The Flawed Heroine: Amelia Peabody, Racism, and the Modern Historical Romance

Source: Wikipedia/British Museum 

I'm one of those shallow readers who do not really like flawed heroines in my romances. I don't want them Pollyanna perfect, but I also don't want them to be truly unlikeable. And yet...I adore Amelia Peabody.

I've been tweeting my ongoing Amelia Peabody reread the last month or so. A reader on Twitter recently shared that the Amelia Peabody series, or —more specifically— Crocodile on the Sandbank made her uncomfortable because of all of the stereotyping of Egyptians. And then pointed to a novel by Mary Jo Putney as an example of how a historical novel set in the Middle East could avoid that.

I will be honest: The stereotyping in the Peabody series doesn't bother me. Or at least, I can understand why it's there. It serves a purpose.  Aside from the story being told in the first person, a not insignificant difference from most romances, we as readers are supposed to view Amelia as flawed. She's supposed to be irritating, snobby, racist, bossy, and completely self deluded about her own personality flaws. We're supposed to recognize her stereotyped observations of Egyptians and understand that she as a character represents the upper class, British sensibilities of the time.

 It's not just Egyptians who get looked down upon. She has strong, negative opinions about Americans, Italians, obese people, and men, too. British Imperialism is in its heyday during the time period this series is set. That arrogant sense of superiority is prevalent in nearly all literature of the time. (As it is in the American literature, too. US imperialism and the Monroe Doctrine were in full force as well.)

And while Crocodile on the Sandbank is a bit thin on making this distinction, it shows up in subsequent books through the introduction of editor's notes. (Important note: that reader on Twitter has every right to interpret the series as she did.) The fictitious editor even points out inconsistencies and prejudices. So we're given both Amelia's "journal" and the editorial comments to form a better understanding of the bias the stories are told through. The addition of Manuscript H (written in the 3rd person supposedly by Ramses) in Seeing a Large Cat adds another view of Egypt.  Emerson, as a character, is far, far more enlightened than Amelia throughout the series.

But what we can (sometimes) accept in a mystery series thoroughly steeped in the adventurous tradition of H. Ryder Haggard, we do not accept so readily in romance. In today's historical romance, all characters seem to be so modern in their social views. Prejudice and stereotyping is glossed over, hidden, or completely eliminated. And part of that, most of that, is likely because first person POV is so very rare in historical romance. I honestly cannot think of a single one. I'm sure they're out there. But I haven't read one.

And while I don't mind the occasional anachronism, this sanitized world that is the modern historical romance feels fake.  I'm simply not going to believe a world where the only snobbery is class distinctions. I've read too many examples of 19th century literature for that. The ugliness of real life is often sacrificed for the fantasy. It's considered difficult to focus on a love story when you're forced to dance around complicated social issues.

Circling back around to Amelia, though...part of the charm of the series is watching her change as a character. She begins the series as a rather annoying spinster with a good heart but an inflated sense of British superiority. After working in Egypt for close to 2 decades, she believes herself enlightened, but is forced to come to terms with her continuing prejudice when her niece becomes engaged to an Egyptian boy she truly cares for (Abdullah's grandson, David). [The Ape Who Guards the Balance] Peters even explicity deals with Amelia's struggles in the main text:

"'It's going to be up to you, you know.'
'What do you mean?'
'Evelyn relies on your judgement and you have Walter firmly under your thumb, along with the rest of us. If you supported the young people...'
'Impossible, Emerson.'
'Is it? I wonder, Amelia if you yourself know why you are so intransigent.'" [hardcover edition, pg 279]

and in Manuscript H:

"'I expect Mother is feeling rather wretched just now. She's come smack up against prejudices she never knew existed because they were buried so deep. The same is true of Uncle Walter and Aunt Evelyn. That sense of superiority isn't so much taught as taken for granted; it would require an earthquake to shake feelings that are the very foundation of their class and nationality. It isn't easy for them.'"
"'Prejudice of one sort or another seems to be a universal human weakness. Few individuals are completely free of it, including the ones who pride themselves on being open-minded.'" [pgs 279-280]
What this leads me to believe is that the author, Elizabeth Peters, has made the deliberate choice from the beginning to portray Amelia as a person of her time. She (the author) has Emerson, and later Ramses, to reflect our more modern sensibilities, but Amelia, our narrator, is allowed to be her imperfect, and bigoted, self.  It's one of the reasons, I think, that so many people love this series. And it is certainly one of the reasons Amelia Peabody is one of the best known characters in mystery fiction.


  1. Thank you so much for this blog post! I love the Amelis Peabody series and thanks to your suggestion I'm beginning to read them again.

    I love your points about historically accurate behavior in fiction. I trained as a medievalist in college and grad school and it used to drive me nuts when people would look at historically accurate characters in fiction and become irate that these characters were not behaving in modern way. I had a friend who stated with no reservation that if she had been beaten in order to get her to marry the man her parents wanted her to and not the man she loved as a character was in a movie we were watching, that she would leave their house. She would runaway and make her own way in the world. The fact that a young woman of noble birth would have no life skills to support herself, even if she had an opportunity, didn't make any difference. My friend was adamant that she would strike out on her own. This is the most drastic example I can think of to illustrate the point, but even after almost 30 years, I remember how frustrated I was that she couldn't adjust for social differences and accept that people were who they were and behaved as they did. We lose something in understanding the past by expecting modern behavior from people, real or fictional, in the past. Part of what I like about accurate historical fiction is getting a feeling of the past, along with a good story.

    If you haven't read them, and enjoy the middle ages, I love the Sister Fidelma series by Peter Tremayne. Wonderful historical mysteries with a romantic story arc and they are written by a celtic scholar.

    1. Yea on the reread! I haven't read the Tremayne books; I'll check them out. Thanks!

  2. So, I am not having as many problems with her snobbery as I am with her parenting. I get that we have become very kid-centric. I know that children were much more to be seen and not heard at the time these books are set...But I still cringe through most of Amelia's interactions with Ramses.

    1. I somehow missed this comment. My apologies.

      Yes, her parenting is really off-putting for many readers. Emerson even calls her out on it several times.

      Part of it is that Amelia actually *feels* deeply and puts up this wall of indifference to protect herself. Part of it is the time period (although we see a far more maternal example in Evelyn). Part of it is also that Ramses is...well...so preternaturally adult even as a toddler.