finding DDS in Great Britain

I’ve had email from a number of people over the last few months saying they haven’t been able to find a copy of Dawn on a Distant Shore in England. Just today Jill — my agent — got back to me about this, after talking to the publisher in London. Whatever the problem was, it seems to be fixed — Amazon UK now does have copies in stock, and your local booksellers should be able to order it. Sorry for the inconvenience. I don’t pretend to undertand that mysterious goings on, but Jill does. Thank dog.

anachronistic heroes

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.

book love

Talking about used books with Rachel reminded me of a phenomenon which interests me greatly, in part because I participate to a limited degree. There’s a species of book collector who specializes in one book or set of books alone, but tries to find as many editions as possible. I’m not talking here about somebody who’s obsessed with Catcher in the Rye and has an apartment filled with thumbed paperbacks of the same edition. I’m referring to people who collect Alice in Wonderland or the works of Jane Austen or the Oz books. Because these are well loved books and out of print, any old publisher can come along and put together a new edition. Mostly what you get are very cheap efforts (you know that table at Barnes & Noble that proclaims Classics! Get your Classics, Three for Twelve Dollars! — poor paper, worse binding, and the damn thing will fall apart on you probably before you make it to the middle) but many publishers do try to put together an attractive new edition in the hopes that they’ll catch the eye of the casual reader who decides that they really should have a copy of Sense and Sensibiity on their shelves, and isn’t that a nice picture on the cover? This is from an on-line auction, a lot of three different editions of Alice in Wonderland up for grabs:

Alice in Wonderland

THREE COLLECTIBLE BOOKS by Lewis Carroll, “Alice in Wonderland”: the first illus. by W.H. Walker with 8 in color, 42 in black & white, London: John Lane The Bodley Head, illus. blue cloth cover, dust jacket. Second, illus. by Harry Riley, first edition thus, London: Arthur Barry, 1945, dust jacket; third, 28 illus. & colored frontispiece by Thomas Maybank, London & N.Y.

I’m not talking here about true first editions for the simple reason that if you could find (for example) a first edition of Pride and Prejudice from the year 1813, you’d pay a minimum of $15,000 for it. This is more about the book itself, its design, the cover art, the workmanship that went into making a package for a particular well loved novel.

Someone gave me an edition of Sense and Sensibility (or maybe it was Persuasion; I can’t find it just now, of course, although when I went off searching I found a few other books that had been eluding me. I’m convinced that my books hold meetings in the middle of the night to predict which one I’ll need next and thus, whose turn it is to hide)… but the point is, this particular edition, paperback, really struck me for its artwork: a close up, detailed painting of the sweep of a highly embroidered skirt. When I do run across this book, I always think I have to look to see what publisher put it out and go see if the other Austen books are done in the same style.

I don’t read these editions I collect for their physical selves; when I do sit down to re-read, I always go back to the same hardcover critical edition, which is full of bits of paper and stcky notes.

Enough, I think, of obsessing about books, for the moment.

I am The Handmaid's Tale

I have confessed elsewhere my weakness for quizzes. Usually I can keep the results to myself, but this one made me laugh out loud.

Handmaid's TaleYou’re The Handmaid’s Tale!
by Margaret Atwood
An outraged feminist, you have been oppressed and even silenced in
your life, fueling your fury against the society as it stands. Your role has been
strictly defined by society and you are almost certainly unsatisfied with it. You
have some vague idea of how this has come to be, but insufficient power to stop it,
let alone reverse the trend. And somehow you blame yourself for everything because
people ask you to. Beware people renaming your nation a Republic.

Take the Book Quiz
at the Blue Pyramid.

Aside: I met Margaret Atwood in London when we were both there for the Orange Prize festivities a few years ago. Neither one of us won, but all the nominees got along well behind the scenes. Margaret will live forever in my memory for her performance (while the photographers were busy with somebody else) of Frost’s A Road Less Travelled to the tune of “Fernando’s Hideaway”. Correction: that should be Hernando, not Fernando; thanks, Ter.