By Nan Hawthorne
Classism is defined as a biased or discriminatory attitude based on distinctions made between social or economic classes. I am specifically referring to a preference or assumption of one class over others. This came up recently when someone told me the entire point of the Society for Creative Anachronism was to create a version of the Middle Ages where "everyone is a noble." What?! Forget it then. I'll drag out my old persona, Var the Insurgent. The same is generally true in novels about the era. I remark on how star-struck and classist most historical novelists are. OUt of a score of novels I would guess that at least eighteen are about royalty or nobility. Yes, yes, mine too.. though at least mine are purely fictional and my aim in the crafting of the book is self-admittedly adolescent. In the vast majority of cases, the celebrities are historical as well as fictionalized and decidedly upper crust.
When someone who is an editor on a blog I contribute to complained that too many novels give their medieval females modern sensibilities, the first words out of my mouth after "So what?" are "That's a classist position." I personally believe that every time has individuals of every sort, including tough, independent , sexually liberated women. People who say "women didn't act like that" are forgetting Eleanor of Aquitaine for a start. More than that they are forgetting the vastly different culture of peasant women. Handfastings were commonplace without benefit of clergy for one simple reason.. priests did not grow on local trees.
Authentic or not, realistic or not, it is the job of the novelist to make whatever characters s/he portrays believable. Any character you have read that you simply cannot accept as fitting an era is probably not so much inauthentic as badly written. If the author had believed in the integrity of the character, s/he would have made you believe. That's what we do.
My husband and I happily watched, for the second time, Sharpe's Eagle, the BBC television movie based on Bernard Cornwell's novel. The whole point of the Sharpe stories is that Richard Sharpe, the up from the ranks officer, is no gentleman. That is, he's more than common, he's trash. His mother was a drunk and a whore. He didn't learn to read until he was in the army. He has a criminal past. He was in a foundling home in Yorkshire until he ran away to London and became a street tough. Sean Bean, who plays Sharpe in the movies, is from Sheffield and sounds it. Not Yorkshire or London, but it works.
But in this movie, the second in the series, Sharpe is introduced to the vile Colonel Henry Simmerson, a pompous pedantic slime of an aristocrat who dogs Sharpe throughout several of the movies. He insults Sharpe right off the bat. Sharpe manages to keep his dignity and gives the Colonel a civil anser to some simple questions. It is then that someone informs Simmerson that Sharpe is no gentleman. He is an up through the ranks field commissioned officer. Simmerson blows a gasket and refuses to work with an officer who is not of the nobility.
What's wrong with this picture, or rather this soundtrack? Simmerson would have known the instant Sharpe opened his mouth that Sharpe was no gentleman. His manner of speaking, from accent to diction to phrasing would have revealed that right away. This is somethign I notice in historical fiction though. Rarely is the class distinction obvious to a real person in whatever social era the book represents acknowledged by the author. This is true of American authors but also of British. Is it that the regional accents have faded so much that we don't realize how distinct they were in, say, 1809 when this movie and the novel it is based on takes place? Or are class distinctions so foreign to us these days that we don't think of that when we write our characters? Are we so exhausted researching every other little detail that we just ignore distinctions of speech entirely and hope no one notices?
Well, I noticed.
Both essays originally appeared in Na's Booking History blog. See links on the left.