The ‘R’ word in Classic Literature


This post is a short one, posed more as a question to you, and which concerns a somewhat sensitive topic…

Now you’ve probably gathered how much I love the Classics. Anything pre-20th century is most likely to end up on my reading list.
However there is a trend I noticed amongst most Classic books that initially used to horrify me but which I now seem to take for granted because of its prevalence.
I’m talking about racism. Racial supremacy is all too inherent in the writings of Classic Literature. In some cases it’s blatant but mostly, it’s subtle. But it’s still noticeable.

What I want to know is, especially if you love the Classics: how do YOU react when you read, say a piece of fiction by a Victorian writer with clear racist undertones in the text? Does it upset you? Or do you take it with a pinch of salt?
As a person of colour myself, I used to be angry but now I find it quite amusing(in a disturbing sort of way). I always remind myself that writers are only human beings. And human beings are to a greater extent products of their environment. And any piece of fiction is a reflection of a writer’s thoughts and feelings. Therefore those feelings are reflective of the prevailing attitudes of the era in which the book was written. Since the Classics were written in times where racial supremacy was not only the norm but also accepted thinking, I tend to consider this when reading an old book.

I did wonder though, how others reacted to this. So, over to you, tell me your thoughts…

NM 🙂

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20 thoughts on “The ‘R’ word in Classic Literature

  1. nelle says:

    When I read The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall (not a classic classic, but a lgbtq classic, written in 1928) I was enthralled. Here was a writer with a protagonist either strong butch or even a transman, and she had my attention. About 2/3 of the way through she made a racist remark, and it deflated me like a pin to a balloon. I don’t much countenance bigotry in a community that damn well should know better. I liked the story absent that one stupid paragraph or whatever, but on balance it greatly diminishes the value of a work, because instead of seeing the author through a lens of astute social observer, you see this great big hole in their perception and observation.

    • Nisha says:

      Oh I can so identify with your pain there. It hurts me inside when I read Arthur Conan Doyle and the great Sherlock Holmes makes a racist comment, it just knocks me over.
      I see what you mean by the holes in their perception. Which is why Harper Lee is so greatly admired, not just as a writer but as a person too. That woman was way ahead of her time. On another note, if we had to demolish all the books that displayed even a hint of bigotry, most of the Classic sections of our libraries will stand empty! 😉

      • nelle says:

        How true…. but as with most things (including me) we would find good and we would find bad. I faced mine, and maybe no one ever called them on their shortcomings, perhaps more a reflection of the widespread bigotry of society at the time.

        The holes in their perception… if you can’t see how such a casual judgement carries so much hurt, if you can’t see it stands on no foundation than insecurity and ignorance, then yes… it’s right to question that hole. Beth Orton (my personal favourite) does a song called Paris Train where she sings ‘swim beyond the scenery’. I named my old blog ‘Swim Beyond the Imagery’. directly because of the song. Move beyond the superficial, especially when judging others.

        I loved To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s hell to read something interesting and then get slammed. Someone disses me for my conviction, I can take it, I earned the right to be criticised. Someone disses me for being a transwoman and lesbian, it aggravates.

  2. Widdershins says:

    Historical fiction is tricky this way in’it? … I take it with a grain of salt, unless I have to use too much salt to make the meal palatable, then I’ll move on.

    Nelle – Radclyffe Hall was not only a product of her generation, but also her class. Like the Ladies of Llangollen, who were abusive to their ‘staff’ she was rather myopic on some rather telling issues of her time. Most women of her ‘community’ didn’t know better, even though she and Una Troubridge tended to hang out with ‘artistic’ types.

    I wonder what the lens of history will show of our writings here in the early 21st century?

    • Nisha says:

      Thats a very good point Widdershins, for all we know we might be committing social crimes(although I can’t exactly think what that might be) that readers,a hundred years from now might ridicule and gasp at…

  3. Charlotte says:

    I don’t enjoy references to, for example, the sort of casual misogyny many men practiced back in the day. But it doesn’t make me angry, because you can’t blame people for being a product of their time. These attitudes were just natural in previous centuries; it was wrong on a society level and I’m glad it’s (mostly) gone, but it’s not fair to blame any individual for it. Who knows what we’re doing and thinking now that will look awful to someone in the next century, looking back? It does make me angry when it comes up now, when we’re supposed to have got past it.

    • Nisha says:

      I couldn’t agree with you more although some might argue that, as books have the power to influence the reader, what would you say to those that abhor the racism that’s evidence in some childrens’ books like The Secret Garden for example, and Tin Tin?

