The Laura Ingalls Wilder debate

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Earlier this week, the American Association for Library Services to Children announced that its prestigious Laura Ingalls Wilder Award was to be renamed as the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.  “This decision was made in consideration of the fact that Wilder’s legacy, as represented by her body of work, includes expressions of stereotypical attitudes inconsistent with ALSC’s core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness” – referring to the depiction of Native American and black people in her books, notably in Little House on the Prairie.

My copy of Little House on the Prairie is falling to pieces, because it’s been read so often.  The publishing information page informs me that the book was first published in the US in 1935, was first published in the UK in 1937, and was first published by Puffin in 1964 – and that it had been reprinted pretty much every year since 1964, sometimes as much as four times in a year.  That says a lot about how popular it was.  The last re-publication date given is 1981, so my copy must have been bought in either late 1981 or early 1982.  So I’d have first read it when I was either six or just turned seven.  At that age, you probably don’t really question the rights and wrongs of what you’re reading: you just accept it.  That does create particular problems over what it is and isn’t OK for children’s books to say.

Prejudice as written about in children’s books can be a useful tool for explanation and understanding.  One of our set books in the second year of secondary school was Through The Barricades, Joan Lingard’s book about a romance between a Protestant girl and a Catholic boy in 1970s Belfast.  Several characters in that book make very disparaging comments about the other community.  But, when you’re reading a book at school (although I’d read it myself, years before), you’re doing so with an eye to discussion.  That’s not necessarily the case when a child is reading a book on his or her own.  And, by the age of twelve or thirteen, people are better able to judge and question what they read in books than at the age of six or seven.

It does need to be noted that all they’ve done is rename an award.  The books are not being banned.  It’s highly unlikely that they’ll go out of print – if anything, the publicity from all this might get more people buying them.  However, this decision is part of a wider cultural debate, in the United States, here in the United Kingdom, and elsewhere, about the issue of views which were considered acceptable in the cultures of those holding them at the time at which they lived and worked, but aren’t now, and that’s partly why it’s attracting so much attention.

It does seem to be getting out of hand.  What next?  Rename Washington DC because George Washington owned slaves?  Remove the name of Shakespeare from any public building or organization because Othello and Shylock are offensive stereotypes?  Pulling down the statue of Lord Nelson in Trafalgar Square’s been suggested already!   So has renaming the various schools, streets and buildings in Bristol named after Edward Colston, a philanthropist but also a slave trader.  Confederate monuments in various southern states have been removed, because many people insist that the Confederacy was all about slavery and won’t take into account, or don’t consider important, the fact that it was also about states’ rights.  There’ve even been objections to screenings of Gone With The Wind, the greatest film ever made (from the greatest book ever written), because its views on race are those of wealthy Southerners in the 1860s and 1870s, when it’s set, not of people in the 2010s. And pretty much every single person who lived in Europe in the Middle Ages is, by these standards, to be condemned for lack of religious tolerance.  And, if we’re talking about tolerance, don’t even go there when talking about the Bible.

On the other hand … I found it rather strange seeing the huge statue of Bohdan Khmelnystky, who’s regarded as a hero in Ukraine but whom I think of as being responsible for mass murder, in the middle of St Sophia’s Square in Kyiv.  And I can’t remember reading any articles in the Western press criticising people in the former Soviet Union for pulling down statues of Stalin.  Imagine how it’d feel to see a statue of Hitler, and, if you objected, be told that he was the democratically elected Chancellor of Germany, that Austria voted overwhelmingly in favour of the Anschluss, and that removing it would be an Orwellian rewriting of history.  This whole issue is a very difficult one: there are no easy answers.

Most people, hopefully, would not dream of arguing that racism or other forms of prejudice are acceptable.  The issue is the one of the Orwellian rewriting of history.  It would be ridiculous to have Scarlett O’Hara, Melanie Hamilton and co speaking out about the need for racial equality, or Jane Eyre telling St John Rivers that she had no intention of becoming a missionary in India because Islam and Hinduism were just as valid as Christianity, the various snooty kids in Enid Blyton books accepting working-class children into their gangs, or indeed Antonio and Portia accepting Jewish merchants of Venice as being equal to Catholic ones.   In fact, pretending that these views never existed in the past would be a downright insult to all the people over the years who’ve battled against them, and continue to do so.  It wouldn’t be possible to do that even if people wanted to.  How can you tell American history without talking about white settlers driving out Native Americans?  Not only would it be impossible, it would be very, very wrong.

So what’s the answer?  If you’re telling the story in the form of a novel, you’re going to have at least some of your characters expressing the views that were commonly held at that time and in that place.  That’s what happens in Little House on the Prairie.  So what is actually said that’s caused offence?

The main issues involve Native Americans, although concerns have also been raised about attitudes in the books towards African-American people.  The only black character in Little House on the Prairie is Dr Tan, who treats the Ingalls family when they’re suffering from malaria.  Laura says that she’d never seen a black person before, and would have been scared of him had she not liked him so much.  I can’t see that there’s anything objectionable about that: young children can be scared of any sort of difference, and it’s made clear that he’s a good person and a good doctor.  And a doctor is hardly a negative stereotype.

 However, there’s the issue of the black and white minstrel show in Little Town on the Prairie, which involves Pa Ingalls and a number of other white men “blacking up”, i.e. using “blackface” make-up.  One of my great-great-great uncles was a Victorian music hall ventriloquist.  This amuses me greatly: most of my relations are listed on the census reports as working in factories or shops.  He was famous, in music hall circles, for presenting a ventriloquism show involving eight dummies done up as black and white minstrels.  OK, that’s not quite the same thing, because using a black dummy isn’t the same as a white person “blacking up” with make-up, but the point is that black and white minstrel shows were a common form of entertainment in Victorian times.  Never mind Victorian times – the BBC was still showing a weekly black and white minstrel show in the 1970s.  It wasn’t axed until 1978.  1978!  It’s hard to believe that, but it’s true.  And, at the time of Laura’s childhood, even black performers would sometimes wear blackface make-up.

But shows of that sort are now considered highly offensive.  Many of them showed black characters as being unintelligent and figures of fun.  There was some criticism of them even in Victorian times.  I don’t think that actually comes across much in Laura’s book, because the focus is on music and dancing, but it’s a question of that whole genre of “entertainment”.  And there’s also the question of the use of the word “darky”, now considered extremely offensive (in English, not necessarily in South American Spanish, but that’s another story).  Language changes, and the word would have been in common use in the 1870s, although maybe less so by the 1930s, but the word certainly isn’t acceptable now.  What if a young child were to read that word and repeat it in public?  As a kid, you’re not to know that a word in a book isn’t to be used.  But is changing the language in a book rewriting history and culture?  There are just no easy answers here.

Whilst black people feature very little in the books, Osage Native Americans and the attitude of white people towards them feature prominently in Little House on the Prairie (it is mainly just that one book in the series), during which the Ingalls family illegally build a house in a part of Kansas which is under Osage ownership but which they believe will soon be opened up to homesteaders.

And, as I said, I first read Little House on the Prairie when I was six or seven.  Fast forward to December 1986, by which time I was eleven, had read all the “Little House” books a million times (although, strangely, I never watched the TV series), and thought I was very grown up because I’d started reading “grown up” books.  The first one I read was A Woman of Substance by Barbara Taylor Bradford – how 1980s blockbuster-ish is that?!  Another early one was North and South by John Jakes, after watching the superb TV series starring the late, great Patrick Swayze.  After that, I started reading up on the American Civil War, the events leading up to it, and Reconstruction, big style, and I’ve never stopped.  So, if you ask me about the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, I will launch into a very long spiel about popular sovereignty, free soil, border ruffians, the expansion of slavery, the Lecompton Constitution, Bleeding Kansas, Preston Brook hitting Charles Sumner with his cane and all the rest of it.  So, I suspect, would most people.  It is generally seen as a step along the road to the war.  However, it also led to large numbers of would-be settlers flooding into Kansas.

The Osage Nation had already been pushed out of many of their ancestral lands, into south eastern Kansas.  Now that area too saw an influx of white settlers and, during the war, both sides seemed to think that it was perfectly OK to steal horses and supplies from the Osage.  To try to get the Confederates to leave them alone, they made a treaty with them.  After the war, this was used as an excuse to force them to cede even more land to the Union, and they were pushed into “Indian Territory” – roughly speaking, Oklahoma – in 1870.  The Ingalls family moved to south eastern Kansas in 1868, whilst even the United States government recognized that it was still under Osage control.

There are various theories about what entitles people to own land.  Mrs Scott, a character in the book, says that people who settle and work on land should be entitled to own it.  Apparently this theory was developed by John Locke.  The only book by John Locke that I’ve ever read was Two Treatises of Government.  That was twenty five years ago.  It was so boring that I’ve never read anything else by him, nor do I ever intend to.   Anyway, those theories are irrelevant: the land was legally recognised, by the government of the country to which the Ingalls and Scott families belonged, as being owned by the Osage.  There’s some confusion over whether or not they realised that they were just the wrong side of a dividing line, but they didn’t really care.

Manifest Destiny.  Go west, young man, go west.  The destiny, the right, of white, and preferably Protestant, Americans to settle from sea to shining sea.  All this.  I don’t mean this in any sort of anti-American way: the US is hardly the only country where attitudes like that existed.  And, alongside Manifest Destiny went the idea of “Indian removal”.  And negative ideas towards Native Americans generally.  The first editions of the book infamously stated that “there were no people there, only Indians”.  This was later changed to “there were no settlers there, only Indians”, but you get the idea.  Native Americans being seen as less than people.  There’s a bizarre scene in which young Laura sees some Native Americans riding past, including a mother with a baby, and wants Pa to go and “get” the baby for her, because she thinks the baby’s cute and wants to keep him/her.  It’s very strange.

