Pick an Era
I’m reading my way through Fiona Buckley’s historical mysteries featuring Ursula Blanchard, fictitious half-sister to Queen Elizabeth I. Ursula strives to save her Protestant queen from Catholic threats to seize control and resume burning heretics, as happened under Elizabeth’s Catholic real half-sister Queen Mary.
Ursula hates the Inquisition, not the papacy, making the series palatable for readers of any faith or none. Mysteries set a few centuries back can't disregard religious conflict, but they rarely take sides except against cruelty and fanaticism. Still, readers may look in vain for light fiction about a gentle Jesuit priest trying to avoid capture and execution by Queen Elizabeth’s minions. Catholic protagonists emerge in novels set a bit later in Ireland or the Scottish highlands, fighting to preserve their independence and traditions from heartless English conquerors.
I'd guess readers of historical fiction today, at least while they’re reading, don’t much care about theology or ecclesiastical politics or seeking martyrdom or saving immortal souls. We do care about human decency, safety, autonomy, heritage, success for the underdog, and the freedom to shape our own lives. For leisure reading, if your historical sympathies lean toward one religious party more than another, pick an era where that’s the party fighting for survival, independence, or other secular values that resonate today.
I think it would be interesting to go back in time and see cultures right before a big change. What was life like in Western Africa before African slavery in the Americas began in 1619? What was the Mixteca culture like in what is now Mexico before the Spaniards came in the 1500s? Those are times that are difficult to recreate, because so much changed and so many died as the cultures wrestled to survive. -Rebecca
Fascinating indeed, and a challenge to the historical imagination for the reasons you state. Also, when the big change through contact with another culture - especially a conquering, literate one - most sources we do have are strongly biased. Europeans tell us what Africa, India, and the Americas were like before we got there. Or today, there might be a tendency to romanticize those earlier times in reaction. Wouldn't it be nice to really know?
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I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.