In which we’re talking anti-Semitism

So this morning, Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches and I were tweeting about anti-Semitism in fiction. She tweeted about a review she’d posted of THE GRAND SOPHY by Georgette Heyer and the uproar it created when she identified the book as anti-Semitic. My first thought was that I had had a similar reaction to THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL by Baroness Orczy. Now, let’s be clear. I LOVE TSP. It’s a divine book and one of my top five most beloved reads. But the ending—a passage I’ve never seen adapted to film—is wildly anti-Semitic. If you’ve never read it, here’s the spoiler: Sir Percy Blakeney, the dashing Scarlet Pimpernel, disguises himself as a “filthy Jew” in order to elude his arch-enemy Chauvelin and his devilish band of cohorts. It is precisely because of the fact that Jews were so far removed from society that Percy’s disguise works. The Frenchmen—all Christians by birth although the Revolution stamped out the influence of the Catholic church for some years—fail to recognize the Jew as an equal. In fact, they scarcely recognize him as a human, subjecting him to scorn and derision as well as brutal physical assault.

Now, Percy has clearly chosen this disguise because it serves his purpose. He is effectively invisible even when standing directly in front of his opponents. His Jewish facade envelops him in “otherness”; he is  less than a person and therefore could clearly not be the elusive and heroic Scarlet Pimpernel. In this regard, his choice of costume is entirely appropriate—clever, even.

But at no point does Baroness Orczy allude that this was his intention, and I had to wonder, would it have mitigated the anti-Semitism if Percy had somehow made it clear that he was simply using this as a gambit to turn the prejudices of the Revolutionaries against them? It would have required a bit of interior monologue or even a dialogue—perhaps with his beloved wife, Marguerite, or some of his own members of the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel, several of whom see him in his role as a Jew. So, I’m asking, is it ever appropriate to use a character’s biases as a way of thwarting him? And if so, how much does an author need to do to make absolutely certain a charge of bias can’t be thrown at the author herself?

As a writer, I’m keenly aware of the times I’m writing from a place of societal privilege. When I write about characters who are not lily-white or monied or straight, I believe I have a responsibility to write with thoughtfulness and extreme care to avoid perpetuating bias—particularly in areas such as gender where I am still learning my way. (I’ve been reading up on the subject of gender lately because I realize I have a mental block about sex=gender, and I’m trying to break the habit of thinking that way.) A prime example of this is in SILENT IN THE GRAVE. (Spoilers ahead!) As soon as I decided to make the crime center around a gay love triangle, I realized I had to balance this with gay characters who were perfectly ordinary to reflect both my experiences with gay people and, you know, REALITY. Some gays are lovely, some are awful, because they’re just like the rest of us. Their gayness doesn’t define who they are, and I couldn’t let the homosexuality of these three characters be the only representation of what gay could be within my fiction. I couldn’t stand the thought that some smug, self-righteous asshat would point to that book and say, “Well, the gays had it coming because of their inherent ickiness.” So I created Portia and Jane, the most settled, stable, devoted couple in the series and who just happen to be lesbians.

Which I suppose brings up all kinds of questions about privilege and otherness. Because society isn’t fair and because of some genetic accidents, I haven’t had many othering experiences aside from those that stem from misogyny. And that makes me careful about how I approach writing about characters whose life experiences have been different. So I wonder, how far does that responsibility extend and at what point have I satisfied it? In THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL example above, would Orczy have ever been justified in using the device of Semitic disguise? If Percy had reflected thoughtfully on the plight of Jews in Revolutionary France, would that have been sufficient? Would it have been enough if he had meditated scornfully on the blindness of privilege that caused his pursuers to look right through him as though he were less than human? Or was the device always flawed? Was it an opportunity to turn privilege on its head and educate readers, or was it only ever going to be something cheap and uncomfortable?

Interesting questions, no? And not easy to answer. I don’t think there is one approach that would satisfy all readers, but it’s worth asking.

