Balancing Act

Greguss_János_Sátoros_cigányokSo I’m writing this book, set in England in 1812. And somehow a group of the people sometimes referred to as Gypsies, or Travelers, or Tinkers, has appeared and is playing a role in the story. And the research, and the ramifications, and the competing needs to be accurate in both my depiction of these people, and my depiction of the attitudes of the society around them, is making me a little crazy.

Let me just say: I am one of those people who gets a little testy when I encounter historical fiction where the attitudes of the past are retconned to accommodate our current, more enlightened (we hope) viewpoints. Many of people in the Olden Days™ held views regarding women, people of color, people of classes other than their own, etc. which are downright abhorrent to the modern reader. Pretending this is not so, or softening those views so that they seem less awful, or attributing those views only to the Bad People, is false in a way that no amount of carefully researched set-dressing can disguise. As a writer I find the opportunity to put an awful comment in the mouth of an otherwise sympathetic character (one for whom the comment would be in character) to be almost irresistible. It’s what she would have said, given her upbringing and the mores of the society she lived in, so–say it, right?  Show how widespread the attitude was.

And yet.

In The Sleeping Partner I have a character use an anti-Semitic phrase. He’s not a bad guy but he’s not a particularly good guy, either, and the phrase is exactly what this man would have said, had he been a real person at the time. I hesitated, and I decided it was correct and I used it… and I got called on it. I got an email from a woman who was brought up short, offended and hurt and thrown out of the book, by the use of that slur. (No, I’m not going to repeat it here.) She and I had a good discussion–I started out from the point I made above: it’s what this character would have said under the circumstances, and she responded that the use of the slur validated anti-Semitic attitudes and permitted them to proliferate, and we went back and forth. I apologized; on consideration it occurred to me that, well, I’m making it up, and I didn’t have to have that character say on paper what I heard him say in my head. And I promised not to forget our conversation.

So, back to the Gypsies. The law of early 19th century England, and the culture that informed the law, took a dim view of Gypsies, a catch-all term (and an ethnic slur in and of itself) that includes the Romani people, Travelers, tinkers, wandering players, etc.). The Romani (to get away from the G-word for a moment) were an itinerant culture descended from people who originally left India sometime around 250 BC and reached Europe some time in the 12th century. They were treated differently in different countries–better in some, much worse in others (to this day it is illegal in Italy for a Rom to own property). And whether they, as individuals, preferred a nomadic existence, that is what they lived, doing work that was portable: animal husbandry, horse training and trading, entertaining, fortune-telling, and in some cases, petty crime, if there was no other way to feed themselves.

Because the Rom moved around, the settled populace regarded them with suspicion and fear; it was rarely possible to know them as neighbors or friends. They were pretty thoroughly “othered”–if there was a crime in the neighborhood the first thought was to blame it on the Travelers; if there was a bad harvest they might be suspected of levying a curse.  At best, in such circumstances, they might be chased out of one town into another. And they became bogey men: children of resident families were scared into good behavior by being told that the Gypsies would come in the night and steal away bad children. For older girls this wasn’t just a threat of kidnapping–it was a threat of sexual slavery. And in the way that self-validating stories have, the more the children grew up distrusting Rom, the more they feared them, and the more they were mistreated.

The main character in this book, Sarah Tolerance, is, as her name suggests, a fairly open person for her time; she has to be, because as a Fallen woman who has made a career of detection, her work takes her among some of the more sordid people in the sordid old city of London. But she’s also a woman of her time, raised with the same “if you don’t behave I’ll give you to the Gypsies” threats as most children of the time. And when she encounters them in the book, she is prepared, with a lifetime of prejudice and prepping, to find them scary and evil. Of course, they’re not what she expects.

This is fun stuff to play with for a writer: culture clash and challenged expectations. And I do not want to soften, either Sarah’s misguided expectations, or the prejudice and mistreatment of the Rom of London in the early 1800s. I also want to avoid, as much as I can, perpetuating stereotypes. So I’m doing my research, as one does. And I’m trying to keep what I think is the real attitudes on both sides. And I’m sweating just a little.

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