Historians of British history talk about the “long eighteenth century.” It’s a phrase that comes to my mind often when I write fiction set in 18th century Europe. I have found that the key to writing in this period is somewhat paradoxical: you have to understand your setting as part of a vast context that covers a century and a half and several continents, but you must expect dramatic differences from year to year within that period, and even from month to month.
My next novel, The Humours of Grub Street, is set in London in 1703. I found pretty quickly that you can’t really understand the events of that setting without understanding the Glorious Revolution in 1688 and even the Great Fire in 1666 and the plague year that just preceded it. At the other end of the period, my Alice Payne time-travel novellas are set mainly in Hampshire in 1788 and 1799. Even though (some of) the characters don’t yet know how the French Revolution will unfold, or about the Napoleonic wars, it’s impossible to write well about that period without understanding the forces that were moving in Europe. The future for those characters has to inform the way we write; so does their past. We can’t understand the internal European political situation of the 18th century without having some sense of the impact of the peace of Westphalia back in 1648.
It’s also impossible to write well about the 18th century in Europe without understanding that the European powers were engaged in a massive campaign of imperialism, slavery and genocide throughout the rest of the world. It’s a century of trade and travel and migration. No country can be taken in isolation. One cannot understand any European country at the end of the 18th century without understanding the American and Haitian revolutions, and their causes.
All of those forces had a dramatic effect on the arts, science, literature, manners, food, and fashion. Let’s take fashion as an example.
Dressing one’s characters in the 18th century requires great care. Again, it’s all about context: If you’re writing a European woman in a “grand habit” or court dress in 1775, you need to understand that its heritage is a design decreed by Louis XIV about a century before, which was itself a deliberate homage to the gowns of his youth in the 1640s. Much depends on which country the woman is in, of course, and her class and even her political opinions.
As in any period, the fashions of the 18th century were always changing, from the lengths of stomachers and sleeves to the design of petticoats and stays. If you want to dress a woman in the 18th century, the first question to ask is: How many pieces does her dress come in?
This is also, for many cultural and economic reasons, a century of extreme and even ridiculous fashions, which are catnip for writers: the real world was stranger than fiction in many ways. You could write a woman with mouse-fur eyebrows, or ridiculous panniers jutting out from her hips. You could write a man with a crescent-moon beauty mark or a high powdered wig. But all of these things were particular to certain classes and certain places, and in many cases, the extremes of the fashions only lasted a few years. Put a woman in a ridiculous pannier in 1785, and you’ve made her an outlier. You’re saying something about her, whether you intended to or not. By 1795, the anachronism would be glaring.
Not only do you have to dress your characters in a way that would make sense to them, but you have to communicate all this to a modern reader, who might read a different connotation into an apron, or be thrown for a loop by someone handing someone else a pocket.
This can be a daunting setting to write, but it’s also a rich and interesting one, and the research is a great way to guard against ever writing a static, homogeneous culture, in any world.
Kate Heartfield is the author of the novel Armed in Her Fashion (ChiZine 2018) and the two Alice Payne novellas (Tor.com Publishing). She was nominated for a 2018 Nebula Award in the novella category for Alice Payne Arrives, and in game writing for The Road to Canterbury, published by Choice of Games. Armed in Her Fashion was a finalist for the 2018 Crawford Award, and the 2018 Aurora Award. Her novella “The Course of True Love” was published by Abaddon Books in 2016. Her short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Lackington’s, Escape Pod and elsewhere. A former newspaper journalist, Kate lives in Ottawa, Canada.