12 thoughts on “In which we’re talking anti-Semitism”

  1. Noa says:

    First let me say that one of the reasons I adore you and your books is because you care about every detail, including things like your approach to character portrayal. The Grand Sophy is one of my favorite books but I have always hated the classic anti-Semitic portrayal of the money lender. I believe both her writing and that of Orczy in TSP is proof of just how wrong the popular view of Jews and minorities was even in the early 20th century.

    It is thanks to authors like you that this is changing. Xoxo

  2. Elaine Cohoon Miller says:

    I think that avoiding how “otherness” plays out in reality in all its iterations would be whitewashing (!) reality. You are right on point with the notion of making sure that a balance is portrayed – that an entire race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class is not depicted as wholly bad or good. You do a good job of this, both with Portia/Jane and with Brisbane’s “dirty Gypsy” heritage. NOW – I’ve read The Grand Sophy at least a hundred times and cannot remember anything anti-Semitic. What in the world was she talking about?

  3. Elaine Cohoon Miller says:

    Duh. Thanks Noa. Just shows how oblivious I am. I went back to look and found the “Semitic nose” which I have edited out in all my readings. The truth is that there is a lot in Heyer that you have to edit – the prejudices of her time – in order to enjoy her books. I guess that is the point of this bloggery.

  4. A fascinating subject. To what extent is it fair to blame authors and other artists for failing to see beyond the ethos of their times? Personally, I’m impressed that Shakespeare climbed out as far on a limb as he did with Shylock’s “hath not a Jew eyes?” monologue, and that Dickens had the sensitivity to eliminate references to Fagin’s religion in later editions of “Oliver.” I do feel that part of the author’s vocation is to call attention to injustice. At the same time, if an author extends his/her vision too far from where contemporaries can follow, he/she risks becoming irrelevant or worse. For example, writers in Stalin’s Soviet Union couldn’t dare criticize the Marxist ideal; and Joe McCarthy made it pretty hard for many writers in America, too. Note also how some works of art, once hailed as masterpieces, have suffered over time due to their insensitive or reactionary depictions of minorities. DW Griffith’s seminal film “Birth of a Nation” might be an example.

  5. Cece says:

    Historic context is important; anti-Semitism was reality for thousands of years–and is not truly eradicated now. So was male control of wives’ and daughters’ fortunes, futures, bodies and (attempted, anyway) minds, economic prejudice, ethnic prejudice…the list, sadly, is long. To write a book set in the past any other way would be historically inaccurate and would cause me to throw the book under the lawn mower. (I did once.) I respect the concern of an author when it comes to making sure that characters are portrayed as cardboard stereotypes defined by religion, gender, sexual orientation, or even weight–but that is a different issue than portraying the prejudices of the time accurately. It would have been admirable if the Scarlet Pimpernel had shown that he was not anti-Semitic, just using the prejudices of others-but it doesn’t bother me that he doesn’t. He is, after all, human-and a product of his time; charming but still flawed.

    1. Cece says:

      …making sure characters are NOT portrayed as cardboard….

  6. Jaye says:

    GREAT post. Thanks for bringing it up. One thing I try to remember when I am reading classics is that they lived in a different era where descriptions of people were different. We would classify them as bad, because of our (hopefully) evolved world view and education in the brilliance of the melting pot. People WERE classified and discriminated against by look, race, religion, etc. The biggest thing that came to mind for me when I started reading your post was WOMEN. Yes, you and I were considered property. You handle this well in your books with the way the Earl March treats his daughters, but that is not the way it was universally.

    One thing you could do is put a couple of pages at the end of a book describing the era and the ‘general feelings’ of the era and your thoughts about how we have evolved. I am not in the publishing industry, so I don’t know if it is possible.
    Take care and thanks for writing!

