History and the Work of Narrative

I’ve spent entirely too much time in the past few days following the comments on January’s F review of Phoenix Sullivan’s Spoil of War at Dear Author and Sarah’s D review of Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. There’s a lot to be said about both–and a lot has been said in the lengthy, interesting, sometimes appalling comments–but what interests me here is a common thread in defences of the books/their authors: “that’s just the way it was back then.”

Sullivan’s novel is a prequel to Arthurian legend (the main characters are Guinevere’s parents); the author’s blurb describes the setting as “the Dark Ages” though reviewers seem to be divided on exactly when that means (500CE? 1000CE?). January’s review objected to the depiction of rape in the novel, and some commenters asserted this objection was unfair because rape–and the view of women as property–was common “back then.” Heyer’s novel was published in 1950 and is set in the Regency. Sarah objected to the stereotypical characterization of the Jewish moneylender, Goldhanger. Some commenters responded either that anti-Semitism was common in the Regency, or that it was common in people of Heyer’s generation, so it is unfair to criticize the book for it.

In both cases, defenders claimed that when we read books set or written in the past, we must put aside our “21st-century mindset” and not criticize them for failing to conform to modern values. Well, yes and no. Maybe it’s because I am a Victorianist by training that I’m perfectly comfortable loving a book (as I do The Grand Sophy) and acknowleding, discussing, and condemning the racist, sexist, classist, etc. attitudes it may depict and endorse. Just because Heyer–or Shakespeare or Dickens, who were enlisted in her defense–lived “back then” does not mean we should turn a blind eye to what’s objectionable in their works, even–perhaps most especially–when we love them.

Beyond that, I think many of the commenters missed important distinctions between a character’s views and attitudes, and the narrative’s. To put it another way, they didn’t distinguish between history and story or between fact and narrative.

A lot of things happened in the past. The work of a novelist writing historical fiction is to decide which of them to include in a narrative. As Dear Author’s Janet (@redrobinreader) pointed out on Twitter, rape in romance novels is often defended as historically accurate, but no one puts in lice. This doesn’t mean a writer shouldn’t include things like rape or anti-Semitism, but if she wants to connect with readers living today, she needs to think carefully about why she is including them and how she is asking readers to feel about them. And that can mean creating distance between how a character views something and how the narrative views it and asks the reader to view it.

The Grand Sophy is a good example. It’s one thing for Sophy and her cousin Hubert, who has borrowed money from Goldhanger, to think things like “what could he do but jump into the river, or go to the Jews?” This reflects both the historical fact that moneylenders were Jewish (I can’t find an on-line source on this I’m really comfortable linking to, which says a lot in itself) and the prejudice that was common in people of their time. But the third-person narrator could be used to provide a different view, as could the plot events and the characterization of Goldhanger.

Instead, we get a classically anti-Semitic description of Goldhanger: “a thin, swarthy individual, with long greasy hair, a semitic nose, and an ingratiating leer.” Nothing he says or does in his scene with Sophy suggests he is anything but greedy and threatening, and his villainy is linked to his Jewishness by the narrator’s reference to “the instincts of his race.” Thus I’d argue that the narrative–both the voice and the choice of events in the scene–invites readers to condone or agree with the anti-Semitic stereotypes inherent in Goldhanger’s characterization. There’s no space here for a different point of view. So to explain the scene as simply an accurate portrayal of the Regency is problematic.

It’s clear from January’s review that what she objected to in Sullivan’s book was not so much the rapes (though there were an awful lot of them) as the way they were presented. She felt she was being asked to excuse them as “no big deal” or “the way things were” because that’s what the point of view character did, and the narrative didn’t successfully offer a different point of view. I haven’t read Sullivan’s book. But I do think that an author who chooses to include repeated rapes (and it was a choice, despite one commenter’s claim that every woman “back then” was raped) needs to work very hard to ensure that whatever the characters think and feel, readers are invited to be horrified. We shouldn’t have to check our 21st-century values at the door of a book published today. On the evidence of the quotes in the review and the comments by some others who read the book, I’m not confident that Sullivan managed that.

How does a writer open up space between a character’s point of view and the narrative’s? In older realist fiction, it was easier, because omniscient narrators who direct the reader were common.

