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.