Anglo-Saxon Attitudes: bigotry in historical fiction

This is a post about offensive historical attitudes. If you don’t wish to see offensive words and ideas, move on swiftly.

I love late 19th/early 20th century pulp with a fiery passion. John Buchan, H Rider Haggard, E Phillips Oppenheim, Edgar Wallace, Talbot Mundy, Sax Rohmer and Richard Marsh. I love derring-do and English gentlemen tackling dastardly plots, mostly executed by dastardly foreigners.

It’s so awful.

I don’t usually believe in the concept of guilty pleasures, especially because people apply it to things like watching Buffy or reading romantic fiction or eating chocolate HobNobs, and if that merits guilt, I really wasted a Catholic upbringing. But I feel guilty as hell about some of these books, even bearing in mind the different mores of the time. I actually can’t read Bulldog Drummond, it’s too hateful. In pulp we fear, look down on, distrust or hate the following:

  • Foreigners – which is everyone unBritish, unless they’re American. Americans are good, if faintly ludicrous.
  • Women with breasts. Or sexy women. It’s OK if you have no secondary sexual characteristics or desire and are ‘boyishly slim’, also ‘brave’, and of course ‘gay’.
  • Queer people. Especially Germans, the filthy degenerates, who are also foreign of course. The Germans are all about unspeakable vice. Evil Colonel Stumm in Greenmantle has “a perverted taste for delicate things” (i.e. a nice room) and a “queer other side which gossip has spoken of as not unknown in the German army” and which scares the daylights out of poor Richard Hannay, before he goes on to marry a boyish brave gay, uh, girl. (Definitely.)
  • Jews. Don’t even. I’m not quoting this stuff.
  • Black people. Again, I shall leave this to your imagination, although here’s something worth considering:

What is a gentleman? I don’t quite know, and yet I have had to do with niggers—no, I will scratch out that word “niggers,” for I do not like it. I’ve known natives who *are*, and so you will say, Harry, my boy, before you have done with this tale, and I have known mean whites with lots of money and fresh out from home, too, who *are not*. (King Solomon’s Mines, H Rider Haggard, 1885)

Okay, the overwhelming assumption of white superiority is cringeable, but for 1885, that’s not bad. King Solomon’s Mines may reek of paternalism at best, but it has a black hero shown to be the full equal of the white hero, and a black woman with sex drive who is acknowledged the heroine of the book, however hamfistedly. Again, 1885. Give Haggard some slack.*

In general, though, the attitudes were really pretty gruesome, and it shows in the books. Though it’s often a little bit complicated. Fu Manchu, for example, is an appalling caricature of Chinese stereotypes, a living yellow peril, threat to the white race, blah. Genuinely, massively, horrifically racist. But I can’t help noticing that he always wins. Denis Nayland Smith can stiffen his upper lip till you could use it to scrape wallpaper, but he usually ends up bound in a remote strangely carved cavern under the influence of mysterious Oriental drugs, while Fu Manchu buggers off to get on with running the world.

And again, here’s a very interesting passage from The Thirty-Nine Steps. The spy Scudder tells Richard Hannay:

‘For three hundred years they [Jews] have been persecuted, and this is the return match for the pogroms. The Jew is everywhere, but you have to go far down the backstairs to find him. Take any big Teutonic business concern. If you have dealings with it the first man you meet is Prince von und Zu Something, an elegant young man who talks Eton-and-Harrow English. But he cuts no ice. If your business is big, you get behind him and find a prognathous Westphalian with a retreating brow and the manners of a hog. He is the German business man that gives your English papers the shakes. But if you’re on the biggest kind of job and are bound to get to the real boss, ten to one you are brought up against a little white-faced Jew in a bath-chair with an eye like a rattlesnake. Yes, Sir, he is the man who is ruling the world just now, and he has his knife in the Empire of the Tzar, because his aunt was outraged and his father flogged in some one-horse location on the Volga.’

Okay, that’s not nice. But.

Firstly, the passage acknowledges the oppression of Jewish people, even if it’s in a passing, sneering way.

Secondly, and more importantly, it’s spoken by a character who is full of crap. Sir Walter Bullivant, the spymaster says, quite specifically, that Scudder was an unreliable fantasiser and a bigot. ‘He had a lot of odd biases, too. Jews, for example, made him see red.’ And the book shows us that there is no Jewish conspiracy. Scudder is simply wrong. (It was the Germans. Of course.)

So it’s not entirely simplistic. The pulp fiction often takes a much more nuanced view than you’d think.