The Osage characters get no actual voice in the books: they don’t speak English, and the Americans don’t speak Osage, so, with it being told from Laura’s viewpoint, there’s no means of her understanding them.  One of the Osage chiefs, named as Soldat du Chene and said to have prevented a massacre of settlers, speaks French, but Laura doesn’t.  So we don’t get their viewpoint at all.  On two occasions, Osage men, described as “wild”, come into the Ingalls family house whilst Pa is out and Ma is in with the three children.  They demand cornbread and, on one occasion, steal tobacco.  So the portrayal of them is certainly very negative – and that, it has to be said, probably in line with most white Americans’ views at the time.   But this was Laura’s experience, and she was writing about her experience.

We do, however, get different views expressed by different white American characters.  There isn’t really a narrative: the narrative is what Laura’s thinking.  So, I suppose, the narrative is the author’s voice, although it’s adult Laura writing about child Laura.  Or is it actually Laura at all? – it’s known that a lot of the work on the books was actually done by Laura’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane.  Oh well, that’s academic: if you’re going to look at it like that, then “Laura Ingalls Wilder” the author is a combination of Laura Ingalls Wilder herself and Rose Wilder Lane!   But the lack of a narrative other than the voice of a character means that the author’s own views don’t come across, as they do in some books.  Unless we take the thoughts of Laura the child to be those of the author.  I’m tying myself in knots here!   But, in some books, it’s clear that the author does not agree with those expressed by the characters.   Another way in which authors, especially children’s authors, do that is to have the “bad” views expressed by characters whom the reader is meant to dislike.  That doesn’t happen here either.

The books infamously use the expression “The only good Indian is a dead Indian”.  In Little House on the Prairie, it’s used by the family’s neighbours, Mr and Mrs Scott.  Mrs Scott in particular is very vehement in her dislike of Native Americans.  It’s explained that this is because her family came close to being caught up in the “Minnesota Massacres” – i.e. the Dakota War of 1862, when the Dakota (Sioux) attacked white settlers, and the United States army then took hundreds of Dakota prisoner and hanged thirty eight of them, the largest mass hanging in US history.  I’m quite sure that, as a six or seven year old, I didn’t have the remotest clue what had happened in 1862, but I suppose I’d have picked up on the fact that something bad had happened and that that had made Mrs Scott feel as she did.  Nothing excuses the prejudice expressed in the book, but it is made clear that Mrs Scott’s feelings are not just blind prejudice.

The one who does express blind prejudice is Ma Ingalls, a character whom we are usually meant to admire – and these presumably were the views of Caroline Quiner Ingalls, as expressed to Laura.  That, of course, is an additional issue: although the books aren’t an accurate reflection of what happened, the characters in them were real people, and the views are theirs, not views put into their heads and mouths by the author.  Ma says that she doesn’t “like Indians”, but doesn’t explain why: in fact, she follows it up by telling Laura off for licking molasses off her fingers, which rather makes it clear that she doesn’t think that what she’s said is a big deal.  Laura asks why Ma doesn’t like “Indians”, but doesn’t get an answer.

Pa Ingalls, on the other hand, repeatedly says, both to other family members and to their neighbours, the Scotts and Mr Edwards, that he doesn’t think badly of “Indians”.  He speaks of them quite respectfully.  That, however, doesn’t stop him from thinking that it’s OK to take their land.  He tells Laura that “Indians” go west when white settlers come, as if that’s a natural process.   Laura tries to say that this must surely make them “mad”, but she doesn’t get an answer.  But she’s asking the question, just as she wanted to know why Ma felt as she did.

It’s actually quite profound for a book aimed at such young children.  Different characters, none of whom are “baddies”, express contrasting views.  Questions are asked, but not answered.

A couple of years ago, on the lookout for free Kindle books set in South America, I made the mistake of downloading a “boys’ own” type book by R M Ballantyne, published in 1884.  Bloody hell.  It was pretty much unreadable, because of the way that the black characters were portrayed.  I feel uncomfortable just thinking about it.

Laura’s books aren’t like that.  And they tell important tales about the history of the American pioneers.

But they have characters saying that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian”.  And using words like “darky”.

So what’s the answer?  What’s the question, in fact?  Is it whether we should condemn people who lived in the past for holding views that were widespread in that time and in that place?  Is it whether, if we do, we should be erasing those people from our own world?  Is it whether Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books are offensive?  Is it whether children should be being encouraged to read them?

Well, no, it’s not very fair to condemn people who lived in a different time and place for holding views that aren’t acceptable now but were then.  And, yes, whilst the attitudes in the book aren’t as one-sided as has perhaps made out, there certainly are things in the books that are offensive – and these are books aimed at young children, who probably won’t realise that those views are offensive and unacceptable.  But we can’t have books in which characters don’t express the views of the time and place they’re in.

The best answer to any of this is probably the one that the young Laura gives us – that you shouldn’t accept other people’s views without questioning.  Then explanations can be given, at an age appropriate level, of the wrongs of the past.  But that relies on children asking.  And adults answering.

I’d be interested to see an opinion poll – in the US, I mean – on that, because I think the only answer to the question of whether or not the award should have been renamed is whether or not that’s what a majority of Americans think is right.   These are difficult questions, and more and more of them are likely to arise in the near future.

 

PROFUSE APOLOGIES IF ANYONE GOT THIS UMPTEEN TIMES – I HAD A PROBLEM WITH THE PHOTO NOT DISPLAYING PROPERLY, AND HAD TO TRY TO FIX IT!!

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The Laura Ingalls Wilder debate

Standard

Earlier this week, the American Association for Library Services to Children announced that its prestigious Laura Ingalls Wilder Award was to be renamed as the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.  “This decision was made in consideration of the fact that Wilder’s legacy, as represented by her body of work, includes expressions of stereotypical attitudes inconsistent with ALSC’s core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness” – referring to the depiction of Native American and black people in her books, notably in Little House on the Prairie.

My copy of Little House on the Prairie is falling to pieces, because it’s been read so often.  The publishing information page informs me that the book was first published in the US in 1935, was first published in the UK in 1937, and was first published by Puffin in 1964 – and that it had been reprinted pretty much every year since 1964, sometimes as much as four times in a year.  That says a lot about how popular it was.  The last re-publication date given is 1981, so my copy must have been bought in either late 1981 or early 1982.  So I’d have first read it when I was either six or just turned seven.  At that age, you probably don’t really question the rights and wrongs of what you’re reading: you just accept it.  That does create particular problems over what it is and isn’t OK for children’s books to say.

Prejudice as written about in children’s books can be a useful tool for explanation and understanding.  One of our set books in the second year of secondary school was Through The Barricades, Joan Lingard’s book about a romance between a Protestant girl and a Catholic boy in 1970s Belfast.  Several characters in that book make very disparaging comments about the other community.  But, when you’re reading a book at school (although I’d read it myself, years before), you’re doing so with an eye to discussion.  That’s not necessarily the case when a child is reading a book on his or her own.  And, by the age of twelve or thirteen, people are better able to judge and question what they read in books than at the age of six or seven.

It does need to be noted that all they’ve done is rename an award.  The books are not being banned.  It’s highly unlikely that they’ll go out of print – if anything, the publicity from all this might get more people buying them.  However, this decision is part of a wider cultural debate, in the United States, here in the United Kingdom, and elsewhere, about the issue of views which were considered acceptable in the cultures of those holding them at the time at which they lived and worked, but aren’t now, and that’s partly why it’s attracting so much attention.

It does seem to be getting out of hand.  What next?  Rename Washington DC because George Washington owned slaves?  Remove the name of Shakespeare from any public building or organization because Othello and Shylock are offensive stereotypes?  Pulling down the statue of Lord Nelson in Trafalgar Square’s been suggested already!   So has renaming the various schools, streets and buildings in Bristol named after Edward Colston, a philanthropist but also a slave trader.  Confederate monuments in various southern states have been removed, because many people insist that the Confederacy was all about slavery and won’t take into account, or don’t consider important, the fact that it was also about states’ rights.  There’ve even been objections to screenings of Gone With The Wind, the greatest film ever made (from the greatest book ever written), because its views on race are those of wealthy Southerners in the 1860s and 1870s, when it’s set, not of people in the 2010s. And pretty much every single person who lived in Europe in the Middle Ages is, by these standards, to be condemned for lack of religious tolerance.  And, if we’re talking about tolerance, don’t even go there when talking about the Bible.

On the other hand … I found it rather strange seeing the huge statue of Bohdan Khmelnystky, who’s regarded as a hero in Ukraine but whom I think of as being responsible for mass murder, in the middle of St Sophia’s Square in Kyiv.  And I can’t remember reading any articles in the Western press criticising people in the former Soviet Union for pulling down statues of Stalin.  Imagine how it’d feel to see a statue of Hitler, and, if you objected, be told that he was the democratically elected Chancellor of Germany, that Austria voted overwhelmingly in favour of the Anschluss, and that removing it would be an Orwellian rewriting of history.  This whole issue is a very difficult one: there are no easy answers.

Most people, hopefully, would not dream of arguing that racism or other forms of prejudice are acceptable.  The issue is the one of the Orwellian rewriting of history.  It would be ridiculous to have Scarlett O’Hara, Melanie Hamilton and co speaking out about the need for racial equality, or Jane Eyre telling St John Rivers that she had no intention of becoming a missionary in India because Islam and Hinduism were just as valid as Christianity, the various snooty kids in Enid Blyton books accepting working-class children into their gangs, or indeed Antonio and Portia accepting Jewish merchants of Venice as being equal to Catholic ones.   In fact, pretending that these views never existed in the past would be a downright insult to all the people over the years who’ve battled against them, and continue to do so.  It wouldn’t be possible to do that even if people wanted to.  How can you tell American history without talking about white settlers driving out Native Americans?  Not only would it be impossible, it would be very, very wrong.