  7. Helen says:

    It’s a matter of taking something out of contex isn’t it? It’s like watching a 1930’s movie featuring Stepin Fetchit…… makes us uncomfortable because we view it as racist but to the people of the day he was comic relief….a clown….a buffoon. You have to take that into consideration when you read a book from that time or watch a movie. I always think about how people wanted to ban Huckelberry Finn because Twain used the “N” word for Jim….but Twain was a very enlightened man. I remember reading Pudd’nhead Wilson and being amazed at how satirical he was regarding race and human nature. Great topic Deanna. You’ve got me thinking here.

  8. Robyn Dunaway says:

    Pick me! Pick me!!

  9. Carroll Robinson says:

    A favorite favorite book of mine, and back in the 70s I I ordered through our local bookstore here several more of her Pimpernel series, which i might reread–the other night I watched the Jane Seymour–Anthony Andrews version of PIMPERNEL and though it is taken from several of the books, I loved it as always.
    My take on Baroness Orczy is that she had the biases (is that a word?) of her time–Not only in the Jewish character, but in the superiority of the aristocracy–I never really thought of Sir Percy as being anti-Semite as much as using the disguise of whom ever was considered “the scum of the earth” regardless of who or what it was at the time, to achieve the very deadly and dangerous ends of his “game.” But Orczy also could be perceptive too, and one of my favorite observations of Sir Percy’s from I WILL REPAY is on what real love is about–the exchange goes as follows:
    Deroulede: “…..I have lived under the same roof with her for three weeks now. I have begun to understand what a saint is like.”
    “And ’twill be when you understand that your idol has feet of clay that you’ll learn the real lesson of love. Is it love to worship a saint in heaven, whom you dare not touch, who hovers above you like a cloud, which floats away from you even as you gaze? To love is to feel one being in the world at one with us, our equal in sin as in virtue. To love, for us men, is to clasp one woman with our arms, feeling that she lives and breathes just as we do, suffers as we do, thinks with us, loves with us, and above all, sins with us. Your mock saint who stands in a niche is not a woman if she has not suffered, still less if she has not sinned. Fall at the feet of your idol all you wish, gut drag her down to your level after that–the only level she should ever reach, that of your heart.”
    I thought that one of the most romantic ways of saying that you can’t love someone truly until you are disillusioned with their “perfection” and see their faults as well.
    Will have to re read TSP again to register my reaction to the Jewish character which i did think was used as a negative type, but I also think Orczy presented the aristocracy heavily balanced with virtue and the revolutionaries as heavily balanced with evil mob rule–not that it wasn’t, but there were truly deep injustices to the non aristocracy leading up to it.– I think it has been only after WWII that anti-Semitism began not to be tolerated: Witness the old movie GENTLEMEN’S AGREEMENT that was done either before the war or during the 40s I think—-
    . Funny I was just thinking of two mini series some years back about anti-semitism this afternoon: One was called THE MURDER OF MARY PHAGAN and the other was Leon Uris QBVII –MARY PHAGAN because I picked up the DVD of LINCOLN and Daniel Day Lewis’ wife, Rebecca Miller, played the wife of the Jewish young man accused of murdering a girl working at pencil factory in Atlanta and finally lynched when the governor commutes his sentence. It’s a great mini series and so is QBVII–a semi autobiographic incident that happened to Leon Uris when in a book he wrote, he accused someone of being a Nazi collaborator?–well doing barbaric things to the Jews—and was sued by the man, now a well respected humanitarian, for libel, but Uris won because most of what he had said was true—the two main male characters in the story, played by Anthony Hopkins and Ben Gazzarra, were flawed men and the Nazi had much to be respected as the writer had much to not be respected. I wish we still had mini series like those movies and ROOTS etc but i guess we got mini seriesed out and reality shows are all the thing. Good subject.

  10. Carroll Robinson says:

    I did not mean to write that much.

    1. No worries, Carroll–they were good points! I’m working my way through the Pimpernel books I haven’t read before. Wish someone would just reissue them in deliciously well-designed trade paperback! Orczy does have some wildly romantic passages as well as some blind spots. Her sympathies with the aristocracy are completely understandable given her personal history, I think. Very difficult to write fiction that doesn’t reflect your own views in some fashion.

Comments are closed.