The Danger of Superficial History in Fiction

My Google Alert for Downton Abbey led me to a Daily Mail article, where the journalist questions Hugh Bonneville’s explanation for the phenomenal success of the show. While I do think his reply was worded diplomatically, it nonetheless paints a rose-colored view of Edwardian society. However, one comment in particular shocked me (truly): “Some of us enjoyed “Downton Abbey” because it featured characters who were beautifully dressed, well-spoken and had good manners. It featured no screaming babies, unmarried mothers on benefits, druggies, yobs,”students”, British citizens who were members of ethnic minorities and above all no pop music. Nor was there any evidence of so-called popular culture. For those of us who hate what this country has become, it was required viewing.”

Everyone knows I am a massive fan of the Edwardian era (or Turn of the Century, Belle Epoque, Gilded Age–whatever you want to call it), and while the zeitgeist of historical romance (and in fact, most fiction) focuses on the privileged class, I’ve made an effort to dig up the hidden stories concerning people of color because most people automatically assume life was one long tragedy until the 1960s and 1970s, not just in America, but in Britain. While I don’t sugarcoat or marginalize the presence racism, segregation, and prejudice played in the lives of ethnic minorities, I celebrate the fact that things were not as black and white in the early twentieth century. When I read statements such as the one quoted above, it makes me angry not at the person, but at the reasons why such statements are prevalent in society when discussing the past.

In my own experience, I didn’t know anything about the history of US and international race relations, Colonization in Africa and India, and African-American history until I took a few classes to fulfill my college graduation requirements. Independent studies related to Edwardian Promenade unearthed such people as Li Hongzhang, the Princesses Sophia, Bamba & Catherine Hilda Duleep Singh, Meta Vaux Warrick, Dadabhai Naoroji, John Archer, James Reese Europe, and so on. This is not to say that every book must include people of color (the resentment towards this form of “political correctness” irritates me as well!), but the more we weavers of fiction fail to push beyond the superficial boundaries of history, the more likely it is for viewers to assume people of color were nothing, for women of color who love Jane Austen or Downton Abbey to feel uncomfortable with this love because “they” were just slaves or sharecroppers or were being exploited in Africa, China, or India back in the day, and for people to accuse writers of being “PC” when characters of color are introduced into a storyline (or an actor of color is cast in a period piece).

If we can create dozens of Dukes when we know there have always only been a handful, or turn (virginal) courtesans into the toasts of polite society, or have our heroines befriend and care about the welfare of all lower-class people, why should knowledge of racism stop you from including a wealthy black Liverpool family? Or a Japanese society hostess? Or the German-Japanese daughter of a diplomat who marries a German prince? Perhaps even an English lord who converts to Islam?

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