Sunday 17 March 2024

Nerd Church - Should We Judge Older Books By Modern Standards?


Warning: this post discusses racism, ableism, and general prejudice, including reference to dehumanising language and slurs

Title: Should We Judge Older Books By Modern Standards?

I've been re-reading* The Princess Diaries for a while now.

For those not aware: this was a massively popular YA series by Meg Cabot from the early 00s where a New York teenager named Mia Thermopolis finds out she's actually the Princess of Genovia. (As you do.)

There also 2 films starring Anne Hathaway, which are fun, but don't really match the tone of the books.

*Well, re-reading the first couple and reading the rest for the first time ๐Ÿ˜…

The book series has stood up remarkably well - better than I feared it might.

But it was written in the early 00s. 

And I'd forgotten just how casually people said the Ableist slur 'r****d' in the early 00s.

...They did. A lot. 

Until the late '10s, it was a pretty casual part of speech - especially amongst teens etc. 

Trust me - I remember being a kid/teen in the 00s and 10s, it was not seen as a big deal, generally, to utter that word as an insult.

It's not the only part of the Princess Diaries series that hasn't aged well -

I could probably go through and nitpick all the issues if I wanted to 

- but it's one of the most obvious.

And it got me thinking - not for the first time - should we judge older books by modern standards?

I know there's lots of... strong... opinions on this...

...but it's a genuine question. And I'm not sure there's an answer to it.

We could take it to the false dichotomy that many would propose in the online chatter/debate/mud-slinging competition, and say that either 100% YES we should, or 100% NO we shouldn't...

...but I think you probably know me better than that by now.

Yep, the girl's gonna crack out the nuance again - she still hasn't learned.

Let's get a little more radical than The Princess Diaries, shall we?

One of my favourite books is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte - a much-beloved book in classic literature.

...It's also a book that (SPOILERS!) amongst other things, features a romantic hero who locks up his mentally ill Black biracial wife, Bertha, in the attic.

Her mental illness is said to specifically stem from the Black side of her family, and she is described with insults and degrading language, along with a variety of racist and ableist tropes.

Yes, Mr Rochester apparently has an animalistic and 'savage' mentally ill Black woman held against her will in his attic.

...Please tell me you understand that there are problems with that.

Here's some resources which speak about Jane Eyre and race specifically:

Reading Jane Eyre While Black - Tyrese L. Coleman @ Lit Hub*

Reading Jane Eyre While Black - Stacey Watson @ Bookstr

When Edward met Bertha: Mental Health, Colonialism, Race and Patriarchy in Jane Eyre - Siobhรกn Halliday @ OpenLearn

...if you have any more, especially by Black authors, let me know! (I've also heard Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys is a prequel about Bertha, so have added to my TBR!) 

*Quick note: the word that Coleman here seems to confuse for the n-word has a separate origin and meaning, it is, however, a word that coincidentally looks and sounds a lot like the n-word (see dictionary definition here for more info.) Jane Eyre, to my knowledge, does not contain the n-word itself.

And the unfortunate fact of history is that, in 19th Century Britain, the best a Black woman with mental health problems could have hoped for, in the majority of cases, was food and shelter, and comparative safety.

Most would not have had even that.

So Bertha is historically somewhat realistic -

in fact, there's a devastating case of at least one biracial (in this case Anglo-Indian,) girl being committed to an asylum in Yorkshire. Some have suggested Eliza Raine even provided the inspiration for Bertha

- but I think where I struggle most is that there was no need, imho, to write Bertha as a Black woman, other than a combination of racism and plot expediency (i.e. it's easier to hide that he was married if it happened a long way away.)

(And in case it needs to be said: describing her as some sort of animalistic creature is simply racism.)

Should we judge Charlotte Bronte for that?

For her dehumanising portrait of a 'mad' Black Jamaican girl?


...And no.

Look, there's no getting around it - Bronte doesn't see Bertha as a fully-fledged human being.

That's not OK. 