So what’s the answer?  If you’re telling the story in the form of a novel, you’re going to have at least some of your characters expressing the views that were commonly held at that time and in that place.  That’s what happens in Little House on the Prairie.  So what is actually said that’s caused offence?

The main issues involve Native Americans, although concerns have also been raised about attitudes in the books towards African-American people.  The only black character in Little House on the Prairie is Dr Tan, who treats the Ingalls family when they’re suffering from malaria.  Laura says that she’d never seen a black person before, and would have been scared of him had she not liked him so much.  I can’t see that there’s anything objectionable about that: young children can be scared of any sort of difference, and it’s made clear that he’s a good person and a good doctor.  And a doctor is hardly a negative stereotype.

 However, there’s the issue of the black and white minstrel show in Little Town on the Prairie, which involves Pa Ingalls and a number of other white men “blacking up”, i.e. using “blackface” make-up.  One of my great-great-great uncles was a Victorian music hall ventriloquist.  This amuses me greatly: most of my relations are listed on the census reports as working in factories or shops.  He was famous, in music hall circles, for presenting a ventriloquism show involving eight dummies done up as black and white minstrels.  OK, that’s not quite the same thing, because using a black dummy isn’t the same as a white person “blacking up” with make-up, but the point is that black and white minstrel shows were a common form of entertainment in Victorian times.  Never mind Victorian times – the BBC was still showing a weekly black and white minstrel show in the 1970s.  It wasn’t axed until 1978.  1978!  It’s hard to believe that, but it’s true.  And, at the time of Laura’s childhood, even black performers would sometimes wear blackface make-up.

But shows of that sort are now considered highly offensive.  Many of them showed black characters as being unintelligent and figures of fun.  There was some criticism of them even in Victorian times.  I don’t think that actually comes across much in Laura’s book, because the focus is on music and dancing, but it’s a question of that whole genre of “entertainment”.  And there’s also the question of the use of the word “darky”, now considered extremely offensive (in English, not necessarily in South American Spanish, but that’s another story).  Language changes, and the word would have been in common use in the 1870s, although maybe less so by the 1930s, but the word certainly isn’t acceptable now.  What if a young child were to read that word and repeat it in public?  As a kid, you’re not to know that a word in a book isn’t to be used.  But is changing the language in a book rewriting history and culture?  There are just no easy answers here.

Whilst black people feature very little in the books, Osage Native Americans and the attitude of white people towards them feature prominently in Little House on the Prairie (it is mainly just that one book in the series), during which the Ingalls family illegally build a house in a part of Kansas which is under Osage ownership but which they believe will soon be opened up to homesteaders.

And, as I said, I first read Little House on the Prairie when I was six or seven.  Fast forward to December 1986, by which time I was eleven, had read all the “Little House” books a million times (although, strangely, I never watched the TV series), and thought I was very grown up because I’d started reading “grown up” books.  The first one I read was A Woman of Substance by Barbara Taylor Bradford – how 1980s blockbuster-ish is that?!  Another early one was North and South by John Jakes, after watching the superb TV series starring the late, great Patrick Swayze.  After that, I started reading up on the American Civil War, the events leading up to it, and Reconstruction, big style, and I’ve never stopped.  So, if you ask me about the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, I will launch into a very long spiel about popular sovereignty, free soil, border ruffians, the expansion of slavery, the Lecompton Constitution, Bleeding Kansas, Preston Brook hitting Charles Sumner with his cane and all the rest of it.  So, I suspect, would most people.  It is generally seen as a step along the road to the war.  However, it also led to large numbers of would-be settlers flooding into Kansas.

The Osage Nation had already been pushed out of many of their ancestral lands, into south eastern Kansas.  Now that area too saw an influx of white settlers and, during the war, both sides seemed to think that it was perfectly OK to steal horses and supplies from the Osage.  To try to get the Confederates to leave them alone, they made a treaty with them.  After the war, this was used as an excuse to force them to cede even more land to the Union, and they were pushed into “Indian Territory” – roughly speaking, Oklahoma – in 1870.  The Ingalls family moved to south eastern Kansas in 1868, whilst even the United States government recognized that it was still under Osage control.

There are various theories about what entitles people to own land.  Mrs Scott, a character in the book, says that people who settle and work on land should be entitled to own it.  Apparently this theory was developed by John Locke.  The only book by John Locke that I’ve ever read was Two Treatises of Government.  That was twenty five years ago.  It was so boring that I’ve never read anything else by him, nor do I ever intend to.   Anyway, those theories are irrelevant: the land was legally recognised, by the government of the country to which the Ingalls and Scott families belonged, as being owned by the Osage.  There’s some confusion over whether or not they realised that they were just the wrong side of a dividing line, but they didn’t really care.

Manifest Destiny.  Go west, young man, go west.  The destiny, the right, of white, and preferably Protestant, Americans to settle from sea to shining sea.  All this.  I don’t mean this in any sort of anti-American way: the US is hardly the only country where attitudes like that existed.  And, alongside Manifest Destiny went the idea of “Indian removal”.  And negative ideas towards Native Americans generally.  The first editions of the book infamously stated that “there were no people there, only Indians”.  This was later changed to “there were no settlers there, only Indians”, but you get the idea.  Native Americans being seen as less than people.  There’s a bizarre scene in which young Laura sees some Native Americans riding past, including a mother with a baby, and wants Pa to go and “get” the baby for her, because she thinks the baby’s cute and wants to keep him/her.  It’s very strange.

The Osage characters get no actual voice in the books: they don’t speak English, and the Americans don’t speak Osage, so, with it being told from Laura’s viewpoint, there’s no means of her understanding them.  One of the Osage chiefs, named as Soldat du Chene and said to have prevented a massacre of settlers, speaks French, but Laura doesn’t.  So we don’t get their viewpoint at all.  On two occasions, Osage men, described as “wild”, come into the Ingalls family house whilst Pa is out and Ma is in with the three children.  They demand cornbread and, on one occasion, steal tobacco.  So the portrayal of them is certainly very negative – and that, it has to be said, probably in line with most white Americans’ views at the time.   But this was Laura’s experience, and she was writing about her experience.

We do, however, get different views expressed by different white American characters.  There isn’t really a narrative: the narrative is what Laura’s thinking.  So, I suppose, the narrative is the author’s voice, although it’s adult Laura writing about child Laura.  Or is it actually Laura at all? – it’s known that a lot of the work on the books was actually done by Laura’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane.  Oh well, that’s academic: if you’re going to look at it like that, then “Laura Ingalls Wilder” the author is a combination of Laura Ingalls Wilder herself and Rose Wilder Lane!   But the lack of a narrative other than the voice of a character means that the author’s own views don’t come across, as they do in some books.  Unless we take the thoughts of Laura the child to be those of the author.  I’m tying myself in knots here!   But, in some books, it’s clear that the author does not agree with those expressed by the characters.   Another way in which authors, especially children’s authors, do that is to have the “bad” views expressed by characters whom the reader is meant to dislike.  That doesn’t happen here either.

The books infamously use the expression “The only good Indian is a dead Indian”.  In Little House on the Prairie, it’s used by the family’s neighbours, Mr and Mrs Scott.  Mrs Scott in particular is very vehement in her dislike of Native Americans.  It’s explained that this is because her family came close to being caught up in the “Minnesota Massacres” – i.e. the Dakota War of 1862, when the Dakota (Sioux) attacked white settlers, and the United States army then took hundreds of Dakota prisoner and hanged thirty eight of them, the largest mass hanging in US history.  I’m quite sure that, as a six or seven year old, I didn’t have the remotest clue what had happened in 1862, but I suppose I’d have picked up on the fact that something bad had happened and that that had made Mrs Scott feel as she did.  Nothing excuses the prejudice expressed in the book, but it is made clear that Mrs Scott’s feelings are not just blind prejudice.

The one who does express blind prejudice is Ma Ingalls, a character whom we are usually meant to admire – and these presumably were the views of Caroline Quiner Ingalls, as expressed to Laura.  That, of course, is an additional issue: although the books aren’t an accurate reflection of what happened, the characters in them were real people, and the views are theirs, not views put into their heads and mouths by the author.  Ma says that she doesn’t “like Indians”, but doesn’t explain why: in fact, she follows it up by telling Laura off for licking molasses off her fingers, which rather makes it clear that she doesn’t think that what she’s said is a big deal.  Laura asks why Ma doesn’t like “Indians”, but doesn’t get an answer.

Pa Ingalls, on the other hand, repeatedly says, both to other family members and to their neighbours, the Scotts and Mr Edwards, that he doesn’t think badly of “Indians”.  He speaks of them quite respectfully.  That, however, doesn’t stop him from thinking that it’s OK to take their land.  He tells Laura that “Indians” go west when white settlers come, as if that’s a natural process.   Laura tries to say that this must surely make them “mad”, but she doesn’t get an answer.  But she’s asking the question, just as she wanted to know why Ma felt as she did.

It’s actually quite profound for a book aimed at such young children.  Different characters, none of whom are “baddies”, express contrasting views.  Questions are asked, but not answered.

A couple of years ago, on the lookout for free Kindle books set in South America, I made the mistake of downloading a “boys’ own” type book by R M Ballantyne, published in 1884.  Bloody hell.  It was pretty much unreadable, because of the way that the black characters were portrayed.  I feel uncomfortable just thinking about it.

Laura’s books aren’t like that.  And they tell important tales about the history of the American pioneers.

But they have characters saying that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian”.  And using words like “darky”.

So what’s the answer?  What’s the question, in fact?  Is it whether we should condemn people who lived in the past for holding views that were widespread in that time and in that place?  Is it whether, if we do, we should be erasing those people from our own world?  Is it whether Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books are offensive?  Is it whether children should be being encouraged to read them?

