters too: are they the type of people who would be excited about or suspicious of the latest technology? Would they use it immediately or be slow to adopt it?
Personally, I’m old-fashioned when it comes to technology. I’ll never forget the day I finally broke down and bought a cell phone (I refuse to admit how recent that was!). It was long after most of my students had cell phones, and I remember telling a class how excited I was the first time I walked down the street while talking on the phone. As you might imagine, I was met with many shocked stares and some snickers!
Ultimately, what I learned from shifting my novel’s date forward a decade was that dates don’t matter. Events matter. Big, important national (or global) events. I had the feeling this might be the case. When I teach Victorian Literature, I give students the dates of Victoria’s reign, but I also mention events such as the 1832 Reform Bill and the 1859 publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, which were more important influences on society.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, World War I changed everything. 1900-1914 wasn’t very different from the late-Victorian period, but after WWI, there was a definite shift in everything from technology to people’s mindsets. To offer just one statistic, in 1905 there were 32,000 motor vehicles in Britain, but by 1920 there were 363,000!
I also thought about historical differences between decades I’ve lived through, such as 1997 vs. 2007. When I look back, the differences primarily involve technology. In 1997, few people I knew had cell phones. In 2007, everyone had them. And I can usually tell from its shape whether a car was made in the 90’s or a decade later. Even moving into a new millennium wasn’t a big deal. On Dec 31, 1999, I was staying with a friend. We were concerned about being prepared for problems, though not to the extent of some others who seemed to be expecting Armageddon. We decided to fill up two glasses of water to brush our teeth with in the morning in case there was no water (Yes, we were a couple of wild and crazy girls!). We were a little worried that our computers wouldn’t work the next day, but we decided just to wait and see. And indeed, nothing changed. We had water. Our computers worked.
But consider September 11, 2001. That event changed everything, and not just for Americans. When I think of the history I have lived through, it will be marked by events like that.
What events were so important in history that you remember exactly where you were at the time? 9/11? The death of Princess Diana? The Vietnam war? The death of JFK or Martin Luther King? These are the events that shape history, not the beginning or end of a reign, a government, or a century.