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Category: Reading

Posts in which we talk about reading habits and preferences

One of my favorite Georgian novels is The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (and not just because I also adore the movie with Albert Finney!). I own a Victorian copy in two volumes that I found at a used bookstore in Berkeley when I was in grad school. It was far too expensive for my scholarly pockets, but I had to have it (mostly because it had been signed by the original owner when he finished reading it in 1868 and again by a subsequent owner in the 1930s). All of this is a long way of introducing one of my favorite bits of triva about the novel. Ignatius Sancho (the famous black abolitionist and the first black man known to have voted in a British election) wrote Sterne, the author or Tristram Shandy, a letter asking him to write something opposing slavery. Sterne not only replied, but he kept the letters and they were both published posthumously in 1775. [Note: Tristram Shandy was originally published in nine volumes over seven years, this exchange took place before the final volume was published in 1767; the scene Sterne refers to in his reply in in the final volume.] It seemed fitting to share this exchange for Black History Month.

Ignatius Sancho

Sancho to Sterne
REVEREND SIR,
It would be an insult on your humanity (or perhaps look like it) to apologize for the liberty I am taking.—I am one of those people whom the vulgar and illiberal call “Negurs.”—The first part of my life was rather unlucky, as I was placed in a family who judged ignorance the best and only security for obedience.—A little reading and writing I got by unwearied application.—The latter part of my life has been—thro’ God’s blessing, truly fortunate, having spent it in the service of one of the best families in the kingdom.—My chief pleasure has been books.—Philanthropy I adore.—How very much, good Sir, am I (amongst millions) indebted to you for the character of your amiable uncle Toby!—I declare, I would walk ten miles in the dog days, to shake hands with the honest corporal.—Your Sermons have touch’d me to the heart, and I hope have amended it, which brings me to the point.—In your tenth discourse, page seventy—eight, in the second volume—is this very affecting passage—”Consider how great a part of our species – in all ages down to this—have been trod under the feet of cruel and capricious tyrants, who would neither hear their cries, nor pity their distresses.—Consider slavery—what it is—how bitter a draught—and how many millions are made to drink it!”—Of all my favorite authors, not one has drawn a tear in favour of my miserable black brethren—excepting yourself, and the humane author of Sir George Ellison.—I think you will forgive me;—I am sure you will applaud me for beseeching you to give one half hour’s attention to slavery, as it is at this day practised in our West Indies.—That subject, handled in your striking manner, would ease the yoke (perhaps) of many—but if only of one—Gracious God! – what a feast to a benevolent heart!—and, sure I am, you are an epicurean in acts of charity.—You, who are universally read, and as universally admired—you could not fail—Dear Sir, think in me you behold the uplifted hands of thousands of my brother Moors.—Grief (you pathetically observe) is eloquent;—figure to yourself their attitudes; hear their supplicating addresses!—alas!—you cannot refuse.—Humanity must comply—in which hope I beg permission to subscribe myself,
Reverend, Sir, &c.
I. SANCHO

Sterne’s Reply to Sancho
There is a strange coincidence, Sancho, in the little events (as well as in the great ones) of this world: for I had been writing a tender tale of the sorrows of a friendless poor negro—girl, and my eyes had scarse done smarting with it, when your Letter of recommendation in behalf of so many of her brethren and sisters, came to me—but why her brethren?—or yours, Sancho! any more than mine? It is by the finest tints, and most insensible gradations, that nature descends from the fairest face at St James’s, to the sootiest complexion in Africa: at which tint of these, is it, that the ties of blood are to cease? and how many shades must we descend lower still in the scale, ‘ere Mercy is to vanish with them?—but ’tis no uncommon thing, my good Sancho, for one half of the world to use the other half of it like brutes, & then endeavour to make ’em so. For my own part, I never look Westward (when I am in a pensive mood at least) but I think of the burdens which our Brothers & Sisters are there carrying—& could I ease their shoulders from one once of ’em, I declare I would set out this hour upon a pilgrimage to Mecca for their sakes—[which] by the by, sancho, exceeds your Walk of ten miles, in about the same proportion, that a Visit of Humanity, should one, of mere form—however if you meant my Uncle Toby, more—he is [your] Debter,
If I can weave the Tale I have wrote into the Work I’m [about]—tis at the service of the afflicted—and a much greater matter; for in serious truth, it casts a sad Shade upon the World, That so great a part of it, are and have been so long bound in chains of darkness & in Chains of Misery; & I cannot but both respect and felicitate You, that by so much laudable diligence you have broke the one—& that by falling into the hands of so good and merciful a family, Providence has rescued You from the other.
And so, good hearted Sancho! adieu! & believe me, I will not forget [your] Letter. [Yours]
L. STERNE.

