Dumas supposedly said that you shouldn’t rape history unless you mean to conceive a bastard.
I suppose us writers, who periodically (and with gusto) go digging through the past for characters and settings and spoils, must live by that idea that in this case at least the end justifies the means. Yes, we will take horrendous liberties with people, long dead, who if they perceived our outrages might not even understand what the heck we were up to. And we will take liberties with minor events and happenings because it makes a better story.
In other words, we have shovels, we have ink, and we’re not afraid to use both.
For instance, it is said of the Portuguese king Pedro I that when he became king, he had his dead mistress (Some ten years dead) dug up, and married her remains, and then forced the whole court to kiss her hand.
This seems to be under the equivalent of what would today be in the Enquirer, as what actually happened is that he revealed they had been secretly married after his first wife’s death, legitimized their sons, and then proceeded to have her remains moved to a joint royal tomb, in a fine church, where he eventually joined her. The procession for her reburial was said to be very proper and solemn in fact.
But of course I’ve stolen the first lurid version for a zombie story. Because the second wouldn’t be nearly as good.
And yes, I’ve had Shakespeare be a robot, an alien, and a bewildered schoolmaster in the thrall of elves.
Which is no more than he deserved for having done what he did to Richard III, which, even if Richard were guilty (and he almost for sure wasn’t, at least of 90% of the things attributed to him) would have been an injustice.
Yes, I know. Shakespeare — probably — did it under duress, but so did I, as I like to eat and babies needed shoes.
But there must be a modicum of decency and some respect for the past in grave robbing, okay?
When I mentioned I’d read Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time (Never figured out where the heck that title came from, btw) I also mentioned I’m somewhat uncomfortable with what I’ll call Richard III fandom, due to the left’s insane interest in rehabilitating every historical monster. I should have added that in many ways I doubt that Richard III was a monster, mostly due to knowing as much as I do about Henry VII.
I also neglected to say I understand the fascination with Richard III. In fact, the last time I came into that orbit, I spent far more time than I’d wish studying the case, and reading learned opinions on it. For and against.
But at that time, eventually I found a subgenre that can only be called “Author self-insert Richard III erotica.”
I will confess I skimmed like ten of these books by different authors. Skimmed, because frankly the emotion was akin to watching a train wreck, or watching someone take off their skin and dance in their bones.
I was in fact staring, mouth agape, going “I can’t believe people are writing this.”
The backlash of the sick fascination was to run away from the whole intellectual pursuit of who done it in horror.
Because you see, that’s not decency in grave robbing.
Look, I’m not going to say I might not have done the same, when I was very young. I was a weird, geeky young woman, and I fell in love with literary characters, long-dead people and people from my own imaginings. And there is a very strong need to “Comfort” someone who suffered and was greatly maligned. And teens have no sense of proper decorum.
All I can say is if those writing Richard III erotic (or worse, perhaps, no, trust me, self-insert romantic) fanfic are teens, they are extremely accomplished.
So what is indecent about it? Well, this person existed. And he had a certain dignity and power and honor. In ways in fact that we can’t quite understand. Besides, for sure, being very religious and devout in ways we don’t understand.
Making his imagined self behave as a sappy 21st century male is– wrong. Very very wrong.
For one it violates the ‘research’ directive in a way even “the Duchesss took the gig to go grocery shopping” doesn’t.
Look, I grew up in another culture. It was a modern day culture, just …. different. And yet, the way men there treated (and to an extent treat) women was and is so different from modern America that if you were writing a cross cultural romance with respect, you’d at least have to wave at it, and explain why the male hero had become more American in his attitudes.
I don’t care how enlightened a medieval man might have been. He would not have treated a modern woman in a way that would have pleased her. Just no. The realities of the time, and the need for brawn in every day life put more worth on male strength than we can even imagine. And gave them license for more than we’d even understand.
Now you can wave at that and make him “learn better” or just be HIGHLY unusual, but honestly? If going between times, it’s easier to do if you have a wholly imaginary character, and also somehow more “decent.”
I know. You’re staring at me, and wondering what the difference would possibly be. But for me the difference is between using plastic bones as decorations, and actually going and robbing a grave for your Halloween skeleton.
It is losing awareness that people in the past were equally human, and had thoughts and needs and desires, same as we have. And that their culture was vastly different.
And we lose sight of that at our own peril, because it encourages us to live in a sort of idiotic presentism, where we assume that the past was always the same as now, only somehow better.
I am the first to endorse the half-amusing fact that Americans don’t really get — at any level — distinctions of rank, for instance, and for the most part it doesn’t at all bother me. For instance, I’m giggling through a pride and prejudice fanfic where, due to weird set of circumstances the Bennet girls become the wards of Lady Catherine, who asks them to call her Aunt Cat.
But at the same time, it’s important to realize that — outside obvious fanfic — people in the past lived and died for and by the dignity of their rank. And that the real person at the back of the story would have found it worse than death to be …. oh, called Ricky by some random woman on the street, or treated like a helpless toddler. (For one, what the heck. This is a man who was used to medieval warfare from his late teens. And good at it. Not some guy who is going to blanch at the sight of blood.)
