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.

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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.