In the 2011 film Midnight in Paris, a vacationing writer time-travels to the 1920s Paris of Hemingway et al. In that era, which he loves, he meets a young woman who longs for the golden age of the 1890s. Levels upon levels. How the past looks depends where you’re looking from.
A few years back, I undertook a retelling of Ann Radcliffe’s 1794 best-seller The Mysteries of Udolpho, set in southern France (Garonne, Languedoc) and northern Italy in the 1580s. Levels upon levels. Radcliffe’s novel abounds not only in anachronisms like coffee but in the tastes and values of her age. Antiquity, sensibility, and the sublime spoke distinctively to her generation and the next. Crumbling castles surely existed in the 1580s, but gothic, romantic fascination with them came later.
When I began trying to make Udolpho accessible to modern readers, I planned to replace twenty-page landscapes with paragraphs and let the protagonist have pensive moments without breaking out into lyric poetry. But the larger challenges turned out to involve attitudes and values, not just style. A character today needs more than virtue and piety. She needs agency to make decisions that affect what follows. She needs to wind up changed by her experience. These are the values of our time, not the 1790s or the 1580s. Levels upon levels.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.