I was reading a very interesting discussion last night on the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books blog (which generally reviews and discusses romance novels) which stemmed from one of the reviewer’s low rating of The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer – a book which many readers would regard as a classic Regency romance novel. It has always been one of my favourites of Heyer’s novels, mainly because I find it very funny.
But the thing that started all the discussion (which was fascinating) was SarahSB’s hatred for, in particular, a caricatured Jewish moneylender character who is described in opprobrious terms. It wasn’t just the anti-Semitic nature of the portrayal that bothered her, it was the fact that it was also so stereotyped. Much of the discussion which followed was trying to consider whether we ought to read books written in less enlightened times through the eyes of today or through the eyes of someone of Heyer’s upbringing and education in her era.
I have to say that the incident has never previously bothered me, partly, I think, because I first read the book when I was a very uncritical teenage reader. Every time I’ve re-read the book since, I have such a residual fondness for the book and the characters that I’ve only ever seen Goldhanger primarily as a villain, not as a badly stereotyped Jewish villain. But, as one of the commenters mentioned, we shouldn’t excuse inexcusable attitudes on the part of our favourite authors, even if such attitudes were commonplace at the time of writing, but we should be alert to these issues during our reading. I’m sure that when I re-read The Grand Sophy, the Goldhanger episode will bother me a lot more than it has done previously. The anti-Semitism in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Whose Body? annoyed me more on a recent re-read than it had done in previous re-readings, so perhaps I am getting more sensitive to such unacceptable portrayals now.
So my question is, is there any authorial opinion or view expressed in a book through character portrayal which will lead you to (even if only mentally) throwing the book against a wall? Or if not, can you excuse their view(s) as being a function of their society or education? Or do you not notice*? And then do you avoid other books by the same writer as a result?
*For example, when reading Thirteenth Child, I might not have noticed the lack of Native American-equivalent characters (being British) had someone not pointed it out in a review: once it had been brought into the open, the absence was glaring.)