As I was writing this, a more obvious bit of nonsense came up in a discord group I belong to. It appears there’s much preening and calling anyone who opposes this “racist” at having cast a black actress as Anne Boleyn. (Frankly, after Anne of a 1000 days, they should have shut down the genre.) Because the only reason you can object to casting people who lived and have portraits of themselves everywhere as a completely different race is because of course, you’re a racist.
It couldn’t be because (now as ever, btw) any number of people get their information about the past from biopics and stories (Which is why Richard III has the reputation he does, because Shakespeare) and therefore any number of guppy-mouthed kids will assume Anne Boleyn was black. I look forward to thesis about how her beheading was racial. And I’m only half joking.
Because of the nonsense movies that have made Mary Queen of Scotts, for instance, Black or Asian, I’ve heard young people tell me that there were always black people in England.
And while they’re not wrong: there were always a half dozen or so in any given medieval country, more often than not exhibited as curiosities, that is not what they mean.
What they mean is that they think the population was about 50/50 (As they believe it is now) and that therefore the portraits, etc. have been “whitewashed” and are evidence of racism.
In fact, I believe that’s 90% of the reason they want statues removed/erased.
It is also why they believe insanity like “white people enslaved black people because racism.” Um…. no. People enslaved each other back and forth. I am in possession of several ballads about presumably my ancestors on both sides of the conflict, of Christians and Moors merrily enslaving each other back and forth across the ever shifting frontier in the peninsula. Most white people of the time hadn’t seen enough black people to be racist against them. They simply inserted themselves as buyers in the network of slave-selling going on across Africa.
So it wasn’t some race war ending in slavery, which these bizarre a-historic movies would make you believe. And no, the kids aren’t being taught better in school. (No one is.)
So, in principle I’m very much against this bizarre and stupid miscasting of people who actually existed. You want to cast black people in fun roles in the past? You can either do it explicitly as in Hamilton, or perhaps write medieval fantasies in which this happens.
But stop raping the past without conceiving bastards anyone wants to look at in the full light of day, and who rampage abroad corrupting people’s ideas of what came before and who they are.
Besides, as a friend put it about this:
There are two rational responses here: 1.) Stick with the historical and fictional characters actual and traditional races. It’s the way it happened/was written. No problem. 2.) Realize that any adaptation is an interpretation and go for the best actors no matter what the race is. Black people can we Abraham Lincoln and white people can play MLK.
Of course we live in the dumbest timeline so we can have neither and a dumb identity war ratchet that won’t be happy until the only characters that will be allowed to be white are Hitler and Satan.
He is absolutely right. The problem is that it never goes the other way. You’ll never see a white person playing MLK or a black person playing Hitler. which tells you there is a particular insanity behind this that is not simply “We’re casting the best actor” but a sort of deranged racial war about as sane and making as much sense as the deranged lusting after the shade of poor Richard the third.
Another friend said:
I’m (impatiently) waiting for Black Stalin.
But he knows he’d die of waiting.
Again, there is, I’m sure, some grandiose posturing and feeling very special from giving black people their due, like there is posturing and feeling very caring from not only rehabilitating Richard III but having him transported to modern times and given all the comforts of a modern life, and an accommodating author/mistress.
Neither of them are right. Richard III is a person who actually lived. And if he was innocent and a decent human being, he would expect to be enjoying the reward of a life well lived, in perpetual light and the company of his creator. You’re allowed to not believe in the after life, but he did. And I hope he found the after life he deserved.
In the same way, people of African ascent have as complicated a history as any other race. Possibly more. Sure, they’ve been enslaved. They’ve also enslaved — among others white people — and many of their sub-groups (which btw, never considered themselves part of a unified anything, much less a race. Not historically) have glorious and dignified histories.
The clash of cultures between Europe and Africa has much to teach us, some of which applies to the current time, because it applies to the perils of a tribal mind set when exposed to a more universal culture with fast communications.
And those of them who have immigrated (or whose descendants are part of western countries because their ancestors immigrated or were dragged there kicking and screaming) have their own history, their own glories and their own triumphs.
It is utterly demeaning — not to say racist. Though, you know, it is racist — to think that the most important thing you can do for black people is allow them/push them to play the part of dead European noblemen. Because THAT at last will confer dignity and pride.
Instead, of you know, either allowing the best actor to play whatever, or leaving historical people to be played by people who SOMEWHAT look like their portraits.
I mean, I would object to Johnny Depp playing Shaka Zulu. And I object to a black woman playing Anne Boleyn. Because both are crazy cakes.
But on top of that making the cross-race-casting go only one way only reinforces the idea that the highest honor you can give black authors is playing white people.
Which is so many levels of insulting, I can’t begin to describe it.
When it comes to robbing graves a certain decency is needed. Sure, you can anatomize the cadaver, but make sure you treat it with some respect and learn something.
Do not give Julius Caesar’s bones to the dog for a toy.