|Source: Wikipedia/British Museum|
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...'
'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.'"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.
"'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]