September 2010

The Whispering Bell by Brian Sellars   The Wise Woman by Philippa Gregoy   

 By Nan Hawthorne

Being disabled myself, I notice how characters with disabilities in historical novels are portrayed.  Like fat people, who more often than not in books, movies and on television are portrayed as selfish or bullying or otherwise unpleasant, people with disabilities tend to be stereotyped.  The two extremes they fall into are villainous and saintly.  At best they are made to look helpless.  Is this a valid concern?  Are there no villainous, saintly or helpless people with disabilities?  Of course these types exist in real life.  However, there are also lazy black people, passive or manipulative women, greedy Jews and drunken Irishmen, but we would never allow ourselves to overindulge in these negative stereotypes.  Why do we let the stereotypes of people with disabilities stand or go so far as to use them ourselves in our own work?

 Perhaps it is because authors don’t imagine readers with disabilities holding their books in their hands that they are so willing to create two-dimensional characters like these.  They may believe the stereotypes.  Or it may also be that it seems easy to explain them away.  When I pointed out not just one but two villainous characters with disabilities in The Whispering Bell by Brian Sellars, another author explained, “But I just thought it was that his lameness is what made him so bitter and vindictive.”  I can’t argue with that, except to say that having the two bad guys be a lame man and a visually impaired man was suggestive of author attitude, and that bitterness is not always a characteristic of a lame person, nor lame people the only ones to be bitter.  The point is that it is far too easy, and in my opinion lazy, of an author to use such stereotypes.

 In her The Wise Woman Philippa Gregory transgresses in a slightly different way.  The seneschal is a Little Person, a dwarf.    Because it is a novel, this was the author’s intention.    The seneschal is supposed to be rather creepy and the author is using his disability to magnify this.  Why could she not have chosen any other type of person?  Is it fair to real Little People to find themselves constantly portrayed either as creepy or jesters?

 You may say, “But in other times people with disabilities had much more limited options than they do now.  Being ‘politically correct’ does not change that.’  You are right, but that’s not the point.  The point is that these characters have been objectified, and the author is not seeing them as individuals like anyone else.  An example where the author is obviously fully aware of the humanity of a disabled character is Sharon Kay Penman’s Rhiannon, the Welsh wife of Ranulf Fitzroy, in her trilogy of When Christ and his Saints Slept, Time and Chance and The Devil’s Brood.  When Penman was a guest on an book discussion group, the blind and otherwise print impaired callers expressed their appreciation of the portrayal.  Rhiannon is blind and has been for most of her life.  She is neither helpless nor angelic.  She can get good and mad with the best of them, be foolish or hasty, but no more than any other person in the story.  She has adapted to her surroundings and navigates it well most of the time.  If you remove her blindness from the story, it could still be told just as it is.  Her blindness, that is, is not the central fact of who she is.    That is reality.  I for instance am myself before I am anything else, including blind.

Here is a useful exercise for realigning your expectations of characters with disabilities.  Write a story about a dinner party.  There should be at least ten people attending from different walks of life depending on your era of choice.  Name them, describe them, and tell a little story about each one.  When you have finished, use some random method to choose one of the people.  This will be your person with a disability, probably one you should choose before you start.  Think about the character with his or her disability and whether you find yourself seeing that person any differently.  Don’t assume anything, but rather read up on the disability, talk to people who share it, and see if your suppositions are accurate or prejudiced.  Don’t feel bad if they are the latter – just remember the exercise next time you write a new character who is disabled.

We live in a world divided into Us and Them, and so long as any group is stuck in Society’s Them category, they will be objectified.  That is unfortunate of course, but it also robs your stories of the depth and breadth they should have.  Writing stereotypes is far more than a poor choice.  It is demeaning to your very art.   Doesn’t your talent deserve better?

The Macaronis blog received the One Lovely Blog Award from Elisa Rolle’s wonderful reviews and news blog. This is a community-generated award, like a meme, in which operators of historical fiction and related blogs bestow the award on their favourite blogs and then tag the recipients to pass it along and recognize other blogs in the field.  A great opportunity to spread some goodwill and recommend some good blogs 🙂

I nominate

The Duchess of Devonshire’s Gossip Guide to the 18th Century

Why gossip about the boring celebrities of our mundane century when you could be picking apart the outfits and scandals of a more gorgeous world?

Got Medieval

For all your vital medieval advice, like what to do with unexpected dragons and when to expect unexpected bears.