  4. Hmm… I don’t read classics very often, but I did read a period piece recently that was full of racist remarks. I was able to read and accept it because I felt it was done well and I chalked it up to one person’s life in another time. Such things sure do make me grateful to be living now!

    • Nisha says:

      Same here August, I think the good thing about being reminded about these former racist ideologies is that it makes us appreciate the freedom and equalities we enjoy today. Of course racism is still very much alive in various parts of the world, but the society we live in today has developed a conscience, something that didn’t really exist a hundred years ago..

  5. Years ago, when I did an Honours degree in Literature, I had to study texts written by Toni Morrison. I also read The Colour Purple and I cried inside, the texts made me so unhappy, I didn’t enjoy what are great works of literature. However, now when I read racist remarks in Classic texts, I see them differently. Don’t misunderstand me, I still feel offended but I see that as with the Holocaust, we must never forget how damaging racism is. These texts are a constant reminder of the bigotry which went on. We must never be allowed to forget what can happen in a world where all aren’t treated as equal. When I did my family history, I discovered I had a huge amount of Irish in my genes. The Irish also suffered terrible racism, especially in Victorian England. However, I think it can be a valuable tool to point these issues out to the young. My fourteen year old son hates racism of any kind and it is definitely a useful discussion point for us when we come across it in literary texts. So I take something which is hateful and use it as a teaching aid.

    • Nisha says:

      Bravo LoonyLit! As I remarked in reply to August’s comment, these texts make us appreciate what we have now. Of course, our society still isn’t perfect but we’ve come a long way and the Classics make us realise that.
      Yes, Victorian England, ahh the ultimate racial supremacist society. The literature from this society serves as evidence, yet for some reason its one of my favourite genres!
      You certainly are doing a good job with your son there, keep it up! 🙂

  6. mj monaghan says:

    That’s an interesting point, Nisha. I’ve thought about this many times when reading a classic. I don’t understand how anyone can be prejudice, but as you say, those times were different. There’s really no excuse. However, we move forward each day in relations with people of different station, race, ability or disability, etc., etc.

    I can’t really look past it, but try to get what I can learn from a book – be it good or bad.

    Hope that was clear. I was kind of stream-of-conscious-ing my comment. hehe

    • Nisha says:

      Stream-of-consciousing it is the best way and don’t worry, it was perfectly understood! 🙂

      Yes, I do the same. Its difficult to ignore these atrocities in these books, but I concentrate on the important messages in the book and learn from that…

  7. trixfred30 says:

    My father collects and sells old books at fairs and things like that. Some of the stuff produced way back, especially for children, would make your jaw drop. I bought a copy of Tintin in the Congo recetnly to complete my collection (still a kid at heart myself) and it is cellophane wrapped and sold in the adult section. But its not vindictively racist – it just reflects a time long gone (for us in the UK anyrate) – its like a different age eg we don’t burn women at the stake anymore just because they are cleverer than their husbands!

    • Nisha says:

      And I’m sure glad you don’t! Ha ha! 😉
      Yes, Tintin is also a reflection of the politics at the time, so as patronizing as the cartoons are, we have to consider these things when we reading them. I think my only concern with Childrens’ fiction is that I feel kids are impressionable and wont understand things like politics and history unless someone explains it to them. Or am I not giving them enough credit?

  8. Barb says:

    fascinating question. I was interested to know your reaction. As you acknowledge, the past can’t be changed, the literature was a sign of the times, but I notice a knee-jerk reaction when I read an old novel and see a bigoted word. It makes me think of that line from a song in South Pacific, “Judging and hating is carefully taught.” I hope we can stop teaching them.

    • Nisha says:

      As open-minded human beings I think that cringeworthy ‘knee-jerk’ moment you refer to, is only natural.
      Hmmm, that is an interesting quote. I don’t think prejudice in society will ever die completely but I think we’ve come a long way and we know better now than to judge and to hate. Hopefully today’s literature will reflect that in the future.

  9. jenniferneri says:

    What my writing group has been dealing with is present day literature set in racial environments. How is dialogue and inner monologue handled? Really challenging isn’t it?

    • Nisha says:

      I can picture many cringe-worthy moments I’m sure especially with regard to inner dialogue. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I would imagine present-day literature deal with race issues much more delicately than they would have 100 years ago. Classic books are much more blunt when it comes to talking about different race groups. Those authors were very candid with their prejudice back then…

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