A commenter on Sarah’s Heyer review said she still enjoyed Bleak House even though it “had crippling poverty and filth thrust upon a good portion of the people therein.” To which I can only say, WTF?Despite some depictions of “the poor” which most of us would now see as stereotypical and problematic, both the first- and third-person narrators in Dickens’ novel condemn the poverty that was a fact of 19th-century life. The slum of Tom-All-Alone’s is described as “a villainous street, undrained, unventilated, deep in black mud and corrupt water–though the roads are dry elsewhere . . . . Mr. Snagsby sickens in body and mind, and feels as if he were going, every moment deeper down, into the infernal gulf.” This passage depicts the conditions in which London’s poorest live as hellish; moreover, words like “corrupt” and “villainous” suggest such conditions are a crime, the effect of a social corruption that needs to be addressed. No hand-waving “that’s how things are” here.

In George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Dorothea and Casaubon are happily heading into their disastrous marriage. But in case the reader doesn’t notice his very unromantic proposal letter, the narrator remarks, “How could it occur to [Dorothea] to examine the letter, to look at it critically as a profession of love?” That’s pretty much a mallet over the head: if you didn’t look at it critically, reader, go back and do so now.

This distance can be harder to pull off in a time when the directive omniscient narrator is less common. Are there books you think do it well? 

Constructing a narrative, choosing characters, events and language in which to depict them, has ethical implications, because it can affect readers’ views of the world. I don’t think it should be undertaken lightly. But then, I’m a Victorianist.

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7 Responses to History and the Work of Narrative

  1. Narrative invites omniscient point of view, the authorial voice. In “Bleak House,” for instance, at least three omniscient narrators take part, with distinct voices. That’s apart from the frequent points of view of the different characters in the book, including the first person sections.
    In Heyer’s books, there is still room for the omniscient narrator, and this might be a reason why modern readers are appalled – they attribute the description of Goldhanger to Heyer, and not Sophy. A modern writer might move closer into Sophy’s head, but that would invite the reader to dislike the heroine of the book.
    In the modern romance novel, writers are encouraged to write the story from the point of view of one or other of the characters, and keep it close – ie, tell a scene from that character’s point of view and no other. So in the Sullivan book, of which I’ve only read the sample, the point of view seems to me to be very shallow, verging on the omniscient. The rapes are treated shallowly. They don’t further the plot or the internal development of the heroine, because she brushes them off as if they don’t matter. Rape victims are deeply traumatized, and that trauma always comes out one way or another. It might not seem connected to the rape, but it does have a deep effect on the psyche. When a reader is invited into a character’s mind, the author should make the effort to show it, not just describe what is happening. So in the scene quoted on the blog, when the heroine shrugs off the fact that she’s been gang-raped and kept chained up, there should be some insight into the way she’s feeling to balance her seemingly insouciant attitude.
    It reminded me of an old Law and Order SVU, “Witness,” which featured rape as an act of war, where an African woman described in court what it felt like. She had been raped, had come to the States illegally. She was living and being strong, but in court she describes it in chilling, horrifying detail. And she never shrugged it off.

    • lizmc2 says:

      I’m trained in a school that refuses to identify the narrator and the author; that’s probably why I don’t understand the need to leap to defending Heyer when the book’s anti-Semitism is attacked. But I’d also differentiate the omniscient narrator from Sophy’s point of view in the scene I quoted.

      I agree that these things are particularly difficult to manage in a modern genre romance whose readers expect 1) a third-person narrator with deep character point of view; and 2) “likeable” and heroic main characters. Readers who come to Sullivan’s book thinking it’s romance (and I think the synopsis and blurb invite us to do so) are bound to be appalled by the “hero” and “heroine.” But even if this is historical fiction, and we aren’t asked to see them as heroic, the non-effect of the rape scenes seems really problematic. Are we just spectating? Why?

  2. Magdalen says:

    I think you’ve found the distinction. Sullivan, one assumes, wrote her book in the 21st century, regardless of which century she intended for its setting. She, then, is bound by your quite reasonable requirement that writers consider the contemporary reader even as they write about people in different times.

    Georgette Heyer may have been doing just that. As I understand your requirement, Heyer can be judged by whether what she wrote was offensive to her contemporaries in 1950. Surely we don’t require her to have projected 60 years into the future and considered her American readers in the 21st century even as she was writing about her country 130 years earlier. And anyway, isn’t one of the slams against Heyer that her cultural and moral sensibilities are more Edwardian than Georgian?