Chaucer Hath a Blog

Possibly not exactly informative, but very amusing, and there’s nothing like a bit of Middle-English to uplift your spirits in the morning:

I here neyther that ne this, for when my labor doon al ys and have made al my rekenynges I goon hom to my hous anoon and, also domb as any stoon, I sitte at another book tyl fully daswed ys myn look. Certes, I oghte to get outte more. Thou kanst fynde myn feede for liveiournale at the username ‘chaucerhathblog,’ sum swete soule hath sette yt vp for me.

Anglo Saxon Aloud

A daily reading of the entire Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records,which includes all poems written in Old English. By Michael D. C. Drout, Prentice Professor of English at Wheaton College, Norton, MA.  I no longer understand it without being able to see the text, but I find it very relaxing to listen to.

The Period Movie Review

Unfortunately on hiatus at the moment, but it’s well worth going through their reviews and checking out their opinions on the costuming, which are informed and always interesting.

These are the ones that I follow.  How about the other Macaronis?

Authors writing themselves into their works is nothing new. Many people think the young man who slipped out of his linen clothes to elude his captors and ran away naked from the garden of Gethsemane was the Apostle Mark himself. And, in As You Like It, there’s a slightly dim-witted countryman called William who seems to have no real purpose in the play – is this the Bard making game of himself?

You can see I’m not talking Mary Sues here, although some self-inserted characters come perilously close. I find the wikipedia description of these women or their male equivalent, the Gary Stu – useful, that they’re primarily functioning as wish-fulfillment fantasies for their authors. Many of the ‘author appearances’ make the feet of clay all too apparent and so don’t fit into this category.

Autobiographically inspired novels like ‘On the Road’ clearly portray the writer and his/her friends, foibles and all, to some extent or other. Sal Paradise is Jack Kerouac, ‘Jeannette’ in ‘Oranges are not the Only Fruit’ is Jeannette Winterson and Philip Carey in ‘Of Human Bondage’ may be Somerset Maugham, more or less. Paul Morel in ‘Sons and Lovers’ could be the young D H Lawrence and elements of Dickens’ life appear in David Copperfield.

E M Forster

Not E M Forster (and not too much like the Maurice Hall of the book?)

Sometimes, though, the reader sees what he or she wants. E M Forster insisted that Maurice Hall wasn’t him, although the similarities in appearance, Cambridge background and sexual awakening by a man of ‘lower class’ has made fans of ‘Maurice’ wonder. Harriet Vane is evidently based on Dorothy L Sayers – similar educational background, similar unhappy love affair – although she possesses too many faults to be a Mary Sue. Except in one thing; Sayers was infatuated with Eric Whelpton (one of the models for Peter Wimsey), but to no avail. Could Harriet’s happy ending with Peter have been a bit of wish-fulfilment?

Certainly in fanfic the wish-fulfilment element looms large. In Age of Sail stories, there’ll be a young woman who’s beautiful, talented, clever, witty; a right pain in the bum. She’s the best shot on the ship and can probably outdo the officers at swordplay. She might even be in disguise as a man, some very capable second lieutenant. I’m struggling to think of an equivalent character in a major novel written by a woman, although two male characters spring immediately to mind – James Bond and Stephen Maturin. This pair of bold adventurers need no introduction, nor do their stories. Ian Fleming based Bond and his adventures on various people and incidents, including his own – for example some of the scenes in Casino Royale reflected his own attempt to scupper some gamblers he thought were Nazi agents.

Maturin fascinates me, as does his creator, Patrick O’Brian. It would be easy to overegg the similarities between the two – secrecy, dissimulation about background, a daughter with special needs – but the fact remains that Maturin at times feels like a Gary Stu, despite his faults. Brilliant shot, wonderful espionage agent, a bit of a super hero (he takes a bullet out of his own abdomen and survives torture, storms, abandonment on a scorching hot island, a night on a freezing cold mountain, etc). I can’t help wondering if O’Brian was using Maturin in part to be what he’d wished to be, (or pretended he’d been) including a spy, an Irishman and a wonderful father to his disabled child.



Self inserted characters exist today. There’s a lady in my Cambridge Fellows books who bears more than a passing resemblance to me and I know that there are others knocking around. Of course, the tendency is, when I’m reading something, to try to spot a character who might just be the author in disguise. I daren’t say anything because of the risk of a suit for libel, but might that beautiful lady in the latest book by xxxx really be her and can that ridiculously sexy man, the one all the blokes fawn over truly be yyyyy? And will you share your favourite ‘self-inserted’ characters in the comments?