For those of us who spent decades of our lives in the twentieth century, the idea of a twentieth-century historical can seem odd. Hey, that was MY century! How did I become a relic? ;-)
But the reality of it can't be denied. Twentieth-century historicals run the gamut from the Edwardian grace of Downton Abbey to the cultural upheaval of the Vietnam war. At this point, even the 1980s probably qualify as a setting for nostalgia fiction.
I've read three twentieth century inspy historicals in the last year or so, so the subgenre is on my mind.
The earliest set of the novels was Allison Pittman's Lilies in Moonlight, a story about a buoyant flapper on the run from her painful childhood. She must come to terms with the more serious side of life when after a night of partying, she stumbles into the garden of a wealthy but scarred WWI veteran. I loved the author's vivid portrayal of the cultural moment in which the pre-WWI world represented by the hero's aging mother runs full tilt into the Jazz Age and the first intimations of 'female liberation.'
The next story, chronologically, was Bonnie Leon's colorful and well-researched romance Wings of Promise, which shows the challenges a female bush pilot faces in the late 1930s in Alaska. Here's another pivotal time for American culture, just before World War II broke down barriers and sent women into factories and business in unprecedented numbers. This author was very astute to set her story in Alaska, where the frontier aspects of life made gender-based job restrictions a little more relaxed than they were in the lower 48 states. Still, the heroine faces challenges from the men in her professional world, who react to her femininity in extreme ways and are unable to separate it from her professional identity. This is the only realistic way to depict the situation, and I appreciated it. Few 1930s era men would be able to see women in the workplace in the "gender-neutral" way favored by twenty-first century companies.
The last novel in my reading series was Catherine West's Yesterday's Tomorrow, an intense romantic drama about a female journalist who goes to Vietnam and butts heads with an anatagonistic male photographer. Vietnam is not a common setting for romances, but Catherine West pulls off the combination of tragedy and redemptive events with aplomb. The 1970s push us along the line between the past and the present. The young adults of that time were so different from today's young adults in ways that we tend to forget, but there are also universal experiences of young adulthood that make Yesterday's Tomorrow resonate in the twenty-first century.
Considering these novels chronologically would make for a thoughtful discussion as certain themes and historical developments pop naturally to the surface. It makes me want to run the kind of study for adults that educators sometimes plan for children, in which the study of history takes place through literature. Wouldn't that be fun? To have a book group committed to history that arranged its readings by theme or period? You could arrange them in a linear way, as I've described the three novels above, or you could study two or three historical novels together that were all based in the same period, and compare and contrast them. Or, you could read a work of fiction in conjunction with a history of that decade, and see how they matched up.
It only works if you use the novels of authors who really care about reflecting the actual historical moment about which they are writing. Many historical romances show very little of the larger cultural scene, and instead turn a narrow lens on one man and one woman who might have lived at almost any time in history because they aren't obvious products of their cultural time.
All three of the books I've mentioned here are truly historical fiction rather than romances with a little historical flavor. The real historical fiction is the kind I enjoy, though I know people who prefer less historical setting and an exclusive focus on the relationship in isolation from the bigger picture of its time. It's all a matter of taste.
How do you feel about historical novels? Will you read a novel from one era and not another? Do Regency historicals give you hives? All opinions welcome as you will probably make me laugh, and you always make me think.