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.

 

Anachronism and Accuracy: getting it right in historical novels

I’ve been editing, reading and writing a lot of historical fiction recently, and I have anachronism and accuracy on my mind.

Now, of course any historical fiction will be anachronistic by its nature, even if the author does her best to think herself into the worldview and language. There are people who can do an incredible job of that. Paul Kingsnorth has just written a novel that ventriloquises 11th-century English in a mostly comprehensible way.

With my scramasax i saws up until his throta is cut and blaec blud then cums roarin out lic gathran wind.

For 273 pages. Gosh.

For most of us, telling the story comes before authenticity, certainly at this level. I have no idea how many years of knowledge and hard work Kingsnorth or Adam Thorpe or Hilary Mantel have to call on to do their impersonations of the past, but most of us don’t have the time and space for that kind of ultra deep research, nor is that what most readers necessarily want, certainly not in genre fiction. I will be reading the Kingsnorth book, as it looks amazing, but I don’t have any regrets that Alex Beecroft’s recent and lovely Anglo-Saxon romance isn’t written this way.

Still, there are a number of pitfalls for those of us without history degrees that you can at least look out for.

The most obvious is use of anachronistic language. I’m not talking about using ‘Okay’ in a Regency romance here, I assume you’re better than that. (Though people do it. My earliest spotted use of Okay was in a flung-across-the-room thriller starring William Shakespeare.

‘Shakespeare, I need Macbeth finished tomorrow!’

‘Okay, Burbage!’

As it happens, ‘Okay’ is recorded in English as early as 1908. However, nobody will believe this, so you are well advised not to use it till the Second World War.)

However, it’s easy to be caught out even if you’re careful. As far as I’m aware, nobody has yet set up an online etymology checker so you can plug in the year 1888, run your MS through the OED and have it flag words dating from later. (I wish someone would. Get on that, IT people.) So you have to be very word aware. Read in the period, look hard at what you type.

Slang, mindless jargon and dead metaphors (phrases whose origin has been forgotten) are particularly dangerous because they date language yet they’re so easy to use without thinking. A recent BBC drama set in 1950 referred to people working ‘twenty-four/seven’. In 1950? And your Victorian hero cannot ‘kick start’ the heroine’s moribund lace-making business because that’s a phrase that comes from motorbikes. You might as well have him reboot it.

I’m currently editing a book set in 1650 in which the narrative describes a character as silhouetted against the sky. But ‘silhouette’ is an eponym, a word derived from a person’s name. It comes by a meandering path (‘meander’: a winding Greek river; you’re fine with this unless you’re writing prehistoric, in which case ug ug grunt) from Étienne de Silhouette, a French finance minister of the 1760s, whose austerity measures made his name synonymous with cheap stuff, like cut-out black paper portraits instead of oil paintings – the eponymous silhouettes.

So you obviously can’t have a character in a medieval novel talk about a silhouette. Does it mean the narrative can’t use it in description? I say no, you shouldn’t, because it risks jolting the historically minded reader out of period, just as I wouldn’t allow a Regency character to carry out a boycott or a Victorian to act as a quisling. But I’m well aware those are examples of words I know. There will be a lot I miss.

Then there are habits of mind and action where it’s equally easy to be thoughtlessly modern. Let’s say we’re in a medieval setting and the gang of vagabond rogues need to search a house in a hurry. One says, ‘Meet back here in five minutes.’ How do they know? They don’t have watches. Church clocks don’t chime minutes. Can people who’ve never had easy access to timepieces even think in terms of five minutes?

Or swimming. Prior to the late Victorian age, if your character can swim, you need to know how they learned and why, because most people simply couldn’t. The brilliant Patrick O’Brien Napoleonic War novels show that the hero Jack Aubrey can swim, but stress how unusual that was. Most sailors, if shoved off the edge of a boat, went under. You can’t simply assume your heroes can get over the river that way.

There are other modern habits that are hard to break. My bugbear is smoking, or the lack of it. I don’t smoke, I have very few friends who smoke, I don’t have it in my house and it’s banned in public places. Smoking is not part of my life. Therefore I am perfectly capable of writing an entire book set in Victorian or Edwardian times where nobody smokes. That’s absurdly unlikely.

I probably won’t ever do a smoking hero for three reasons:

  • Lots of readers see it as deeply unattractive
  • The inevitable copy edits. (‘The hero has lit a cigarette three times in this scene without smoking or stubbing one out. Please review.’ ‘He fell in the water, how has he got a cigarette lit?’ ‘Hero hasn’t smoked in five chapters, isn’t he craving yet?’ ARGH.)
  • I don’t want my hero to die of lung cancer twenty years after the book ends. (This is my real reason, embarrassingly.)