Well, no, it’s not very fair to condemn people who lived in a different time and place for holding views that aren’t acceptable now but were then.  And, yes, whilst the attitudes in the book aren’t as one-sided as has perhaps made out, there certainly are things in the books that are offensive – and these are books aimed at young children, who probably won’t realise that those views are offensive and unacceptable.  But we can’t have books in which characters don’t express the views of the time and place they’re in.

The best answer to any of this is probably the one that the young Laura gives us – that you shouldn’t accept other people’s views without questioning.  Then explanations can be given, at an age appropriate level, of the wrongs of the past.  But that relies on children asking.  And adults answering.

I’d be interested to see an opinion poll – in the US, I mean – on that, because I think the only answer to the question of whether or not the award should have been renamed is whether or not that’s what a majority of Americans think is right.   These are difficult questions, and more and more of them are likely to arise in the near future.

The Laura Ingalls Wilder debate

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Earlier this week, the American Association for Library Services to Children announced that its prestigious Laura Ingalls Wilder Award was to be renamed as the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.  “This decision was made in consideration of the fact that Wilder’s legacy, as represented by her body of work, includes expressions of stereotypical attitudes inconsistent with ALSC’s core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness” – referring to the depiction of Native American and black people in her books, notably in Little House on the Prairie.

My copy of Little House on the Prairie is falling to pieces, because it’s been read so often.  The publishing information page informs me that the book was first published in the US in 1935, was first published in the UK in 1937, and was first published by Puffin in 1964 – and that it had been reprinted pretty much every year since 1964, sometimes as much as four times in a year.  That says a lot about how popular it was.  The last re-publication date given is 1981, so my copy must have been bought in either late 1981 or early 1982.  So I’d have first read it when I was either six or just turned seven.  At that age, you probably don’t really question the rights and wrongs of what you’re reading: you just accept it.  That does create particular problems over what it is and isn’t OK for children’s books to say.

Prejudice as written about in children’s books can be a useful tool for explanation and understanding.  One of our set books in the second year of secondary school was Through The Barricades, Joan Lingard’s book about a romance between a Protestant girl and a Catholic boy in 1970s Belfast.  Several characters in that book make very disparaging comments about the other community.  But, when you’re reading a book at school (although I’d read it myself, years before), you’re doing so with an eye to discussion.  That’s not necessarily the case when a child is reading a book on his or her own.  And, by the age of twelve or thirteen, people are better able to judge and question what they read in books than at the age of six or seven.

It does need to be noted that all they’ve done is rename an award.  The books are not being banned.  It’s highly unlikely that they’ll go out of print – if anything, the publicity from all this might get more people buying them.  However, this decision is part of a wider cultural debate, in the United States, here in the United Kingdom, and elsewhere, about the issue of views which were considered acceptable in the cultures of those holding them at the time at which they lived and worked, but aren’t now, and that’s partly why it’s attracting so much attention.

It does seem to be getting out of hand.  What next?  Rename Washington DC because George Washington owned slaves?  Remove the name of Shakespeare from any public building or organization because Othello and Shylock are offensive stereotypes?  Pulling down the statue of Lord Nelson in Trafalgar Square’s been suggested already!   So has renaming the various schools, streets and buildings in Bristol named after Edward Colston, a philanthropist but also a slave trader.  Confederate monuments in various southern states have been removed, because many people insist that the Confederacy was all about slavery and won’t take into account, or don’t consider important, the fact that it was also about states’ rights.  There’ve even been objections to screenings of Gone With The Wind, the greatest film ever made (from the greatest book ever written), because its views on race are those of wealthy Southerners in the 1860s and 1870s, when it’s set, not of people in the 2010s. And pretty much every single person who lived in Europe in the Middle Ages is, by these standards, to be condemned for lack of religious tolerance.  And, if we’re talking about tolerance, don’t even go there when talking about the Bible.

On the other hand … I found it rather strange seeing the huge statue of Bohdan Khmelnystky, who’s regarded as a hero in Ukraine but whom I think of as being responsible for mass murder, in the middle of St Sophia’s Square in Kyiv.  And I can’t remember reading any articles in the Western press criticising people in the former Soviet Union for pulling down statues of Stalin.  Imagine how it’d feel to see a statue of Hitler, and, if you objected, be told that he was the democratically elected Chancellor of Germany, that Austria voted overwhelmingly in favour of the Anschluss, and that removing it would be an Orwellian rewriting of history.  This whole issue is a very difficult one: there are no easy answers.

Most people, hopefully, would not dream of arguing that racism or other forms of prejudice are acceptable.  The issue is the one of the Orwellian rewriting of history.  It would be ridiculous to have Scarlett O’Hara, Melanie Hamilton and co speaking out about the need for racial equality, or Jane Eyre telling St John Rivers that she had no intention of becoming a missionary in India because Islam and Hinduism were just as valid as Christianity, the various snooty kids in Enid Blyton books accepting working-class children into their gangs, or indeed Antonio and Portia accepting Jewish merchants of Venice as being equal to Catholic ones.   In fact, pretending that these views never existed in the past would be a downright insult to all the people over the years who’ve battled against them, and continue to do so.  It wouldn’t be possible to do that even if people wanted to.  How can you tell American history without talking about white settlers driving out Native Americans?  Not only would it be impossible, it would be very, very wrong.

So what’s the answer?  If you’re telling the story in the form of a novel, you’re going to have at least some of your characters expressing the views that were commonly held at that time and in that place.  That’s what happens in Little House on the Prairie.  So what is actually said that’s caused offence?

The main issues involve Native Americans, although concerns have also been raised about attitudes in the books towards African-American people.  The only black character in Little House on the Prairie is Dr Tan, who treats the Ingalls family when they’re suffering from malaria.  Laura says that she’d never seen a black person before, and would have been scared of him had she not liked him so much.  I can’t see that there’s anything objectionable about that: young children can be scared of any sort of difference, and it’s made clear that he’s a good person and a good doctor.  And a doctor is hardly a negative stereotype.

 However, there’s the issue of the black and white minstrel show in Little Town on the Prairie, which involves Pa Ingalls and a number of other white men “blacking up”, i.e. using “blackface” make-up.  One of my great-great-great uncles was a Victorian music hall ventriloquist.  This amuses me greatly: most of my relations are listed on the census reports as working in factories or shops.  He was famous, in music hall circles, for presenting a ventriloquism show involving eight dummies done up as black and white minstrels.  OK, that’s not quite the same thing, because using a black dummy isn’t the same as a white person “blacking up” with make-up, but the point is that black and white minstrel shows were a common form of entertainment in Victorian times.  Never mind Victorian times – the BBC was still showing a weekly black and white minstrel show in the 1970s.  It wasn’t axed until 1978.  1978!  It’s hard to believe that, but it’s true.  And, at the time of Laura’s childhood, even black performers would sometimes wear blackface make-up.

But shows of that sort are now considered highly offensive.  Many of them showed black characters as being unintelligent and figures of fun.  There was some criticism of them even in Victorian times.  I don’t think that actually comes across much in Laura’s book, because the focus is on music and dancing, but it’s a question of that whole genre of “entertainment”.  And there’s also the question of the use of the word “darky”, now considered extremely offensive (in English, not necessarily in South American Spanish, but that’s another story).  Language changes, and the word would have been in common use in the 1870s, although maybe less so by the 1930s, but the word certainly isn’t acceptable now.  What if a young child were to read that word and repeat it in public?  As a kid, you’re not to know that a word in a book isn’t to be used.  But is changing the language in a book rewriting history and culture?  There are just no easy answers here.

Whilst black people feature very little in the books, Osage Native Americans and the attitude of white people towards them feature prominently in Little House on the Prairie (it is mainly just that one book in the series), during which the Ingalls family illegally build a house in a part of Kansas which is under Osage ownership but which they believe will soon be opened up to homesteaders.

And, as I said, I first read Little House on the Prairie when I was six or seven.  Fast forward to December 1986, by which time I was eleven, had read all the “Little House” books a million times (although, strangely, I never watched the TV series), and thought I was very grown up because I’d started reading “grown up” books.  The first one I read was A Woman of Substance by Barbara Taylor Bradford – how 1980s blockbuster-ish is that?!  Another early one was North and South by John Jakes, after watching the superb TV series starring the late, great Patrick Swayze.  After that, I started reading up on the American Civil War, the events leading up to it, and Reconstruction, big style, and I’ve never stopped.  So, if you ask me about the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, I will launch into a very long spiel about popular sovereignty, free soil, border ruffians, the expansion of slavery, the Lecompton Constitution, Bleeding Kansas, Preston Brook hitting Charles Sumner with his cane and all the rest of it.  So, I suspect, would most people.  It is generally seen as a step along the road to the war.  However, it also led to large numbers of would-be settlers flooding into Kansas.

The Osage Nation had already been pushed out of many of their ancestral lands, into south eastern Kansas.  Now that area too saw an influx of white settlers and, during the war, both sides seemed to think that it was perfectly OK to steal horses and supplies from the Osage.  To try to get the Confederates to leave them alone, they made a treaty with them.  After the war, this was used as an excuse to force them to cede even more land to the Union, and they were pushed into “Indian Territory” – roughly speaking, Oklahoma – in 1870.  The Ingalls family moved to south eastern Kansas in 1868, whilst even the United States government recognized that it was still under Osage control.

There are various theories about what entitles people to own land.  Mrs Scott, a character in the book, says that people who settle and work on land should be entitled to own it.  Apparently this theory was developed by John Locke.  The only book by John Locke that I’ve ever read was Two Treatises of Government.  That was twenty five years ago.  It was so boring that I’ve never read anything else by him, nor do I ever intend to.   Anyway, those theories are irrelevant: the land was legally recognised, by the government of the country to which the Ingalls and Scott families belonged, as being owned by the Osage.  There’s some confusion over whether or not they realised that they were just the wrong side of a dividing line, but they didn’t really care.