Nevertheless, this was an overwhelmingly racist time. This was the time of the Dreyfus Affair, of gross and open anti-Semitism of the sort that led Europe down that awful path. The general attitudes were of the sort lightly outlined here, and you probably feel that’s quite enough.


Now, I wanted to write an Edwardian pulp pastiche. (Because. Don’t judge me.) It’s pretty hard to do that without the attitudes of the times. And it’s even harder to do it with.


I write queer romance. I work on the assumption that my readers are non-bigoted humans who don’t need to be told that oppression and bigotry are bad things. I’m here to do pulp adventure and romance, not overt politics. And I don’t want to sit down and write hate. It’s draining and horrible.

But Think of England is a book about, among other things, being an outsider, being isolated, the odd one out. One of my heroes is not only Jewish, but gay, foreign-looking and (gasp!) a poet. It would have missed the point not to have that commented on and used as a weapon against him by the villains. It would miss the point if he wasn’t isolated by the supporting cast too, not because they’re evil but because that’s who he was in that time. And then there’s the other hero…

Because my other hero is an English officer and gentleman who would, technically, be just as ready to use those words and those attitudes as any villain, at least till he knows better.

I’ll be honest: I skimped it. I think you could write a dyed in the wool thoughtless racist hero and make it work, but I didn’t want to. I started to and then I decided that actually, a little bit of bigotry goes a long way. Once the reader understands the general atmosphere of casual dismissal, contempt, disregard, once we’ve seen the hateful hostile language, we don’t need it rammed in our faces again and again to keep on making the same hateful point. Line it in, let it sit, give the atmosphere without having to reiterate the words. Enough was enough a very long time ago.

It would be both dishonest and pointless to write an Edwardian pulp novel without any bigotry, but this is one of the very few times when I think homeopathic doses work.

What do you think? Should historical novels ignore the modern readers’ sensibilities for realism, or can we take the bigotry on board along with the poor dental hygiene and lack of plumbing, and not dwell on the gory details?

*If you should read both Think of England and King Solomon’s Mines you will get a sense of my fondness for the latter.

Think of England is out 1 July.


36 thoughts on “Anglo-Saxon Attitudes: bigotry in historical fiction

  1. Chris Lackey and Chad Fifer, the authors of the graphic novel Deadbeats, advertise is as “a Lovecraft tale Lovecraft would have hated.” Not only are the protagonists *jazz musicians* (horror!) the main character is black (*cue fainting*).

  2. I’ve delurked to comment on this (a thing I rarely do) because this is something I’ve grappled with in my love of Buchan and his ilk for a while now. For me, the problem has always been the extent to which Buchan will undermine his own racist/sexist text quite openly, yet never really question the overtly held beliefs therein. I’m reminded, for example, of the minor character in the Three Hostages of the ‘whitest jew I’ve ever known’ – an incredibly problematic yet positive description. What does one do with that? Neither dismissing nor rejecting it seem sufficient as an answer – and still that book is one of my very favourite adventure stories. I’m looking forward to seeing how you treat it very much.

    • I love Buchan dearly – Greenmantle is my favourite Hannay story, and the sequel to Think of England is going to be explicitly riffing on that. But I agree, it’s those moments where the positive attitude actually shows the bone-deep unconscious racism, that are deeply difficult. I used to have a boss who would say, ‘You’re a white man!’ as a term of highest praise, and never quite grasped why it didn’t go down as well as all that.

  3. I suppose you could call it fudging, but then, the pulps you’re talking about really went overboard. I think your approach will work. We don’t have to be bludgeoned over the head to “get it,” because times have changed and we do “get it.” But it’s appalling that the same kind of bigotry is now being expressed out in the open. The perpetrators are being shamed, but even their apologies reveal the depths. At least it isn’t acceptable, and we know who they are.

    • It really struck me in the Haggard quote that ‘nigger’ was seen as a hateful, nasty word *130 years ago*. The fact that some people still haven’t grasped that…the mind boggles.

  4. This is also a huge consideration for me. It can be truly hard to work a compromise between a bigoted society while not making it a) revolting to most people or b) bigotry in name only. With the later, you get these nonsensical heroines wearing corsets, waving guns, dazzling scientists with their intellect, and yet also maintaining a high level of respect in a society that otherwise treats women as chattel. One is off-putting and the other makes no sense. Trying to deal with it in a realistic, nuanced, and sensitive way that doesn’t seem necessarily modern like you are doing must be a real challenge!