A few things have happened in the last month or so to put diversity in historical romance at the forefront of my mind. All of them came to a head when I was reading tweets discussing the recent post on SmarthBitches. So I went over and read it. It’s basically the same argument/discussion that I’ve seen kicking around Romancelandia since the oughts when I first joined. I’ve seen it called a chicken and egg syndrome: readers can’t buy what isn’t for sale, but I’m here to tell you, readers don’t seem to buy it when it is for sale. And while we may all bemoan this, that doesn’t change it.

Historical romance is very white, straight, cis, and upper-class. It’s also kind of like playing jenga. It’s really hard to remove one of those and not have the whole thing come crashing down. Why? Let’s take a look (hopefully without making judgments about readers or authors, which I’ve seen quite enough of lately).

Dukes sell. They just do, like it or not. A few authors have managed to make names for themselves by moving into the gentry (Carla Kelley and Rose Lerner spring to mind) and some authors are pulling off love stories among the lower classes (like Erica Monroe), but from what I’ve seen during my writing career, when you leave the ton behind, you lose a lot of the readers who want that extra soupçon of fantasy.

Books set outside of Georgian/Victorian England and Scotland are harder to sell. I honestly don’t know why this is, but even Ireland and France are hard, let alone Ancient Rome or Shogunate Japan. A lot of us thought (hoped!) that indie publishing would unleash a tidal wave of settings that would brush away Regency England’s chokehold on the genre. Didn’t happen. And every time a new historical TV show is a hit, I see a flurry of hope that the setting will crossover into publishing. But it never seems to. Thankfully, there are authors writing other settings (like Beverly Jenkins, Jeannie Lin, and Sandra Schwab), but those are labors of love. Readers vote with their wallets, and the majority of them vote for Georgian/Victorian England and Scotland (preferably with dukes).

Because the most popular setting is among the 18th and 19th century British ton, the most popular characters are by default Caucasian. There are ways to work in characters of other races/ethnicities (England certainly had free blacks, a Jewish population, Anglo-Indians, Indians, and Chinese), but outside of an Anglo-Indian character, it’s hard to get a non-Caucasian character into the ton. For example, the movie Belle radically changed her actual history to make her wealthy and accepted in a way that she wasn’t in real life. Why? My best guess was that her real life story wasn’t romantic enough. The best examples I can find for how she might have been viewed in her own time are in the works of Austen (Sanditon) and Thackeray (Vanity Fair), which both have wealthy prospective brides who are mixed race as Dido was. Austen treats it as a non-issue. Thackeray does not. Both of which fit with the changing ideas of race and class as depicted in the book White Mughals (which I highly recommend).

Straight and cis. Yep. See above. There are certainly ways to tell gay and trans stories in a historical setting. There are real world examples (Lord Hervey, the Chevalier d’Eon, possibly the Ladies of Llangollen, maybe Dr James Berry), and I’m glad to see these stories being told (e.g. KJ Charles and Cat Sebastian), but we’ve not yet reached a place where these books aren’t niche when it comes to readers (I’ve seen discussions about why some readers avoid these and it’s much the same as why they avoid roms about working class people: the nagging worry about security breaks the fantasy for them; so while a contemp LGBTQ rom works for them, a historical one doesn’t because the HEA never feels “safe”).

So, what does this all add up to? It adds up to authors wanting to make a living (which I’ve been told is an inadequate excuse; a statement with which I strongly disagree) and publishing being a risk-adverse business. When it takes months (or years, depending on the author) to write a book, purposefully writing one that isn’t “to market” is a risky choice, especially if this is how you support yourself. And it comes down to readers.

How does this play out in real life?