Manifest Destiny.  Go west, young man, go west.  The destiny, the right, of white, and preferably Protestant, Americans to settle from sea to shining sea.  All this.  I don’t mean this in any sort of anti-American way: the US is hardly the only country where attitudes like that existed.  And, alongside Manifest Destiny went the idea of “Indian removal”.  And negative ideas towards Native Americans generally.  The first editions of the book infamously stated that “there were no people there, only Indians”.  This was later changed to “there were no settlers there, only Indians”, but you get the idea.  Native Americans being seen as less than people.  There’s a bizarre scene in which young Laura sees some Native Americans riding past, including a mother with a baby, and wants Pa to go and “get” the baby for her, because she thinks the baby’s cute and wants to keep him/her.  It’s very strange.

The Osage characters get no actual voice in the books: they don’t speak English, and the Americans don’t speak Osage, so, with it being told from Laura’s viewpoint, there’s no means of her understanding them.  One of the Osage chiefs, named as Soldat du Chene and said to have prevented a massacre of settlers, speaks French, but Laura doesn’t.  So we don’t get their viewpoint at all.  On two occasions, Osage men, described as “wild”, come into the Ingalls family house whilst Pa is out and Ma is in with the three children.  They demand cornbread and, on one occasion, steal tobacco.  So the portrayal of them is certainly very negative – and that, it has to be said, probably in line with most white Americans’ views at the time.   But this was Laura’s experience, and she was writing about her experience.

We do, however, get different views expressed by different white American characters.  There isn’t really a narrative: the narrative is what Laura’s thinking.  So, I suppose, the narrative is the author’s voice, although it’s adult Laura writing about child Laura.  Or is it actually Laura at all? – it’s known that a lot of the work on the books was actually done by Laura’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane.  Oh well, that’s academic: if you’re going to look at it like that, then “Laura Ingalls Wilder” the author is a combination of Laura Ingalls Wilder herself and Rose Wilder Lane!   But the lack of a narrative other than the voice of a character means that the author’s own views don’t come across, as they do in some books.  Unless we take the thoughts of Laura the child to be those of the author.  I’m tying myself in knots here!   But, in some books, it’s clear that the author does not agree with those expressed by the characters.   Another way in which authors, especially children’s authors, do that is to have the “bad” views expressed by characters whom the reader is meant to dislike.  That doesn’t happen here either.

The books infamously use the expression “The only good Indian is a dead Indian”.  In Little House on the Prairie, it’s used by the family’s neighbours, Mr and Mrs Scott.  Mrs Scott in particular is very vehement in her dislike of Native Americans.  It’s explained that this is because her family came close to being caught up in the “Minnesota Massacres” – i.e. the Dakota War of 1862, when the Dakota (Sioux) attacked white settlers, and the United States army then took hundreds of Dakota prisoner and hanged thirty eight of them, the largest mass hanging in US history.  I’m quite sure that, as a six or seven year old, I didn’t have the remotest clue what had happened in 1862, but I suppose I’d have picked up on the fact that something bad had happened and that that had made Mrs Scott feel as she did.  Nothing excuses the prejudice expressed in the book, but it is made clear that Mrs Scott’s feelings are not just blind prejudice.

The one who does express blind prejudice is Ma Ingalls, a character whom we are usually meant to admire – and these presumably were the views of Caroline Quiner Ingalls, as expressed to Laura.  That, of course, is an additional issue: although the books aren’t an accurate reflection of what happened, the characters in them were real people, and the views are theirs, not views put into their heads and mouths by the author.  Ma says that she doesn’t “like Indians”, but doesn’t explain why: in fact, she follows it up by telling Laura off for licking molasses off her fingers, which rather makes it clear that she doesn’t think that what she’s said is a big deal.  Laura asks why Ma doesn’t like “Indians”, but doesn’t get an answer.

Pa Ingalls, on the other hand, repeatedly says, both to other family members and to their neighbours, the Scotts and Mr Edwards, that he doesn’t think badly of “Indians”.  He speaks of them quite respectfully.  That, however, doesn’t stop him from thinking that it’s OK to take their land.  He tells Laura that “Indians” go west when white settlers come, as if that’s a natural process.   Laura tries to say that this must surely make them “mad”, but she doesn’t get an answer.  But she’s asking the question, just as she wanted to know why Ma felt as she did.

It’s actually quite profound for a book aimed at such young children.  Different characters, none of whom are “baddies”, express contrasting views.  Questions are asked, but not answered.

A couple of years ago, on the lookout for free Kindle books set in South America, I made the mistake of downloading a “boys’ own” type book by R M Ballantyne, published in 1884.  Bloody hell.  It was pretty much unreadable, because of the way that the black characters were portrayed.  I feel uncomfortable just thinking about it.

Laura’s books aren’t like that.  And they tell important tales about the history of the American pioneers.

But they have characters saying that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian”.  And using words like “darky”.

So what’s the answer?  What’s the question, in fact?  Is it whether we should condemn people who lived in the past for holding views that were widespread in that time and in that place?  Is it whether, if we do, we should be erasing those people from our own world?  Is it whether Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books are offensive?  Is it whether children should be being encouraged to read them?

Well, no, it’s not very fair to condemn people who lived in a different time and place for holding views that aren’t acceptable now but were then.  And, yes, whilst the attitudes in the book aren’t as one-sided as has perhaps made out, there certainly are things in the books that are offensive – and these are books aimed at young children, who probably won’t realise that those views are offensive and unacceptable.  But we can’t have books in which characters don’t express the views of the time and place they’re in.

The best answer to any of this is probably the one that the young Laura gives us – that you shouldn’t accept other people’s views without questioning.  Then explanations can be given, at an age appropriate level, of the wrongs of the past.  But that relies on children asking.  And adults answering.

I’d be interested to see an opinion poll – in the US, I mean – on that, because I think the only answer to the question of whether or not the award should have been renamed is whether or not that’s what a majority of Americans think is right.   These are difficult questions, and more and more of them are likely to arise in the near future.

Shared Sorrows: A Gypsy Family Remembers the Holocaust by Toby Sonneman

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Earlier this month, the Italian government announced plans to carry out a census of Roma people.   Last week, an attack on a Roma camp in Lviv left one person dead and several others injured; and it wasn’t the first attack on a Roma camp in Ukraine recently.  The president of the Czech Republic has described Roma people as “asocial”.  There’s also been “ethnic cleansing” of Roma people in Kosovo – an area much in the news this week, for rather bizarre reasons relating to Swiss footballers – due to allegations that they sided with Serbia during the Kosovo conflict of the 1990s.  Stalin used false allegations of siding with the enemy to deport thousands of Chechens and Crimean Tatars from their homes.

A lot of Nazi-related terminology is being used lately, in relation to everything from American immigration policies to the World Cup.  Some of it isn’t being used appropriately, but the Italian government’s plans, in particular, do have worrying connotations of what happened during the 1930s and the Second World War.

It’s not known how many Roma and Sinti people were murdered by the Nazis and their allies, but estimates of those killed vary between 220,000 and 500,000.   No reparations were paid to survivors after the war, no Roma and Sinti witnesses of the Nazi atrocities were present at the Nuremberg trials, and, despite the designation of August 2nd, the anniversary of the day on which, in 1944, most of the surviving Roma inmates at Auschwitz were murdered, as Roma Genocide Remembrance Day, the Romani genocide is not widely discussed and maybe not even widely known..

There doesn’t seem to have been as much effort as might be expected to raise awareness of it, and people who’ve studied the subject put this down to the fact that Roma and Sinti culture does not place that much emphasis on either history or the written word.  The only two books I’ve found on it in English are And The Violins Stopped Playing, which I read earlier this year, and this one.  And The Violins Stopped Playing was a memoir, written in the form of a novel, given to a non-Romani third party to publish on the author’s behalf.  This one is written by an American Jewish woman whose German Jewish father escaped from Nazi Germany, and who says that she had always felt an affinity with gypsies (she used the term “gypsies” in the book, published when that term was still widely used) because of the Holocaust, in which many members of her family were killed.

So neither of them are “direct” memoirs as such, but, in writing this, Toby Sonneman worked closely with Reili Mettbach Herchmer, a Sinti woman who’d moved from Germany to America, and some of her relatives, most of them living in Germany, who told of the horrors they’d experienced under the Nazi regime.   It’s not a very well-written book, it has to be said.  The grammar and syntax leave rather a lot to be desired, and it jumps about a lot.  However, what is has to say is important.

For a start, it explains clearly the difference between Roma and Sinti culture, which very few books do.  There have been Sinti communities in central and northern Europe for many centuries.  Roma communities lived mainly in southern and eastern Europe – many in the Danubian Principalities (that’s me using the term I’m used to from reading a lot of Russian history!  The areas that are now, roughly speaking, Romania and Moldova), where it was legal to hold Roma people as slaves until 1856 – until the 19th century, when some groups moved into other areas.  When I was a kid, gypsy (the term we used then) ladies would sometimes knock on the door, selling pretty lace or clothes pegs: I didn’t know until this week that that is a Sinti “thing” only, and it would be very unusual for a Roma lady to do that.  So that’s all quite interesting to read.  It’s so easy to lump cultures and traditions together – the author uses the differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jewish cultures and traditions as a comparison.

However, the book is about the Romani genocide – I’m not going to say “Porajamos” because that term isn’t generally used by Sinti and Roma people – and not about culture and tradition.  A textbook would start with something scholarly.  This starts with strudel.  Reili, who like Toby’s father was from Bavaria, welcomed Toby to her home with platefuls of strudel.  A relative of mine always used to make strudel when we went to visit her.  Did the recipe come from her grandma, who was born in Austria?  I don’t know, and, seeing as she’s been gone for nearly twenty years, I can’t really ask her now, but Toby Sonneman made such a good point about how it’s recipes that get passed down through the generations.

