Color Blind Historical Fiction

When we began History Imagined, we decided it would lie at the intersection of history and fiction, and many of our posts have covered aspects of history that impact fiction. This one is no exception. As we celebrate Black History Month, I’ve been preoccupied with issues regarding bias in historical fiction related to my own genre. In a 2017 episode of Dr. Who, in which the doctor visits the 1814 Frost Fair in London, his companion remarks that Regency England is “a bit more black than they show in the movies.” He replies, “So was Jesus. History is a white wash.” If it is, fiction has aided and abetted the process.

Detail from 13th century copy of the Domesday Book, UK Archives

Is it? Yes and no. People of color appear in European records; we can find them if we dig. Whether their roles are deliberately downplayed or simply overlooked in histories is a question, but the blinkers white privilege gives to many writers plays a huge part. We come at the question, in any case, with a modern sensibility. Race as a social construct, and our modern views, are greatly impacted by chattel slavery in the U.S. and by colonialism in Europe. Our modern issues impact our thinking and it is sometimes difficult to interpret the impact of skin color in ancient, medieval and more recent historical eras. As fiction writers, we can only try to be authentic in our presentation.

An example of a modern question is “Was Augustine of Hippo, a native of North Africa, black?” His father was a Roman citizen, but it is unclear if he was from Italy or native to North Africa. His mother is believed to have been Berber, a people with a range of skin tones from light to very dark, at least in modern times. Did any of his contemporaries care? There’s no evidence of it. But the question persists. Artists up until recent times have tended to portray him with fair skin. Why does it matter? Because he is one of the greatest Christian theologians, and the pattern of attributing greatness only to fair-skinned people (and men at that) is pervasive. How ought an artist to portray him on canvas or in literature? How ought he, or a man like him, be portrayed in historical fiction?

Historically, there are likely more examples of racial diversity in countries like Spain, Portugal, and Italy that border the Mediterranean. I began with Regency England, however, and I’d like to focus on England, partially because so much of my own writing focuses on English characters.

Victorian portrait of Queen Phillipa (1893) at Queen’s College Oxford

The earliest records of Africans in England date to the Roman occupation, with at least one troop of African auxiliaries stationed there. We have forensic evidence of mixed-race families in York in the fourth century. Scattered evidence of Africans persists in England throughout the middle ages. When Edward II sent a bishop to the Count of Hainault to negotiate a bride for his son, Edward III, he described the future wife as brown skinned with brown, almost black eyes, hair brown to blue black, with wide flaring nostrils. It is enough to make me wonder what other overlooked descriptions are out there in the  records. Phillipa of Hainault did indeed marry the Black Prince, Edward III and was an extremely popular monarch. In art, however, she is often portrayed as fair, even pale skinned.

By Tudor times there was, without question, a significant black community in London. The evidence is in court papers, church records, and legal records. While there is also evidence of push-back, and anti-immigrant sentiment is nothing new, people of color continued to arrive in England throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth century from African, from India, and from the Caribbean.

Dominico Giuliani and his Servant, Circle of Bartolomeo Passarotti. 1579.

Many other people came to England in unfortunate circumstances as victims of enslavement or colonial exploitation, as servants or among the poor. However, there w well-educated professionals and property owners. At least one of Catherine of Aragon’s ladies in waiting, Catalina de Cardonnes, was a black woman. Only recently has she been portrayed accurately on the screen, in the Starz production of The Spanish Princess.

The wife of George III was Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, descended from Portuguese royalty. Her personal physician described her as having “a true mulatto face.”  It might have been more authentic if a woman of color had portrayed her in The Madness of King George.

Throughout the twentieth century, historical dramas most often had all-white casts, and the mention of black or mixed-race characters in novels, particularly historical romance, has been scarce. There have been other attempts in recent years to correct that picture. Consider, the ITV production of Sanditon, which is the latest of a number of attempts to continue Jane Austen’s unfinished novel of the same name, and which recently appeared in the U.S. on public television. Did Jane Austen really include a mixed-race woman in those early chapters of her unfinished novel? Yes, she did, so Sanditon is not just a politically correct modernization (At least in that respect; I’ll leave criticism of the production to others). She was, in fact, reflecting the world she lived in. Another example is Belle, the fictionalized account of the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the daughter of an enslaved African woman who became a British heiress and is portrayed in a painting with her cousin in 1778.

Progress, to be sure. In the discussions this past year that have roiled romancelandia—the readers and authors of my own genre—it has become clear that several things have to happen. Authors of color need opportunities to tell their stories. The rest of us need to sharpen our sensitivities and to accept that we cannot write stories set in a uniformly white world and call it historical. In an essay that makes my point more eloquently than I can, S.E. Smith points out that white people, who have controlled the narrative and curated the art, must shift the way it is told, and that, “the onus is on us to admit that our history isn’t the only history.”

Historical Romance by Authors of Color

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For more information:

“Britain’s first black community in Elizabethan London;” BBC Magazine, July 20, 2012. https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-18903391

Chowdhury, Robyn; “People of Color in Europe are ‘Historically Accurate;’” Affinity Magazine, April 21, 2017. http://affinitymagazine.us/2017/04/21/people-of-color-in-europe-are-historically-accurate/

Jeffries, Stuart; “Was This Britains First Black Queen:” The Guardian, March 11, 2009; https://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/mar/12/race-monarchy

“Phillipa of Hainault (24 June 1314-15 August 1369),” on English Monarchs; http://www.englishmonarchs.co.uk/plantagenet_35.html

Pulver, Andrew; “David Oyelowo: ‘People of colour have been expunged from British history;’” The Guardian, October 6, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/oct/06/david-oyelowo-a-united-kingdom-people-of-colour-film

Smith, S.E.; “Erasing People of Colour in European History;” March 19, 2014. https://meloukhia.net/2014/03/erasing_people_of_colour_in_european_history/

Wuyts, Ann; “Evidence of ‘upper class’ Africans living in Roman York;” Independent, March 2, 2010. https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/history/evidence-of-upper-class-africans-living-in-roman-york-1914553.html

“Yes There Were Black People in Renaissance Europe;” Black Nerd Problems; https://blacknerdproblems.com/yes-there-were-black-people-in-renaissance-europe/


Award winning author of family centered romance set in the Regency and Victorian eras, Caroline Warfield has been many things: traveler, librarian, poet, raiser of children, bird watcher, Internet and Web services manager, conference speaker, indexer, tech writer, genealogist—even a nun. She reckons she is on at least her third act, happily working in an office surrounded by windows where she lets her characters lead her to adventures in England and the far-flung corners of the British Empire. She nudges them to explore the riskiest territory of all, the human heart.