Wednesday, May 14, 2014

I expect better!

I recently read The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat (pub. 1984) and was pretty astonished at the language used by a scientist and non-fiction writer regarding individuals with severe mental impairments. (Lucky for me, a friend read it at just about the same time so we were able to vent in a flurry of email exchanges.) Initially, I was only annoyed at the lack of scientific detail. I chalked that up to it being pubbed in the 80s, the scientific literacy of laypersons has increased enormously since then so I can't exactly blame an author/publisher for being aware of the contemporary landscape. But that offensive (and inaccurate!) language was just inexcusable. So, ok, pass on that author and moving on...

And, bam! It happens again!

I just finished Isabella (pub. 2005) and the author was at pains to explain some of the differences between current and 14th Century English (and Welsh, Scottish, French:) cultural norms. She, like many historians, believes that Edward II was gay or bisexual. There's some explanation about how that wasn't an accepted lifestyle at the time (if only it was 100% accepted now! dare to dream!) and its relevance to the events of the book. She later says that he was capable of (or not revolted by?? can't find exact sentence) "normal sex" since he had not only 4 children with his wife but at least 1 extramarital child. Um, "normal" sex? Looks like maybe you just gave yourself away on that one.

In another instance she describes Isabella as "highly sexed." Hunhhh????? Isabella is thought to have been a woman interested in sex (omg, alert the presses) and so she's "highly" sexed? WTF???? By the author's interpretation, Edward II had two long-term extramarital lovers, a wife with whom he had children (and so, presumably, sex), and numerous (brief) liaisons with lovers before he was married and some after. Where is his description as "highly sexed?" Looks like maybe you just gave yourself away on that one.

And there's this: "Reginald, a widower, was dark of colouring and character." Some of the main players had their physical descriptions relayed but not over many and certainly not such a minor dude as this one (he was featured in ~4 paragraphs) but, dang, it's fun to lump "dark" coloring in with character because it just sounds great and, hell, there isn't a significant portion of the population that still suffers from stereotypes of "dark" being bad! Looks like maybe you just gave yourself away on that one.

So, yeah, it appears that 21st Century historians are as likely as 14th Century historians to say that gay/bisexual individuals have "abnormal" sex, women who like sex are unusual*** and to be described differently than other women (and men, natch, who are clearly always up for it), and "dark" characters are bad and match the "dark" color nicely. Ugh! Ugh, ugh, ugh!!!! There goes another author.

The shame about all this is (I mean, other than the obvious), these academics/scientists write on some really interesting topics. I want to know these things. I want to learn these things. However, I am past the point of being willing to sift through offensive garbage to get to the good stuff. It's unacceptable anytime but certainly in works of academic rigor.

Come on, people, I expect better!

***ETA: or more likely in the 21st Century??? Just read a very edifying passage in The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England (thanks for that, Beth!) and it seems the flack that Isabella was catching for her behavior was more because she was a queen rather than because she was a woman. (Though they weren't exactly shy with the "woman is the root of all evil" stuff, be she a queen or no.)


  1. That's pretty bad, alright. 2005?

  2. Yeah, it was really surprising. The moreso because it's otherwise such a good biography. But then these tiny bombs of awful would be dropped and sort of ruin it.

  3. I am really ambivalent about Weir's non-fiction. I haven't read Isabella, but I read her biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine, which seemed very speculative and judgmental about Eleanor as wife. Too sexual, too power-hungry and manipulative, etc. At the time, I wondered why she bothered with non-fiction since she seemed to want to write fiction, but it turns out that she has since turned to historical fiction.

  4. Funny you should make that comment, she compared Isabella's ambitious and highly sexed nature to Eleanor of Aquitaine. I see that Isabella was published 6 years after Eleanor so maybe she had got a little less sexist over those years? She was clearly sympathetic to Isabella who deposed her own spouse which has got to be right up there with leading rebellions. I think she still has a long way to go but my experience is limited to the one book (and will remain so). Alongside Isabella I was reading a biography of Roger Mortimer so it was interesting to get two views of the same events. I found that there was a lot of concordance between the two and felt like both were pretty good historically. I'm no historian though so I could be way off on that.

    If you're interested, I thought Helen Castor's She Wolves the Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth was really interesting. Isabella and Eleanor are both in it along with some other women I was happy to learn about.