Some people emigrate because they’ve been offered good jobs in another country.  However, historically as now, most people have emigrated to escape poverty and or persecution, and have taken very little with them but the clothes on their backs – but they’ve been able to take recipes, in their heads.  A couple of generations down the line, the descendants of those immigrants don’t speak their language, and, in many cases, don’t dress like them, or follow their cultural or religious practices, but the food tends to live on.  And spread.  Manchester’s Curry Mile, the Birmingham baltis, the Scouse (originally lobscouse) brought to Liverpool from the ports of the Baltic, the New York bagel, the ice cream vans that bear Italian surnames, the Swiss origins of the lovely cakes you get in Bettys … and, if you believe the story, the original recipes for fish and chips were brought to Britain by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.  There are a million and one other examples: being a very greedy person, I could write about food all day.

I know it seems a strange thing to pick up on, when writing about a book about genocide, but it is very true that food tends to survive everything.  Toby Sonneman said that recipes were the nearest thing that her family had to heirlooms.  The same could probably have been said about Reili Mettbach Herchmer’s family.  It’s an interesting thought.

Another point she made was that the Romani genocide doesn’t have a “face” in the way that the Jewish Holocaust has Anne Frank.  It’s horrible to think of someone as being the “face” of a genocide, or of any other form of horror and persecution.  There was a lot of talk in April, on the 25th anniversary of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, of Stephen being the face and the personification of the horrors of racism in the UK.  The famous picture, in September 2015, of the dead body of little Alan Kurdi focused attention on the Syrian migrant crisis.  I’ll never forget the faces of Tim Parry and Johnathan Ball, the two young lads killed by the IRA bombing in Warrington in 1993.  No-one’s legacy should be that, to personify and symbolise such horror – but it is so very true that it’s the personal accounts, and the faces, that really bring it home to people just what has been done.  All those shoes, and false teeth, that you see in the museum at Auschwitz, all of which once belonged to someone.  And that’s why personal accounts are so important.  They do a lot of things that all the scholarly works in the world can’t.

A lot of Holocaust memoirs have been published, even if not by Roma and Sinti survivors, and that means that a lot of what’s in this book is tragically familiar – the introduction of laws persecuting particular groups of people, the taking of people to concentration camps, the experiments carried out by Josef Mengele and others, the question of whether or not those living close to the concentration camps – Dachau is very close to residential areas outside Munich, where many of the Mettbach family lived – knew what was going on, the horrific conditions in the concentration camps, and, of course, the gas chambers.  But every personal story is that little bit different, every experience is that little bit different.  And it is personal – and personal accounts are what really brings it home to the reader.

There’s also a lot in this book about forced sterilisation.  That isn’t really addressed in And The Violins Stopped Playing, and it’s not generally addressed in the memoirs of Jewish survivors because it was Roma and Sinti people who were the target.  The idea of the Final Solution would have meant that forced sterilisation of Jewish people was pointless, because they wouldn’t live to have children, but there seems to have been some idea of … a postponed genocide, for lack of a better way of putting it, by preventing Roma and Sinti people from being able to have children.  Former soldiers were even given a choice of going to the gas chambers or being sterilised and then released.  There are some graphic and very distressing descriptions of what was done to Reili’s relatives, both male and female, some as children, some as adults.

This has never been spoken about much until recently, because of cultural taboos, but it should be noted that forced sterilisation of Romani people was carried out in the 20th century in a number of countries, including Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, the last places you’d associate with that sort of policy.  It was particularly common in Czechoslovakia, and then in the Czech Republic and Slovakia after the country split into two, and was going on as late as 2003 or 2004 – yes, 2004.  An online petition was launched earlier this year to demand compensation for those affected: this is not something that’s just part of the past, this is something that’s affecting people to this very day.

This isn’t the world’s greatest book, but it’s an important reminder of something horrific, that happened within living memory, that is still not spoken about very much.  And can you imagine the headlines, and the international outrage if the Italian interior minister announced plans to carry out a census of any other community?   But next to nothing’s been said about this.  It’s horrible.  It’s frightening.  A lot of unpleasant stuff is going on in Europe and in the United States at the moment, but this is arguably the worst of it.  This isn’t a great book, but it would be great for people to read it.

Poldark … and Reform – BBC 1

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The slave trade, rotten boroughs, pocket boroughs, bans on trade unions, the birth of health and safety legislation – in Radcliffe – , the “Proclamation for the Discouragement of Vice” (seriously!), religious discrimination … it was all going on in the 1780s and 1790s.  And that’s before you start with the French Revolution.  Or, indeed, Ross Poldark wandering along the beach with no shirt on.  Did you see how the BBC teased us last night?  He started unbuttoning his shirt, but then got interrupted and kept it on!  Huh!!

Well, we’re now in the late 1790s, and Ross (with his shirt on) has been elected as an MP for a rotten borough – i.e. one with very few voters, in this case fewer than twenty.  Of the 57 rotten boroughs eventually abolished by the Great Reform Act of 1832, which also extended the franchise (to some middle class males), and ended the so-called Long Eighteenth Century (1688-1832), almost a quarter were in Cornwall, and most of the others were also in the south west.   Nice to see Debbie Horsfield from Eccles, who’s adapting the books for the TV series, getting Demelza Poldark to make the point that Manchester didn’t have any MPs at all at this point.  Nor did many other population centres, mainly in the north of England.   And, whilst it was also nice to see a female character expressing an opinion on politics, the idea of women actually being able to vote, let alone become MPs, wasn’t really on anyone’s agenda at this point 😦 … although Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, had played quite a prominent part in Whig party campaigning in the late 1770s and early 1780s.

At least there was some genuine competition in Ross’s election: there were also plenty of “pocket boroughs” where some aristocrat could effectively choose the MP by bullying a majority of voters into doing what he wanted.  George Warleggan, having been defeated by Ross, was determined to get back into Parliament.  It was pointed out that this shouldn’t be a problem as there were plenty of seats for sale, but George decided that he’d do better actually buying his own borough – and preferably one with two MPs rather than one.  He was soon negotiating to this end with the dastardly Monk Adderley, who told Ross that he rarely bothered turning up to the House of Commons and told George that he’d never even been to the constituency he represented and never intended to.  OK, hopefully most MPs of the time weren’t quite as bad as Adderley and Warleggan, but there’s no denying the fact that some were.

 

No secret ballot until 1872, which was why the “owners” of pocket boroughs were able to control the voting there.  In Ross’s constituency, we saw the (fewer than twenty) voters each declaring whether they were voting for nice Ross or nasty George.  George claimed that he’d lost out because, although he had money, he wasn’t from an old gentry family as Ross was.  Obviously, we all know that that was just sour grapes, and that he’d lost out because he was a baddie (boo, hiss) and Ross was a goodie; but neither of them would have been able to stand had they not met the property qualification for doing so – not abolished until 1858.  And, much as we may moan about MPs’ salaries and expenses these days, until 1911 they weren’t paid at all, so anyone who couldn’t afford to pack in any other job they had and pay for accommodation in London was out of the reckoning.

Just thinking about it all makes me want to march to Kersal Moor (well, it’s only about a mile away), scene of a huge Chartist meeting in 1838, and read out the six points of the People’s Charter!

Ross had insisted, when agreeing to stand as a candidate, that it was on the understanding that he would support measures to “help the poor”, and also that he would support the abolition of the slave trade.  Abolitionism had really got going in the 1780s: the slave trade would be abolished in the British Empire in 1807 (but the practice of slavery not until 1833 in the British Empire, and later than that in many other places).   Wilberforce wasn’t quite the hero he’s always made out to be.  Obviously his contribution to the Abolitionist movement was huge, and he is rightfully lauded for that, and also for his contributions to setting up (what became) the RSPCA and the RNLI, but he supported the Combination Acts (more of which later) and opposed the holding of an inquiry into the Peterloo Massacre.  Keep the working classes in their place 😦 .

Interestingly, Ross’s first speech in connection with Abolitionism was to the effect that that, abhorrent as the slave trade was, the debate about it was drawing attention away from the issue of conditions in “the mills of the North”.   He was obviously very sincere, but something always puts my back up about members of the Southern upper classes, who’d never been near a textile mill in their lives, talking about the subject.

I know that that’s really stupid, because I’m always getting worked up about things in places I’ve never been to, but … I think it’s because of the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury – who hadn’t actually even been born at this point, but was very involved in campaigns to improve conditions for child labourers in mills and mines, and conditions in asylums, and the banning of the practice of using children as chimney sweeps, in the 1830s and 1840s.  I’m sure he meant very well, and the legislation was much needed and very important, but the way he put things was just so patronising.  All that “When I die, you will find “Lancashire” engraved on my heart” stuff.  I know that times were different then, but that patronising, paternalistic attitude just annoys me!   And do not get me started on the subject of Charles Dickes and Hard Times.

To get back to the 1790s, which is what I’m actually supposed to be writing about, the calls for legislation about health and safety in factories, especially for children, were being led by Robert Peel – father of the future Prime Minister of the same name.  Born in Blackburn and later based in Bury.  Robert Owen, owner of the mills at New Lanark, also later got involved.  Robert Peel owned a cotton mill in Radcliffe – now three Metrolink stops up the Manchester to Bury line from chez yours truly.  After an outbreak of putrid fever there in 1784, he became concerned about the treatment of the apprentices there by his managers, and it was he who introduced what became the Factory Act of 1802, and the later and more effective Cottons Mills and Factories Act of 1819.  So, British health and safety legislation originated in Radcliffe!  And Ross did have a point about the need to tackle problems at home as well as those, however important, abroad.

