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The One Thing That Ruins All Historical Fiction For Me
It doesn't stink.
At various points in my life, I’ve been faced with the criticism that I can be something of a buzzkill who should stop “yucking” my loved ones’ various “yums.” Is this fair? Am I really that much of a Debbie Downer? Probably, yeah. [Ed note: absolutely.] But lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of ads for the upcoming season of Starz’ Outlander, which reminded me of one of my biggest complaints about that, and other similar works of historical fiction: everyone stinks.
Actually, I should clarify. My problem is that no one in Outlander stinks. No one in Bram Stoker’s Dracula stinks either. No one in Bridgerton or Gladiator or Newsies or Tombstone or any number of other revered pieces of historical fiction stinks, which is a problem for me, an admittedly annoying pedant, because they should. They should all smell fucking awful.
Each of those movies and shows should have a scene where a character stops mid-sentence, stands absolutely still for a beat, and then swallows a mouthful of their own vomit because everyone else in the room smells exactly like broiled hogshit. It’s particularly conspicuous in Outlander, where the whole premise is that a person from the modern era is transported back to a late 1700s Scotland rife with sex and violence but lacking in anything resembling personal hygiene. You’d think, for the sake of accuracy, the modern time traveler would at least spend the first season of the show walking around like she’s got a perpetual fart up her nose?
And yes, I know, I know, these shows are works of capital-F Fiction and how would it even make sense to focus on the way characters smell, and artistic license and blah blah blah. I get it. This is absolutely a “me” problem, and if you can sit through a screening of Spartacus and not be distracted by the fact that all of the characters were busy wiping their asses with a communal sponge on a stick IRL, well, how lovely for you. Some of us (me) aren’t so lucky.
This is a 100 percent true story: I’m watching Muppet Treasure Island with my youngest son, and he keeps asking why none of the humans are weirded out by all the puppets. “Good question!” I respond. “But a better question is why no one seems to care that everyone on that pirate ship probably stinks like wet cabbage?” After a few minutes of silence, he asks me to turn the movie off. I am not proud.
I’m not asking for much, I swear. Just a few extra shots of characters casting furtive glances and conspicuously sniffling their noses, or a paragraph or two that makes it clear that the author knows that everyone in their creation is a walking olfactory biohazard. And even that, I realize, is probably a bridge too far. Historical fiction hinges on a balance between scholarly-ish accuracy and a compelling plot—and when in doubt, the latter will (or at least should) always trump the former. The whole thing falls apart if someone (me) tries to shoehorn in an unnecessary element of “Hey, we all smell awful!” that serves no purpose other than to scratch my personal pathological hangup. I understand that on an intellectual level, I really do. But on a purely emotional, gut level, I can’t help but read a chapter of The Once and Future King or something and find myself involuntarily plucked out of the carefully crafted atmosphere of medieval fantasy with the intrusive realization that each knight probably sat around that round table adding their own flavor of “pee inside hot armor” aroma to the scene.
Look, this is a stupid problem to have. I’m a stupid person for having it. This blog? Some might say it stinks. The end.