When I pitched my first series, c. 2004, I pitched a black hero for book three. I was told by agents and editors that it was a no-go. The profit and loss on it was too risky, especially since those sales numbers would haunt us forever and would probably kill my career (which is funny, since losing a slot at a certain Big Box store killed that pen name long before this book would ever have come out). I did squeeze in a half-Turkish hero (my lowest selling book to date) and I got roundly told that bi-racial characters were “cheating” (as someone who IS bi-racial, this still pisses me off to no end).

[As an aside, I’ve also seen authors’ attempts to diversify their series dismissed as “tokenism”. So I’m damned if I don’t include any diverse protagonist in my series, and damned if I do, but not to the (arbitrary) extent that pleases whomever is deciding these things. Please note, there was a long discussion of this at a recent conference and several authors flat out said they’d rather be dismissed with the faceless majority than paint a target on their back so they could be singled out for tokenism or fake-diversity. I sincerely doubt this is the goal those pushing for diversity wanted, but it’s the one they got.]

Back to me: When I brushed myself off and began pitching again, I always pitched that guy’s book. Agents and editors were suddenly talking about wanting unusual, stand-out books (c. 2008). Books with a different angle. Books with a hook. Books they could promote as DIFFERENT. You know what they meant? They meant maybe not a duke, but still duke-adjacent. Oh, they loved the younger sons angle, but could I throw in a secret society to make it all hang together? I wish I were joking.

Sneak Peak: cropped image of my fencing master’s cover image

Ok, so this time I put that black character IN the series. I was hoping I’d get fan mail asking for his book that I could show my editor. I never did. Not a single email or tweet. What did I get? Requests for very minor (white) walk-on characters. *sigh* When I submitted by my black fencing champion as the hero for one of the books, I got told they’d let me do an e-only novella for him. Not even a novella set with other authors who were also writing Georgian (which they had!). None of that came to fruition anyway, and I left NY, so his book is still sitting there on the back burner (though I have cover shot, so I’ve got that tucked away waiting). This is a story I really want to write, but to date no one has wanted to publish it and I’m honestly not sure readers will pick it up unless I’m very, very lucky. And yes, I have a plan to hopefully help my luck, but if I had to pay my bills with writing monies, I can’t say that this book would ever be written. I know that every hour I put into that book is an hour I might not get paid for; or at least not at the rate that I would get paid if I was writing a duke. But I’m lucky. I have a day job that pays my way and a stubborn streak that wants to write what it wants to write. So, eventually my fencing master will get his book and I’ll get to see if readers love him or if only I do.

So that’s my take. YMMV.

 

 

 

 

I saw a new book about black history on Twitter and had to pounce: Black Tudors, The Untold Story by Miranda Kaufmann. While this is earlier than what I write, I grew up as a historical re-enactor and a lot of my time and study has been devoted to fifteenth and sixteenth century history. I’m only halfway done with the book, but it’s proven well worth my time and money.

I don’t want to give a synopsis of the entire book, as that’s unfair to the author, so I’m going to concentrate on the first black Tudor featured in the book, John Blanke, the Trumpeter. John Blanke shown twice in the Westiminster Tournament Roll and is the only idenifiable portrait of an African in Tudor England.

Blanke is a fasinating figure. Musicians were known to move from court to court rather freely, and they were often used as messengers betweeen courts. It is likely that Blanke arrived in England in the retinue of Katherine of Aragon in 1501 (blacks, both free and enslaved, being more common in Spain, Portugal, and the Italian states). By 1507 he is listed as one of Henry VII’s trumpeters and is being paid the same wage as the others. He must have been a favorite, because when a more senior musician died, Blanke petioined the new king, Henry VIII to be raised in position and have his pay increased. Not only wa this request granted, but when Blanke married in 1512 the king bestowed upon him violet cloth for his wedding clothes (as a musician, Blanke was already entitled to ignore the sumptary laws and was known to dress in crimson).

This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

One interesting tidbit I learned was the because trumpeters were used as messengers, they were supposed to have dipolmatic immunity, allowing them free passage through foreign and even enemy territory. This, coupled with their frequently moving from service of one king or noble to another, also gave rise to them being thought of as spies. Wouldn’t a Dunnett-like series about a spy/trumpeter moving through the courts of sixteenth century Eurpoe be amazing? Somebody who’s better at mystery plots than I am needs to write this for me!

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