Following the discussion at LanguageHat on anachronisms in historical fiction, particularly in terms of language, this interesting comment was posted by aldiboronti:
…with people we cheerfully accept, nay demand, that, the heroes and heroines of popular fiction, no matter what period it is set in, are fully equipped with 21st century mindsets. Only the villains are permitted to share the prevailing opinions of their times.
There is certainly some truth to this, although my first reservation has to do with the idea that this sin is committed in popular fiction. It seems to me that the tendency to this kind of anachronism shows up in all kinds of fiction in all genres, including what might be considered more literary (and yes, I am sidestepping the very fraught issue of popular/literary for the moment; I’ve certainly posted enough about it in the past, for example, here and here). The first such example that came to mind is the Victorian poet Ash in Byatt’s novel Possession. I find him not typical of his time or background, but if he had been, the central conflict of the story would have been nullified, and I like to story the way it is. But aldiboronti’s observation is an important one in a more general way because it gets to the heart of the matter when talking about language anachronisms.
The reason I might hesitate to put an eighteenth century term for African slaves into the mouth of a hero is, of course, because I don’t want him to be prejudiced, and neither do my readers. If he’s going to be an admirable character, he can’t believe (as most of his contemporaries did) that African natives and their descendents were cowardly, sullen, dishonest, “remorseless of tyrants to men and animals when invested with authority. Promiscuous, licentious and dissolute, incapable of love or affection.” I apologize right now for not being able to provide the citation for this quote, which comes from the late eighteenth century. As soon as I track it down in my notes, I’ll post a follow up. Unless somebody beats me to it here.
Is it possible to write a character who lives in London in (say) 1790, who believes these things about Africans, and who is acceptable to readers as a protagonist? Probably only if, over the course of the novel, he or she changes and comes to be more open minded. Most readers will not tolerate anything else, maybe because most writers are not capable of writing such a character in a way that transcends the shock value of having that character really be typical of the times.
Having said that, I’d like to point out that there were prominent examples of men who not only rejected the negative evaluation of Africans, but who wrote about it eloquently and who worked against slavery. Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846) was one such person, active in the abolitionist movement in England. He wrote of Phyllis Wheatly and Ignatius Sancho that such accomplished individuals would be nothing unusual “if the minds of the Africans were unbroken by slavery; if they had the same expectations in life as other people, and the same opportunities of improvement, they would be equal, in all the various branches of science ….inferiority of their capacities is wholly malevolent and false.”
So the writer of historical fiction has only a few choices. Sidestep the problem by never having the protagonist (a) encounter anyone of another race or (b) talk about the news of the times (the morally ambiguous don’t-ask-don’t-tell approach); cast the progatonist not such much as an anachronism but as one of the rare individuals of his or her time and place, ala Clarkson; find a way to write a protagonist who confronts current sensibilities but in such a way that the modern reader is willing to accept it.
Let me point out, just to be clear, that this difficulty extends far beyond the matter of slavery. For most of known history men in general and many women have not been supportive of women’s rights; religious freedom was considered a bad idea; labor practices were atrocious; and the list goes on.