    • It was something I felt more comfortable with in this era in part because things were opening up. You had Jewish people in powerful places, the New Woman bicycling and getting jobs, much more exposure to different cultures. And all the hate and fear as a direct result of that, of course, but it’s possible to show the times changing a little, which makes it easier to give a range of responses and lighten the atmosphere a bit.

      I can’t abide anachronistic kickass heroines, it just seems dishonest to disregard the very real struggles. Which is why my historicals are all m/m because they had more fun. I ought to do something about that.

  5. I would vote for historical accuracy, subtly done. It’s difficult but possible (even when you’re helping a bigoted or sexist hero grow) and you’ll have been true to the story you want to tell.

    • I think it helps to distinguish between active bigotry, as in the Scudder quote, and the kind of thoughtless assumption shown in remarks like ‘the whitest Jew in Europe’. You can do something with thoughtlessness.

  6. Okay, rambling here, bear with me please. As a reader, if you are writing a historical, yes, I am with Mara, I want historical accuracy, subtly done. I am thinking people may define “gory details” a little differently (how much gory is too much), but I want the clear picture of the real historical attitudes at the time. That’s just me.

    The problem may arise when you are portraying what is in the hero’s head IMO – there is always going to be a delicate balance between having the hero grow and leave asshatery behind as much as he could, and not portray him as somebody completely irredeemable because if you are writing a romance, not sure how many readers would love somebody completely irredeemable. Of course I cannot help you with the advice as to how to achieve that balance, I am not a writer ;).

    However, I also want to make very clear – the moment the story is labeled as AU historical, historical fantasy, etc – I do not care about historical accuracy. I mean, I do appreciate for example that your Magpie Universe is very reminiscent of certain stage in England’s history, it helps me to feel better grounded there, etc. But at the same time I am aware that this is *not* a real era in history, because of magic and other stuff, so any anachronisms, any attitudes that are not true to the era are fine by me in this universe and any universes which operate under similar laws.

    Huh, I am now thinking about Guy Gavriel Kay’s books – if you are familiar with his works you know that most of his books very closely follow specific eras in history of different countries. I mean technically they are fantasies, but really, if he would name some countries and rulers of the countries with different names, a lot of his books could be called historical fiction IMO.

    I actually think he achieves such balance perfectly with a lot of his heroes – several of them do pretty bad things under modern standards and do not even exactly grow out of it, but as a friend said, she does not judge them under the standards of 21 century. She was saying that if society has slavery, she would consider a good guy somebody who treats his slaves nice enough, she does not need for the good guy to be somebody who would be in charge of the revolution to abandon slavery necessarily, if the society is not there yet.

    Hope my ramblings made some sense – it is late here, so apologies for possibly more mistakes than usual.

    • I think you’re right – you can’t import modern attitudes without turning it into contemp fiction in silly hats. The reader has to judge the character in context and the author has to make them understand the context, as with GGK.

      Not sure I agree completely with historical fantasy having a freer ride. Or, rather: As with what Langley was saying above, there have to be rules, boundaries, consistency within the setting. So my Victorian AU can have magic but it can’t have iPads. That’s a strong personal preference for me and it’s why I have a big problem with a lot of steampunk, it goes so far from the setting that I lose track of why we’re set there in the first place. And it’s more fun to have your characters break social rules than simply to abolish them…

      • Oh definitely I am for a consistent world where the established rules are not being broken by the writer, or if they are, the writer establishes that the rules are being bent/broken for a good reason. I want that to happen in historical or in AU or in The fantasy, does not matter. I just feel that in the story which does not claim to be a straight historical, I personally am okay with the rules being whatever writer wanted them to be. You wanted to do a setting which is as close to historical reality? Great. You want to make any changes to that setting you want? Awesome, just don’t make a mess out of the rules your universe has to follow as you already established IMO. What I am trying to say is that of course right now I cannot see how Lucien and Stephen will walk around with iPads, because you established that modern day electronic devices do not seem to exist. But I would not have blinked an eye if you would establish initially that such thing could happen in your world.

  7. Oh, definitely late here :). I wanted to add that such justifications do not necessarily always work for me, but I at least understand it and if sometimes I cannot help but want the hero to be a bit ahead of his time in certain ways, oh well. I know it is my problem and not book’s.