But this shouldn’t stop villains or minor characters or someone from lighting up. My historical books should be wreathed in smoke. Yet it never crosses my 21st-century smoke-free mind to put it in.

Ahistorical attitudes are a blog (or a book) in themselves and one I’ll be doing later on. I merely note here that if your Regency hero believes in racial equality and the rights of man, hangs out with his servants, treats women as equals and doesn’t care what people think of him, you need to explain how and why he got all these attitudes because they definitely didn’t come as standard. My Victorian hero of The Magpie Lord does at least three of those things because his very specific backstory – gay, exiled to China as a young man, living on the streets with his servant/henchman, loathes his family – has caused him to see the world differently. Yours might have a completely different reason. As long as there is one.

Oh, and one more thing: names and titles. There is no excuse for sloppiness here. The names will probably be in the first sentence of the blurb; if you get them wrong it’s hard to believe anything else will go well. Take ten minutes to look at period documents and see what people are called. For British titles, look up how to use them here. It is insultingly lazy and embarrassingly cloth-eared to refer to Sir Richard Burton as ‘Sir Burton’; it’s really not hard to find examples of how that works. (Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart are all over the internet, and never as Sir McKellen and Sir Stewart.) The next time I see this, the book is going back to the author wrapped around a rock.

Some authors may well feel that their fast-paced paranormal romantic thriller doesn’t need to be burdened by a ton of research just because it’s also Victorian. Fine, yes, the world is full of readers like Rachel from Friends:

What period is it from?

It’s from yore. Like, the days of yore, you know?

Yes, those readers won’t notice anything odd in Duke Bobby Smith of Manchester, or alternatively will call your research sloppy because your Victorian novel has trains and everyone knows trains are modern. Life is hard.

But if you’re making any attempt to write historical fiction, rather than contemporary fiction in silly hats, you need to write (and edit) for the people who do know and care, to the best of your abilities. Which makes historical fiction much like any other kind, really.

How much do you care about accuracy? What’s your favourite historical blooper? Who gives good history? Tell me your thoughts…

 

Playing with the past: some thoughts on historical settings

Friend: I hate the Victorians. They never had sex.

My first book, The Magpie Lord, is set in Victorian England (with magic). So, obviously, is the sequel. My WIP is a country house adventure set just after Victoria finally popped her clogs. I’m plotting out a long alternate-Victorian fantasy now. What, you may well ask, is my thing about the nineteenth century?

Well, I love it. I’ve guest-blogged about why the Victorians aren’t nearly as boring as they’re cracked up to be (widespread drug abuse, sex toys, eyewatering spiky devices…).  But, as well as being fascinating in itself, the era’s a boon for authors, which in turn makes it fun for readers.

Secrets and sex. Because if there’s one thing that’ll give you a plot, it’s secrets.  And if there’s one thing that people actually did in Victorian times – constantly, in private and public, in the weirdest combinations, and in a world bound around by social and legal restrictions of class and gender and sexuality, repression, secrecy and double standards – it was have sex. Check out My Secret Life, the eleven-volume pornographic diary of a man who could really have used some time in therapy or, preferably, prison. Much more enjoyably, try Sins of the Cities of the Plain, the classic gay erotica work (which includes fan fiction based on the real-life notorious Fanny and Stella sex scandal). Prepare to be surprised.

Grotesque social contrasts. The seething, filthy poverty of the darkest rookeries, the glittering jewels and swishing dresses of the balls. It invites melodrama at its finest.

A world of possibility. Just imagine for a moment what it was like to live in a period of accelerating change that makes ours look comprehensible. From horse and carriage to the London Underground in a handful of years. The invention of electric light, telegrams and telephones. The concept of evolution turning everything you ever knew on its head. Medicine triumphing over disease and pain. Of course this was when science fiction took off: the Victorians were living it. The world seethed with wonderful new ideas, the sufficiently advanced technology that is indistinguishable from magic, and anything seemed possible. This is why steampunk is Victorian: the explosive sense of the period that technology could, quite suddenly, do anything at all.

What I’m getting at is, my friend’s an idiot the Victorian era is not all top hats and the duller sort of corset, and you’re missing a trick if you think it is. It’s a wild blend of restrictions and indulgence, mysteries and possibilities, repressive laws and social change and the death of old certainties. You wouldn’t want to live there, but it’s a hell of a place to visit.

The Magpie Lord is out 3 September. If you’re reading this before 24 August, go here and comment for a chance to win a free electronic copy. If you’re reading this after 24 August then either I forgot to take this paragraph down, or you’re a time traveller and should hop off to 1860 forthwith.