Historically PC

This post is about historical novels and plays, which I like.  Placing an appealing character in an interesting plot amid times of historical significance, as Hilary Mantel has shown, can be a winning formula. But a thought came to me whilst watching “Foyle’s War” on TV last night, which is that authors often place modern sensibilities into historical characters in a way which may be sympathetic, but might also be unrealistic.  Some examples:

  • In a recent edition set in 1946, Foyle discovers that the senior intelligence officer was attacked as he was leaving a gay bar. He begs Foyle not to reveal his sexual orientation to work colleagues, and Foyle agrees.  Now then.  Would a Detective Chief Superintendent working in 1946 with sensitive espionage case feel gay relationships were OK, and that a world of blackmail and double-cross, feel it was right to conceal them ?
  • Jack Aubrey, Patrick O’Brian’s gallant naval captain of Napoleonic times, is also sympathetic to gay colleagues. He dislikes flogging as a punishment, and uses it as little as possible.  Further, he has a relationship with a black lover in Mozambique, and acknowledges and values the son who is the result of this union.  It would, of course, be admirable for a man of this generation to have progressive views on sexual orientation and race, but one wonders how often it happened.
  • Bernie Gunther, Philip Kerr’s German detective of the 1930s and 40s, is anti-Nazi. Almost as anti-Nazi as John Russell, David Downing’s Berlin based journalist in the splendid ‘station’ series, who works to help Jews to freedom and provide information to the Allies.  The Danes had a wonderful record of resisting anti-semitism and helping Jews to escape, but I’m not sure how common it was in mid-war Berlin. And left-wing detectives ? Hmmm.
  • Matthew Shardlake, hero of J. Sansom’s Tudor detective books, raises issues about attitudes to disability in his adventures. Mind you, he suffers from curvature of the spine, and so must come to the problem on the basis of his own experiences.

Let’s be clear.  I’m not one of those people who rail against “the PC brigade”, and I know there have been principled individuals in every era.  I just ask whether characters who wear period clothes, drive period vehicles, speak with period expressions would really have 2013 social attitudes.  Can any readers let me know of a novel where the central character carries with him attitudes which, though current in the era of the plot, would be considered unacceptable today.

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