However … the 1802 Factory Act was officially called the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act, and, whilst it did address the working and living conditions of apprentices in the mills, it also included a load of brainwashing provisions involving making apprentices attend Church of England services and preparing them for Church of England communion.  I know.  Different times and all that.  But it says a lot that the parliamentary powers that were, and the Church of the Establishment, had to get that in there.  See what I mean about patronising, paternalistic, attitudes?!

Ross owns a mine in Cornwall.  He didn’t mention working conditions in mines – although conditions in mines, especially coal mines, were also horrendous.  The issue of conditions of mines wasn’t addressed until long after conditions in mills first became an issue.  It was 1842 before the Mines and Collieries Act was passed.  A commission investigating conditions in mines was set up in 1838, after 26 children, some of them as young as 8, were killed in an accident at a mine near Barnsley.  Our pal Shaftesbury, Lord Ashley as he was then, got it through Parliament by going on about how women were working topless (because of the extreme heat in the mines) and were wearing trousers (to protect their legs as they crawled along, dragging cartloads of coal behind them).  26 kids from the Northern labouring classes being killed –whatever.  Women working topless and wearing trousers, disgusting!  Get that legislation passed!  OOH 😦 .  It’s the attitude …

But at least the legislation got through.  And I was glad to see that Ross wasn’t mithering about forcing kids to attend church, or worrying about what female workers were or weren’t wearing.

Going back to the Combination Acts, they, passed in 1799 and 1800, largely a response to the events of the French Revolution, and also due to fear of a strike being called in wartime, banned the formation of trade unions and bargaining by British workers.  They were repealed in 1824, but the Tolpuddle Martyrs were deported in 1833 on the excuse of the Unlawful Oaths Act of 1797 – which aimed to stop mutinies in the Navy.  Again … keep the working classes in their place 😦 .

And stop them from enjoying themselves!  In 1787, the “Proclamation for the Discouragement of Vice” was issued.  Great name, that, isn’t it?  Even Oliver Cromwell never came up with that one.   This was another of Wilberforce’s great ideas, incidentally.  The man should really have stuck to Abolitionism!  The “Proclamation for the Encouragement of Piety and Virtue, and for the Preventing and Punishing of Vice, Profaneness and Immorality”, to give it its full name.  No enjoying yourself on a Sunday, even though it’s the only time you’ve got off work.  No swearing.  No excessive boozing.  No dirty books – and that might sound amusing, but the Powers That Were’s ideas on suppressing dirty books included wanting to prevent the lower classes from reading anything about contraception, which wasn’t very funny at all.  Nobody took much notice.  So the Society for the Suppression of Vice was founded (in London) in 1802.  Nobody took much notice of that either.

We’re actually getting the other, better, side of the piety/Sabbatarian thing in Poldark, and that’s the growth of Methodism.  Obviously Cornwall is somewhere particularly associated with that, and it’s even been suggested that Sam and Drake Carne, Demelza’s brothers, were partly based on John and Charles Wesley.  They do come across really well, never too preachy, never patronising, never trying to force anyone into anything.  There was still significant discrimination against Nonconformists at this time, and even more so against Catholics, and, because the oaths required to be taken on assuming public office were specifically Christian, against Jews; and it would be well into the 19th century before there was religious equality in the UK.  It could be argued that there still isn’t, given that some forms of religious marriage are not legally binding and couples being married under those rites have to have a civil ceremony as well.  The big Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 was still thirty years away at this point – and under twenty years had passed since the Gordon Riots of 1780, when there were major protests in London against plans for Catholic emancipation.  George Warleggan had it in for the Carnes mainly because they were Ross’s brothers-in-law, but I don’t think the fact that they were Methodists helped either.

Compared to most Continental countries, Britain in the 1790s was a model of liberty, equality and fraternity.  And even newly independent America only really offered life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to well-to-do white men.  But there was a hell (just had to put that in to cock a snook at the Discouragement of Vice brigade) of a long way to go in terms of social and political change.

Ross Poldark (yes, I do know that he wasn’t actually real) was one of the good guys.  And/but he could only work within the system he was in.  The storyline about his election to Parliament, and his work there, is fascinating.  Yes, we all enjoy the shirtless stuff, and the romantic stuff, but there’s a lot of very important history in there as well.  Please, please don’t let this be the last series!   Let it run and run!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Templar Silks by Elizabeth Chadwick

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I really need to visit Caversham Park, Pembroke Castle and Chepstow Castle, after reading all Elizabeth Chadwick’s wonderful books about William Marshal.  The only one of his homes/bases I’ve been to is Kilkenny Castle, which is a bit mad considering that that’s the furthest away.  Anyway!  This book’s quite different from the others, being about William’s time in the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the mid-1180s, and almost entirely imagined.  Although it’s known that he did spend time there, there don’t seem to be any accounts of what he actually did during that time – leaving Elizabeth Chadwick free to weave him into the court intrigues of a troubled and fascinating time.  Although it’s written in the style of a novel, a lot of it is about high politics.  I love that 🙂 .  OK, not everyone does, but I do.  Reading is learning, and all that.

The book actually starts with William on his deathbed in 1217, thinking about the past, and then moves back to 1183.  It does flash forward and then backwards again several times, which is a bit annoying because it interrupts the flow of the book.  I wish she’d just written it as set in the 1180s, but maybe she thought that’d be strange when she’d already taken his story so long past there.  It’s not a huge problem and won’t stop anyone from enjoying the story, though.

William had been in the service of Henry the Young King, eldest surviving son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and they, along with William’s brother Ancel and various other young men, had been on the tourney circuit.  I love the idea of the tourney circuit.   Maybe a bit like today’s tennis and golf tours 🙂 ?  Knights would travel round to wherever a tournament was being held, and, if they were any good, make a living from defeating rivals at jousts and taking home the prize money.  Word must have spread if a big name was taking part, and big crowds must have turned up!  Well, that’s how I imagine it, anyway!

However, Henry, despite being the crowned heir of the King of England, managed to run out of cash, and decided to rob the shrine at Rocadamour, in the Languedoc.  I always feel sorry for Rocamadour, because these days it very much has to play second fiddle to Lourdes as far as French shrines go, even though it’s the one with centuries of history.  It’s surprising that this incident isn’t better known, really.  OK, there wasn’t exactly a medieval equivalent of the Geneva Convention, but the heir to the English throne stealing from a religious shrine must have been pretty shocking.

Shortly afterwards, Henry died of “the bloody flux”.  It was a common cause of death at the time, but obviously it looked like divine retribution for what he and his men had done.  So the story goes, he asked William to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and lay his cloak on Christ’s tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  William, both to carry out his friend’s wishes and to atone for his own part in the attack on Rocamadour, left for Jerusalem in 1183, and didn’t return until either late 1185 or early 1186.

The Latin Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem, set up in 1099, after the First Crusade, was at that time ruled by Baldwin IV, Henry II’s half-cousin on the Angevin side.  Baldwin, who comes across in this book as being brave and able, suffered from leprosy, and was to die, aged only 24, in 1185.  His heir was his young nephew – who became Baldwin V, only to die in 1186.  When William, Ancel and the rest of their gang arrived, in 1883, the kingdom was in turmoil.  Baldwin’s brother-in-law, Guy de Lusignan, stepfather of the heir, was at odds with Baldwin and with pretty much else.  And the Christians’ holdings in the Holy Land were under attack from Saladin.  We associate Saladin so much with Richard the Lionheart (one of the worst kings England ever had, but that’s another story) and the Third Crusade that maybe we sometimes forget just how much military success he achieved before then.  If you look at the history of the 1180s, Aleppo comes under siege, there’s fighting around Mosul, and everyone wants control of Jerusalem.  Plus ca change …

Poor Jerusalem, seemingly forever doomed to be fought over.  There are several comments from characters about how they feel as if things in the Holy Land should be done in a way that’s honest and honourable, and how they’re disappointed to find the same old intrigue and corruption and jostling for power that you get everywhere else, but that’s the way it goes.  A lot of groups of people have dreamt of setting up a New Jerusalem, or some other form of ideal state, whether that’s via religion or communism or anything else, and whether by a change of regime in their home country or by setting up somewhere new.  It always turns out the same way.  Miserable, that, isn’t it?!  But Se A Vida E, that’s the way life is, to quote … er, the Pet Shop Boys, who have nothing to do with the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

I’m sorry that Elizabeth Chadwick didn’t write more about William’s journey to Jerusalem, because she – and this is obviously all her story, because no-one actually knows which route William took, or what happened along the way – mentioned him visiting various holy sites along the way.  We got a bit of time in Rome, and then we got quite a while in Constantinople but, rather than a description of the city and its sights, we got William being kidnapped by someone who wrongly accused him of being a spy.  OK, it was all quite dramatic, but I’d like to’ve heard a bit more about Constantinople –although, only a year after the massacre of Latin Christians in the city, and only 21 years before the Fourth Crusade and the sack of the capital of Eastern Christendom by the crusaders of Western Christendom, it reflected East-West tensions rather well.

We did, however, get a detailed description of their arrival in Jerusalem and their visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and William’s emotions at the fulfilment of his pilgrimage vow.  The power of Jerusalem and all that.  There’s even supposed to be a medical condition associated with it – “Jerusalem Syndrome”, which causes people with no previous history of psychosis or delusions to experience them after visiting the city.  I can’t say that I’ve ever come across it, but, when I was there ten years ago, one woman in the group was so overcome by emotion that she burst into tears.  And, whatever your personal relationship with Christianity or Judaism or Islam, it holds such an important place in the culture of so much of humanity that it should be one of the most visited cities in the world.   Unfortunately, because of the political situation, that isn’t the case.  Maybe one day …

There wasn’t much more about the pilgrimage side of things, though, apart from an interesting account of spending Easter in Jerusalem. On to court politics.   It was quite a contrast to the author’s other William Marshal books, which are largely centred on castles or manor houses in the British Isles, so anyone just hoping for more of that is going to be disappointed … but please enjoy this for what it is, which is a fascinating story of the death throes of the Latin Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem.  Well, technically it lasted until 1291, but really it only lasted until Saladin’s great victory over Guy of Lusignan at the Horns of Hattin in 1187.  The replacement Christian kingdom was based at Acre.  Interesting place – obviously not in the same league as Jerusalem, but worth a visit. Just for the sake of completeness, incidentally, it should be pointed out that the Latin Christians did hold Jerusalem again for a while at various points between 1229 and 1244, under the leadership of Frederick II of Sicily.  (I’m going to Sicily next month, so have been reading up on Frederick!)  And, the throne of Sicily having later passed to the rulers of Aragon, King Felipe of Spain includes “King of Jerusalem” amongst his many titles.  I’m not sure what either the Israelis or the Palestinians make of that.  But, effectively, ongoing Latin Christian rule of Jerusalem ended in 1187.

