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Take a look, it's in a book [May. 6th, 2011|01:47 pm]
I just finished reading Georgette Heyer's The Grand Sophy, a highly entertaining Regency romp filled with fun characters and amusing hijinks. I am not much of a romance reader, but I do enjoy Heyer's extremely thorough research of the Regency era, and since she wrote her books in the 1930-60s, she has no compunction against placing the famous people of the era on her stage as set pieces. So it's fun to watch the characters be introduced to "Prinny" and debate the merits of the Brighton Pavillion (marvelous or ridiculous?!).

But there was one chapter in the book that gave me serious pause. One of the characters has borrowed money from a villainous moneylender, and our heroine sets off to make things straight. The fact that Sophy is rather too modern a woman for the times, I can live with. But the description of the moneylender left me cringing. He is "A Jew," and every foul stereotype of Semitic appearance and behavior is paraded out to show how awful he is and to demonstrate the triumph of Sophy's besting him.

Wow, was that distasteful to read. It's bad enough to know that those stereotypes existed at the time and to read books contemporary to those attitudes (i.e., Ivanhoe), but to read it in a book written only 60 years ago (published in 1950) is alarming.

And it leaves me with very mixed feelings. Yes, Heyer was writing at a time when segregation was still common, the civil rights movement was embryonic, and no one had heard the term "politically correct." It's hard to remember that for a long time after segregation was ended, people didn't think anything of making racial and cultural jokes, and people expressing concern about such things were laughed at and told to lighten up. So it's hard for me to come down too hard on Heyer herself as a product of her time. But it's still not comfortable reading.

And I'm not sure what to do about it. Like most people, I was outraged at the expunged version of Huckleberry Finn. The integrity of a book should not be subject to the changes of time, or everything gets uncomfortably 1984-feeling. Nor do I see a point in simply abandoning the culture of our past when it makes us uncomfortable in our present sensibilities. It's part of where we come from, and a reminder of the progress we've made and the progress still ahead of us.

So I will continue reading, and I will continue being made uncomfortable at times. And probably the only real change is that I will recommend such books with a caveat: be prepared for some discomfort, and I understand if that discomfort level is too high for you.

[User Picture]From: halfmoon_mollie
2011-05-06 06:01 pm (UTC)
Ah, nicely said.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-05-06 07:01 pm (UTC)
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From: (Anonymous)
2011-05-06 06:04 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure which is more uncomfortable, stumbling onto unenlightened stereotypes or stumbling onto things where they are clearly trying so very hard to be enlightened and failing miserably. I am reminded of an episode of Bewitched, in particular: I don't remember the plot details, but it somehow involved the main characters "discovering" a young black girl who was a violin prodigy or some such. All I could see was the fact that none of the other characters would cross that invisible line between them and where the Black Actress was standing, as though they were in split screen or something.

What bothers me about it, more than anything else, is that it's nearly impossible that I do not have a blind spot to some equally offensive ideas that I take so for granted that I don't even know I think them.

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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-05-06 07:05 pm (UTC)
I don't remember that one, but I wouldn't be surprised. Those early years of attempting integration were very painful.

And I know that I have blind spots. Every once in a while one is pointed out to me, and I admit that my first reaction is not always generous. It's hard being ooched out of our comfort!
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[User Picture]From: cinema_babe
2011-05-06 06:49 pm (UTC)
(a) As amazing as it might seem, I have to remember that some of those attitudes are still well and alive today. (remember the "black jellybeans at the bottom of the bag" comments several years ago). I

(b)I ran into the same problem with Birth of a Nation; On one hand it's perhaps one of the three greatest movies ever made because it propelled film from filmed stage plays into thm medium we know today. Close up, flashbacks, fade casts between scenes, BoaN wasn't the first to do some of these but it was the first to pull this all together and is pretty much the first movie we would recognize as such. One small problem...

The KKK are the heroes of the film. What is a film fanatic to do?

Celebrate the art and use the message as a cautionary tale to people about how film (and any art for that matter) can be a freeing experience for the human hearty but it can also reify ideas that are corrosive and immoral.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-05-06 07:08 pm (UTC)
Reading about some of the stuff that's going on in the south, I'm painfully aware that those attitudes are still with us in some quarters.

