Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Ism That Isn't: Two Essays on Class in Historical Fiction

By Nan Hawthorne

n a Class By Themselves

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.

ou Can't Tell a hentleman Without a Scorecard.. or a Sound Bite

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.


Nan Hawthorne, Shield-wall Books said...

Just a note about the Sharpe movies/novels. In the movie Sharpe's justice, Sharpe is described as being born in Yorkshire. In the novels it is clear he was raised in an orphanage in Brewhouse lane in London. When I wrote the second essay, I had seen the movies and not yet started reading the.. much much better, incidentally.. novels. Sean Bean notwithstanding.


csmith said...

This is a hot-button topic for me, so bear with me if my reply is slightly rambly and longwinded.

Accent is still scarily important in England. I know this, because the minute I open my mouth, I am immediately judged as a privileged good-for-nothing snob from the colonies. It's a joy.

The class system still exists to a great extent in the UK, but I think that part of the reason that people don't realise its prevalence is because there is a fantastic amount of propaganda from the government on social mobility/equality, and because nowadays the old ideals of duty and service have fallen by the wayside, so there is little interaction between the lower, middle and upper classes.

Someone recently suggested that the class divide had been abolished. I refrained from asking them how often have they seen someone from Eton (or even someone who speaks like they've been to Eton) working the till in Asda, painting their house, heck -- even being a state-funded school-teacher.

Accents matter. I've had to purposely teach myself to speak more like a "generic Londoner" in the last few years so that I can actually get my job done. The minute I revert to my natural accent, I get the mick ripped out of me.

Dr John Yeoman said...

A rigid caste system has prevailed in Britain until the most recent times, and is still slow in crumbling. The stereotypes are marked in Victorian and Edwardian novels to a fascinating degree.

Nobody of the upper middle classes or above does a lick of work: the gentlemen are forever at their clubs, consuming whiskey and sodas and cigars in industrial quantities; the ladies are always shopping, attending parties or in each others' houses.

The middle classes - lawyers, bankers, army officers, and the like - may be invited into one's living room but perhaps not to one's club. (Professors appear to be honorary gentlemen, to be tolerated in one's smoking room.)

The lower orders fall into three classes: loyal old dullards (the ancient nanny, the butler), honest young chaps and sprightly virginal lasses, and rogues or bawds. All of them speak with a vulgar accent, often comical, that denotes their origin.

Many of these novels used a sensationalist trick to excite their readers that today has almost entirely lost its power. Class transgression. Sherlock Holmes (an honorary gentleman) smoked opium in slums; Lady Molly of the Yard was a true lady who sometimes dressed and spoke like a slattern in her job as a police inspector; noble ladies are always having affairs with low-life rogues, and flower girls with lords, etc.

That frisson of heresy, before the days of class mobility, must have given the stories a great power. Now that excitement has been lost, it's little wonder that we find so many novels of the period to be an endless yawn!

Anne Gilbert said...

Maybe I shouldn't comment at all, since I'm American and probably don't "understand" these things very well, but my understanding is the same as those of the people from the UK who have commented: class exists, and everyine in the UK knows it does, though it's slowly losing its power. In historical novels, though, it's often quite present, and "the privileged" are often the only ones who make it in print.

As for having "tough, independent-minded women", there have always been such women. It's not "anachronistic" to show them being tough and independent(or trying to be). That was what people like Eleanor of Aquitaine tried to be, and boy did she face opposition. Same with "Empress" Matilda, a figure who doesn't get much sympathy nowadays. She wouldn't have called herself a "feminist"/; there was no such thing then. But in some ways, she sure acted like one. So it's not "anachronistic" to portray her this way. Besides which, there have always been people who were "ahead of their times" in any age you want to name. It's no accident that historical novelists are drawn to such people. And if you're writing fictional biography(though I"m not), you should portray them the way they were, not the way you think they "should" have been. That's not accurate, either.
Anne G

Dr John Yeoman said...

True, there have always been 'tough, independent-minded women' but until very recently they were considered anomalies, curiosities, even abominations! Joan of Arc was feared for her male mind and superior military skills, even by the men she commanded.

In Middleton's play The Roaring Girl (1611), the formidable Moll wears male clothes, a sword and is bisexual (she likes to 'lie on both sides a'th the bed'). But when T.S. Eliot honoured her as our first example of 'liberated womanhood', and figured her as a sort of pre-war suffragette, he totally misunderstood the play. Moll was a monster. Middleton had to bring her back in the last scene dressed like a woman, to bless the institution of marriage, lest the audience wreck the theatre!

The point is, let's not shrink from portraying people in the historic past who stood against the stereotypes of their age. But, if we want to be faithful to the age, let's also be aware that people at the time would probably have shrunk from them in fear and loathing!

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