  8. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before but I don’t read historical novels. Whether m/m or m/f.Too often the author ignores all the norms of society at the time or the unpleasant “beliefs” and as a history minor, it makes me see red. I vote for realism in a historical setting because the reality at the time should be acknowledged (racism, xenophobia, etc.) even if the author doesn’t want to dwell on it in detail. A protagonist who has all the ideals of 2014 doesn’t belong in 1778 for example.

    Another side note? Some women actually DO want to get married and have children, it’s NOT a character flaw. I’m tired of seeing women in historical novels all trying to be dashing adventurers or duellists. My own friends in RL are split between single career women and housewives.

    I’ve rambled on long enough, just wanted to say that I can’t wait for your new novel!

    • There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to a quiet life. That’s the key aim of my heroes in the MS I just finished. Trying to achieve that is, of course, trickier…

  9. I would agree with your assessment. If you are going to write a historical novel then the attitudes of the time period have to be taken into account. If it is important to portray correctly the plight of the gay man, then I don’t think we can discount the other attitudes that were commonplace at the time.

    I too love those stories of daring do and adventure, and like you I find they can jar with my modern day liberal sensibilities. I try to combat this by considering just how far we’ve come since these times (or not, as the case may be). Also I think it’s important that we think of the times that they were published and how much sway the publishers would have had in the books content. I’ve heard it said that Herge was instructed to put certain sentiments into some of his Tintin books by ThePowersThatBe to support the political opinion at the time.

    As a reader ( and sometimes writer) of historical gay romance I like to see realism in every aspect of the story, not just the relationship. A hateful character is a hateful character regardless of his opinions and readers will rarely warm to him, but a flawed character with hateful opinions that when challenged allow him to change and grow, that sort of character readers will more readily get behind.

    Looking forward to the new book.

    • Fundamentally, there’s ‘old-fashioned ways of thought’ and there’s ‘actively being a bastard to people’, and even though they can have overlap in speech/actions, I think we can trust readers to see the difference in motive. If we do our job right!

  10. I think that a book should reflect the mores of whatever time it is written in, though I’m less of a stickler for accuracy in AU fiction. As Sirius says, that’s a completely different world and the author gets to make the rules. As long as the world building is consistent, it’s all good for me.

    But I think there is a difference between reflecting the attitudes etc of the time and approving of those mores narratively. I’m still getting my head around it to be honest, but I thought you did it very well in A Case Of Possession where you had Crane disliking the bigot and his attitudes (so that makes Crane more heroic and more likeable for a modern audience) but you also gave him a background (having spent a long time in China and with people of different classes and having experienced poverty etc) such that it made sense for him to have a more enlightened attitude and I think the latter is just as important. If the main characters are to behave differently from the norm, they need a narrative reason for it. That’s the sort of thing I like to see because it has the flavour if the period but is sensitive to modern sensibilities.

    I used that example because it’s the sort of thing that I need to actually see in fiction before I can understand the concept behind it. And that particular scene crystallised the idea for me, so it was particularly memorable.

    • Thanks. 🙂 It’s nice to know where I got it right. It was quite complex in ToE, more so because the hero Archie is pretty much oblivious and unreflective and the book is told from his POV. So there’s some work for the reader there…

  11. I think it’s important to show that not everyone thought the same way though. People had as big a variety of political ideas and philosophies of life as we have now, Take slavery. It’s not like everyone thought slavery was absolutely fine and the natural order of things and then one day the government turned around and abolished it on a whim. So I’d be absolutely fine with a character in a historical novel who was anti-slavery even when the slave trade was at its height, because abolitionists existed in real life.

    Women have always been up to interesting things in science and maths and so on, even if they weren’t allowed to go to university. But a lot of the time their contributions are played down compared to men’s, especially as they weren’t on faculty at the universities. Labour movements were starting in the 19th century. Socialism was around. It wasn’t all horny handed peasants doffing their caps to the master without question.

    And there’s no smooth progression from “more bigoted” to “less bigoted”. Things go up and down, prevailing attitudes change for all sorts of reasons. The culture might get better or worse for different groups at different times. I think that If anything things moved backwards at least in the sense of personal freedoms during the Victorian era compared to say the Georgian era.

    So, yes, I’ve got no problem with a historical hero having some attitudes and ideas we’d sympathise with today. As long as he doesn’t sound like he’s probably got a copy of the Guardian in my back pocket. 😉

    • Absolutely! That’s a really exciting aspect of the Edwardian period too, masses of social change, masses of resistance, women starting to demands more power, and so on.