    I suspect, sadly, that Georgette Heyer lived in a time in England when not everyone found it morally repugnant to be anti-Semitic. Most people, perhaps. But not all. She may not have been writing for all of her readers when she should have been, but the mindset of mid-century England is quite different from that of 21st century America.

    Does that acquit her? Probably not — if she’s the one being condemned. But she’s not — it’s her book that was reviewed. The reviewer weighed the odious characterization against the novel’s merits and gave it a grade. That’s what reviewers do.

    I had reason to reread an early Dorothy Sayers recently for a blog post. It too had some invidious racist attitudes and I was sad to see them. But I still love her books.

  3. Jessica says:

    I agree with you completely on the way that the kind of distance created by Dickens in Bleak House makes for a very different reading experience than the endorsement of anti-Semitism that Grand Sophy invites. I haven’t read any Heyer, but I will take others’ word for it that the anti-Semitism therein is deeply offensive and problematic. I think it is largely irrelevant what the flesh and blood Heyer or her contemporaries thought. Thinking Jews were non-persons was wrong in 1950 just as it is wrong today, whether the majority of people agreed or not.

    Although I haven’t read the thread over at SBTB super carefully, I take it that some readers objected to the book getting a grade of “D”, or “poor”, on the basis of the anti-Semitic characterization of one minor character. I will defend to infinity degree a reviewer’s right to grade a book whatever she wants: if it was a D read for SB Sarah, it was a D read. Period. But I think some commenters felt that a reader can condemn — in the strongest possible terms — reprehensible moral attitudes in a text, without *having* to say (to avoid the charge that they agree with the offensive views in the text) that the book, as a whole, is a terrible one. I’m still having a hard time figuring out why that view is so wrong.

    • lizmc2 says:

      I don’t think it is wrong. But some commenters implied (I think and hope they didn’t mean to) that it wasn’t fair to criticize the novel/Heyer for attitudes that were common in the Regency/her time. That, to me, is wrong.

      I’m still mulling over that review. If I were to review The Grand Sophy now, I’d still give it a much higher grade than Sarah did. But where I once I’d probably not have mentioned the Goldhanger scene, which is pretty brief (though significant), I’d definitely do so now, because I’ve heard about how strongly it affected some readers. I hope this has made me more attentive to the things I’m privileged to “read around” in a book, but others aren’t, though I know I won’t notice everything that might really hurt someone.

      • Jessica says:

        “I hope this has made me more attentive to the things I’m privileged to “read around” in a book, but others aren’t, though I know I won’t notice everything that might really hurt someone.”

        Yes, this is great advice for all of us.

  4. VacuousMinx says:

    I love this post. I’ve been thinking about it since I read it, but have been offline and haven’t had a chance to comment until now.

    I am working on a couple of posts on Heyer and her Jewish characters. Laura Vivanco reminded me of the character in A Blunt Instrument, and I went back and reread the “Jew” King character (who was a real person) in April Lady. It’s fascinating to see three different treatments of Jewish characters by Heyer over 20 years. They don’t change over time the way you might expect. I’ve also found work by a historian of English Jews (Laura V cited his book in the comments to Sarah’s review) and it’s quite illuminating. Again, Heyer chose a specific perspective on English Jews in the different eras, but it’s far from the only one she could have chosen, given the sources available to her at the time. I really need to read Gronow again, too.

    I think the omniscient narrator thing lets the author too easily off the hook. Omniscient narrators were quite common in romance novels in the past; Burchell used that perspective all the time in her M&Bs, for example. In romance (including Heyer), these narrators are unfailingly reliable, so it makes sense for the reader to attribute the book’s attitudes to the author, especially because the author is frequently informing/teaching/lecturing the reader.

    My take on Sarah’s review was that the grade was not only about Goldhanger but also about the way Sophy was presented. Laura V makes a great point in her current post on heroines who are expected by readers to change (and why that shouldn’t necessarily be a yardstick). But in Sophy’s case, we don’t even get a sense that love makes her think differently about herself, or discover something new. That seems to me to be a real flaw. Do we really want a heroine who, when she falls in love, is fundamentally unaffected by the experience?

    I’ve made it through four chapters of the Sullivan. It’s not the rapes per se that get to me, it’s the heroine. What a dreadful construction she is; I can’t figure out what the author was trying to do with her. And the book is unambiguously structured according to romance traditions. It is *not* historical fiction, at least not as I understand the genre (having read Penman, Pargeter, Dunnett, and so forth).

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