And yeah, film is often the source of discomfort because it's right there in your face.
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[User Picture]From: cathubodva
2011-05-06 06:53 pm (UTC)
It seems like everyone I know is reading this book and taking about this chapter right now.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-05-06 07:09 pm (UTC)
How funny! It's just one of those weird coincidences like when several comic strips independently have the same theme on one day.

I haven't seen any of the other discussions. Any good links?
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From: phillipalden
2011-05-06 07:33 pm (UTC)
My partner is Jewish, and even though half my friends were Jewish growing up, (in Palo Alto next door to Stanford University,) I had never heard such open anti-Semitism (and racism) since Obama was elected.

But I don't take umbrage with books written during a given time period. It's important to understand people's prejudices as well as their potential virtues to paint as accurate a picture as possible. (I'm also against the re-writing of classics such as Huckleberry Finn, just because it contains the "N-word.")

It may be uncomfortable reading something like that today, but that's good. It should make us uncomfortable to acknowledge the bigotry of our ancestors, (and, sadly, some of our contemporaries.) These are reminders of how far we have come, and how far we still have to go.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-05-06 07:44 pm (UTC)
That's how I look at it, though I know some people who have serious problems with our own cultural history.
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[User Picture]From: jojomojo
2011-05-06 10:22 pm (UTC)
What would make me pretty uncomfortable was that was 5 years after the Holocaust. I can't imagine how anyone (that I'd ever want to hang out with) could be anti-semitic right then.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-05-07 02:54 am (UTC)
Unfortunately people made a large distinction between "shouldn't be killed off" and "liked and accepted" back then.
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[User Picture]From: shezan
2011-05-06 11:13 pm (UTC)
You'll be interested to learn that Heyer's grandfather, Boris Heyer, was a Russian furrier who immigrated to England at the turn of the last century. The name, and the occupation, certainly lend themselves to the possibility that he was Jewish. So, overcompensation and some amount of self-hatred/self-denial?
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-05-07 02:57 am (UTC)
That is interesting. I wonder.

Oh, and thank you for introducing me to Heyer!
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[User Picture]From: tormentedartist
2011-05-06 11:38 pm (UTC)
Ever read H.P. Lovecraft....Super fucking racist. I think its good that people can see this stuff, because otherwise they would brush it under the carpet. So while it leaves a bad taste in my mouth I do think its good for people to see for the reasons that you stated.

BTW I love your new hair. I don't know if you husband passed that along. I commented in his journal a while ago. But I thought I'd pass that along just in case.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-05-07 03:00 am (UTC)
Oh, thank you on the hair. He doesn't lie is short so pro about overlooked the compliment.

Haven't read much Lovecraft - find him dull and overwrought. But I think you are right.
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[User Picture]From: dharawal
2011-05-07 01:51 am (UTC)
I had that same problem when I downloaded from Project Gutenberg the original set of Dr Doolittle books by Hugh Lofting.

I read these books as a kid and as a kid I was obviously unaware of just how racist these books are. Not only towards black people, but Irish and Scottish people to.

Every single stereotype is used in these books, and I had to keep on reminding myself that they were written back in the early 1900's and that's how things were.

I had such fond memories of these books from when I was kid, sadly now those memories are tarnished, because I, as an adult cannot be blind to those views anymore.

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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-05-07 03:09 am (UTC)
Holy cow, that's amazing.
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[User Picture]From: cosmicbandit
2011-05-08 03:54 am (UTC)
I always enjoyed Marion Chesney as a Regency romance writer. Regency was my favorite, now they are hard to find. Now vampire romance is the popular thing and I just can't get into that.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-05-08 11:59 am (UTC)
I haven't read her. If I get through Heyer and find myself jonesing for more, I will look into her. Thanks!
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[User Picture]From: ccr1138
2011-05-12 11:24 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I look on it as another history lesson, albeit one the author didn't intend.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2011-05-13 01:04 pm (UTC)
Definitely a good outlook.
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