    • I think it is all a matter of degree. I do not remember where I read it unfortunately – most likely some article referenced at DA, and don’t even remember what the whole article was about, but the paragraph that I kind of remember was about basically claiming that this is how the writers of historical fiction try to get around the problems of bigoted heroes, heroes with outdated attitudes. They try to portray the hero who is so ahead of their times and sometimes it looks ridiculous. Again even though I read it recently I cannot reference it unfortunately and while I definitely think it is possible and sometimes necessary to establish hero with progressive attitudes, the balance sometimes hard to achieve. I know am not being helpful :). I mean it is all wonderful to show abolitionist hero in 18 or 19 century, but say in t but if you want to tell me ( when I say you I am of course talking in general) that your hero is against slavery say ten centuries before that ( random number) you are going to have to work ten times harder to convince me what made him that way IMO.

      • Yes, even if you’re going to show him having the progressive liberal attitudes they should fit the time too. The character definitely shouldn’t have that neat full set of modern liberal attitudes. 😀

        And what they thought of as progressive at the time may not seem that way to us now. I’ve never seen anyone make a (sympathetic) historical character a supporter of eugenics for example, even though it was considered progressive and scientific and many intellectuals (but not all of course) were all for it in its early days.

        • Brilliant example. Because of course someone who saw women dying in childbirth or having 17 kids, children starving, kids born with problems (because of maternal drinking/factory work but they wouldn’t know it) could totally believe that eugenics was a humane and decent approach to ending such large scale misery.

      • Yes, completely. I think it’s dishonest, really, to just skip the problematic attitudes. Though equally, the kind of racial attitudes that were casual then are far more loaded now, so the reader can’t really read them in their true context – because casual racism is no longer casual, in civilised society. So you have to limn attitudes much more lightly to give the same effect. A ‘decent’ man would treat his slaves nicely, for example, where an exceptional one would be an ‘abolitionist, but it’s very hard to see a slave owner as decent at all now. So there’s a sort of inflation, if you follow me.

    • Oh definitely. As a reader, I’d want some context to understand that it was authentic. Otherwise, I might feel like it’s just a modern dude dumped into history. Like; an anti-slavery person perhaps referencing some pamphletts or other abolitionist writing, group etc so that it links to the times – something that connects the “modern” sensibility to the historical. I’m sorry, I don’t think I phrased that well. It’s all very abstract. As an example, in Jo Beverley’s An Arranged Marriage, Beth is a follower of Mary Wollstonecraft and that gives a context to her forward thinking about female equality but it also roots it in the times. So, that’s the kind of thing I mean. An historic connection to the “modern” behaviour (which actually turns out to be not modern at all of course).

      Which is really what you said in your last paragraph! LOL.

  12. I share your love of those old authors, plus Kipling. I think it’s possible to love something while being well aware of its flaws – that’s how most marriages survive after all – and those excruciating attitudes are the price we pay for all that exuberant plot. Just as with those MM novels that make me feel ashamed to be female because the depiction of each and every woman is so vile (though that can never be compared to the levels of racism and bigotry in 19th and 20th century fiction).
    Historical fiction should acknowledge the attitudes of the times. To ignore it is naive at best. But I do agree that for the modern audience a little goes a long way. There are certain words I’d never put in the mouth of my hero, but I really fought with conscience over my protagonist’s attitude to black crew members in my pirate novel. In the end I played it safe. I didn’t feel that I could risk too unsympathetic a hero in first novel when I knew it was already going to be hard to market without the usual heat level.

    • I adore Kipling. His short stories are masterful. (Most of the poetry sucks.) And I sympathize re the language. In some ways it’s harder if it’s casual: I’m explicitly engaging with antiSemitic attitudes so I have a context where you wouldn’t, and to be accurate would I think have jarred the reader to no very strong purpose. So, good call.

  13. Just to give my perspective, as a reader (and a huge fan of yours!) who happens to be black, I’m perfectly fine with books glossing over the bigotry of the past. I know perfectly well how racist things were, and continue to be, but I read for fun, and because it makes me happy. I don’t need historical romances to be accurate in that regard, in fact I’d probably enjoy them much less if they were.

    • Yes. Exactly. God knows there’s enough hate in the world as it is. I don’t enjoy writing it, nobody enjoys reading it, and I feel quite sure readers are basically happy to take the author’s word for it without spelling everything out.

  14. Pingback: The Stiffest Upper Lips: my top ten early pulp fiction reads | KJ Charles

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  16. Just pre-ordered the book. Looking forward to it. Buchan, Rider Haggard, James Fenimore Cooper, all have been favourites of mine at various times in my life.


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