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.