The book actually misses the really big events, because William had gone home before they happened – he’d left before Hattin, and the famous events of the Third Crusade.  But there was quite a lot going on even so, in terms of court intrigue and in terms of actual fighting.   There was a lot of blood and guts in this, including one scene in which William actually chops someone’s head off.  And some rather detailed descriptions of battle wounds, and a very detailed description of the horrors found in a village destroyed by Saladin’s forces.  All sadly true to life, but not for the squeamish.

Guy of Lusignan, an old enemy of William’s, very much came across as the bad guy in this.  A bit of a 12th century Donald Trump, doing things he thought were a good idea but which actually made everything worse and horrified everyone else, like killing Bedouin tribesmen.  A major part of the storyline was William’s hatred of Guy, and his refusal to support him.

However, a lot of the focus was on a little known character – Paschia de Riveri, mistress of Heraclius, the Patriach of Jerusalem.  And this is going right into the realms of fiction, because the storyline comes to be dominated by a fictitious affair between her and William.  It’s known that William made a secret commitment to join the Templars on his deathbed.  He duly did so, and that’s where the title of the novel comes from.  But no-one knows why.  The story here was that it was closely linked to the need he felt for absolution of his sins after his relationship with Paschia.  I’m not sure how well that argument works, because it was hardly unusual for a couple to have a relationship outside marriage, but the story of the affair does work quite well.  But it’s all fiction – whereas the other William Marshal books by Elizabeth Chadwick have all been grounded in fact.

As ever with her books, there were some wonderfully descriptive passages, evoking a sense of time and place just so well.  OK, maybe some of it lapsed into purple prose, but I rather like purple prose.  And not just of the actual physical places, but of emotions – it’s not always easy to get your head into the medieval sense of religion, but you do get a real sense of it from this book.  And the minor characters, notably William’s brother Ancel and his mistress Asmaria, and William’s friend Aimery, and Paschia’s relations, all played their parts so very well.

It’s a very rich and entertaining and informative book, like all her books are.  I just don’t know if I like the idea that nearly all of it is fictitious, whereas the other books in the William Marshal series have followed, as closely as possible, the real events of the time.  Paschia comes across as a fascinating character with a fascinating history, but almost nothing is known about her: it’s all fictional.  And almost nothing is known about William’s time in the Kingdom of Jerusalem: that’s all fictional.  It doesn’t mean that this isn’t an excellent read, but it does sit oddly with the rest of the series.  But, hey, there’s no law that says that all books in a series have to be similar, and it really is very well-written and very informative.  Well worth a read.

Versailles (final season) – BBC 2

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It’s such a shame that the first series of this was so silly, and made it a bit of a laughing stock, because it really has improved … and now this, set at the end of the 1670s, and featuring (yay!!) the early days of chocolate consumption across Europe, is going to be the last series, meaning that we won’t get all the exciting stuff that lies just ahead.   (Or, indeed, see what happens to the Parisian proletarian with the Manchester accent.)  1683, the Siege of Vienna.  1685, the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes.  1688, the Glorious Revolution, and the departure of James II and VII to Paris.  1688-1697, the Nine Years’ War.  1701-1714, the War of the Spanish Succession.  Yes, all right, all right, I do know that, apart from the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, none of those events actually took place in France, but Louis XIV was up to his neck in some of it, and the fact that he wasn’t up to his neck in the rest of it was arguably crucial as well.

And they’ve scrapped the “Inside Versailles” add-on, whereby each episode used to be followed by a brief discussion of the historical background. OK, it was a bit patronising, but I still quite enjoyed it.

This third and final series of Versailles opens at the end of the Franco-Dutch War of 1672-78, with Philippe, Duke of Orleans, returning as a war hero.  I have always disliked Philippe, because I’ve always thought of him as Minette (Princess Henriette Anne of England and Scotland)’s baddie husband who treated her badly and was alleged (admittedly unfairly) to have had her poisoned.  However, I have actually softened towards him because of the way he’s portrayed in this by Alexander Vlahos – we’re getting the lighter side of him, but we’re also getting to see his intelligence and his military prowess.  And maybe this is the first time I’ve really seen him from the French viewpoint – it is rather hard not to look at things primarily from an English viewpoint when you’re reading English history books!  Unfortunately, in this series his main storyline seems to be an obsession with the Man in the Iron Mask.  OK, there was a prisoner in an iron mask, but he had nothing to do with Philippe and I don’t know what the scriptwriters had to bring him into this for.

Oh well.

And then we’ve got Guillaume, the cobbler who fought alongside Philippe – played by our very own Matthew McNulty. And his sister, played by Jenny Platt, aka Violet, the former Coronation Street barmaid who had a baby with her GBF Sean Tully and then went off with Mike Baldwin’s grandson.  They’re fictitious, but they do represent Parisian life outside the court, and I’m quite enjoying their story.  If “enjoying” is the word, given that the life of the lower classes under the ancient regime wasn’t really much fun.

Back at court, various Austrian Habsburgs, notably the Emperor Leopold himself, are visiting. The Holy Roman Empire was allied with the Dutch during the war of the 1670s, and are now in a very weak position … and, come the 1680s, Louis is going to take advantage of that to conquer most of what’s now Luxembourg, and is going to do absolutely nothing to help the Empire in arguably the biggest crisis in its history, the Ottoman Siege of Vienna in 1683.  The Poles are going to claim all the credit for driving the Ottomans off, which always annoys me because Eugene of Savoy deserves far more credit than he’s actually going to get.  But we aren’t going to see that, because this is the final series.  Boo!!

And we’re already getting all the talk about Charles II of Spain, his medical problems and his lack of an heir, and the fact that both the French and the Austrians (the Bavarians haven’t been mentioned) have got an eye on grabbing Spain for themselves. This will ultimately lead to the War of the Spanish Succession, which will see Britain surpass France as the world’s leading military power (hurrah!), Madrid and Barcelona at each other’s throats (some things never change), and Sicily, Sardinia and roughly-what’s-now-Belgium, not to mention parts of Canada, being passed about like parcels.   Oh, and the building of Blenheim Palace.  But we’re not going to get that far.  Gah!!

We also have the Huguenot lady doing a lot of preaching at court. Come 1685, Louis will revoke the Edict of Nantes, promulgated by Henri IV – “Paris is worth a Mass” – in 1598.  Hundreds of thousands of Huguenots will leave France.  Some of them will end up in Manchester.  And Bolton.  And Halifax.  Oh, and London.  And various other parts of Britain.  Others will end up in North America, in South Africa, and in various mainly Protestant parts of mainland Europe.  It’s a major population movement.  The right of return – no, that it not a 20th or 21st century thing – was granted in 1790, during the Revolutionary period, and was reiterated in 1889 , but it was a bit late by then.  It really is a very important part of European and world history.  But we’re not going to get that far.  I keep saying that.

The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, and the fact that Louis had thoroughly annoyed William of Orange by defeating him in the war of the 1670s and then barging around in parts of the Low Countries in the early 1680s, were two of the contributory factors in the Glorious Revolution. Yes, OK, I know that it wasn’t very glorious for either the Scottish Highlands or most of Ireland, but it was probably a pretty good thing for England, Wales and the Scottish Lowlands … er, and this isn’t the time for the de facto/de jure/social contract/whatever debate.  Louis did actually offer to send an army to help James, but James said no.  However, he did have French help when he landed in Ireland in 1689, at the start of the campaign which would end in the Battle of the Boyne.   And French support for the Jacobites would remain an issue throughout the Nine Years’ War (which was fought in America, as well as in Europe) and beyond.

Obviously the Glorious Revolution and its aftermath is a rather sensitive subject in Scottish and Irish history, and I don’t think any TV company would choose to cover it from the viewpoint of either James or William for that reason, but it could have been covered from a French angle. Sorry, I know that sounds ridiculously Anglocentric!  But no.  There will be no season four.

Boo. Mind you, the scriptwriters would probably have chosen to ignore all of this, and write about nude paintings or mysterious prisoners, or Athenais de Montespan, with whom they seem to be rather obsessed, instead. However, the departure of Athenais for a convent did put Louis in such a strop that – I assume this was fictional, but it was good!-  he ordered one of his lackeys to organise a big party featuring something special, and the something special turned out to be “the medicine of the Aztecs” – chocolate!   Drinking chocolate, at this point.  It became popular in Spain after the conquest of the Aztec Empire, and then spread (chocolate spread … sorry, bad pun) across Europe.  Chocolate bars only really got going in the mid-19th century, thanks to Fry’s of Bristol, who later merged with Cadbury’s.  I now appear to have got completely off the point, but chocolate is always worth writing about.

It’s not exactly been brilliant, and I don’t suppose this series is going to get that much better. And some of the early episodes were just cringeworthy.  But it’s such an important, and, in English, often neglected, period of history that I really would have liked to see it carry on throughout the whole of the reign of Louis XIV.  But, alas, it is not to be.  Maybe console yourself with a cup of hot chocolate?