That's so far from OK that we can't see OK from where Bronte's at on this one.

I cannot stress enough how NOT OK this is.

...But can anyone honestly say, with 100% certainty, that if you had been raised a White, British/English, Victorian, middle-class, vicar's daughter, you would see any problem with that?

I know we'd all like to think we'd be the exception - that we'd break the barriers of social conditioning and somehow bring radical thought and change to the 19th Century.

The truth is none of us can say for sure.

But most of us would have seen the world exactly the same way she did.

Because we wouldn't know any better than to follow what we had been taught - and what the racist 'science' of the day told us was true.

We'd all like to think that, whatever the circumstances, we'd pick the 'right' way to act, think, etc.

...But there are extremely few people in this world who think that their beliefs are wrong. They wouldn't believe them if that were the case.

I'm not sure how we can blame a single individual for failing to throw off everything they'd ever known to be 'true.'

Jane Eyre, then, is a reflection of social attitudes at that time.

As forward-looking as it's often lauded in terms of feminism - in terms of White feminism, anyway - it's still held back by the dominant attitudes of the Victorian era with regards to race and mental health.

It's an excellent book.

But it's far from perfect - because perfect art does not exist. And if it did, it wouldn't be art.

I'm not saying I have all - or even any - of the answers.

I'm saying that the more uncomfortable the question, the more important it is to face it head-on.

Because 20 years ago, r****d was a casual thing to say. 

And 200 years ago, lots of people thought all sorts of b*llsh** about racial superiority and mental illness.

20 years from now, 200 years from now, who knows?

I just hope it's better.

And that the people of the future pause; that they try to think what it was like to be a Queer Welsh woman at the beginning of the 21st Century; that they don't judge me too harshly for trying my best within the world that I live in.

So... what do you think?
Should we judge older books by modern standards?
Is there a single answer here?
Talk to me! ๐Ÿ˜Š๐Ÿ’ฌ

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  1. I can't tell you the amount of times I've had this convo in a class. Recently it came up in conversation while reading a Virginia Woolf book. A few ppl in the class insinuated that judging the book by modern standards would classify as cancelling Woolf, which is unethical to do since she's not here to defend herself. I disagree. I think two things can exist at the same time: we can critique a book based on representations of racism, sexism, whatever. We can also acknowledge values and morals being different in times past. It's not a matter of cancelling. It's a matter of acknowledging changes in worldview.

    1. Hell yes! It's like the contradictions of Uncle Tom's Cabin - which I haven't read, but have seen enough of to know that it's racist as hell... it's also largely credited as an important propaganda piece for the abolition of slavery in the US. More than one thing can be true. (Also, which Virgina Woolf book? I'm intrigued! Lol.)

  2. This is...well...hard. You made an excellent argument about Bronte being a product of her time. Then again, certain things, once seen, you can't unsee, and are just hard to read about (if they hit close to home) or cringeworthy at best. Not to mention, those books are still considered classics and taught in school or chosen as required reading...I'm sure there are books of value promoting more up-to-date ideologies that could replace them...

    1. Ah, but that begs the question - why do we study literature? If they're being taught these books as a 100% accurate view of the world, or to promote a moral ideology, then they're not a good fit (but, again, neither is any book - a perfect book, perfect art, does not exist;) - if they're being taught *within historical context* then, theoretically, that's actually a good thing. This is what people thought - but how has society changed? Why might these not be great things to include in a book today?

      The problem comes with the fact that teachers often suck - they don't teach the book, they teach a reverence and/or fear of the book. They teach a worshipful version of what they think you should think - which, to be honest, is the exact opposite of teaching the book. At best, they teach to the test or to the establishment view of the meanings. In which case it doesn't matter what book they're teaching - they're gonna mess it up regardless.

      ...I didn't go to a good school, can you tell? ;)

      My argument isn't that these books should def. be taught, read, revered. My argument is that there is no single way of facing uncomfortable truths - but that doesn't mean we should avoid facing them.


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