Sunday, April 18, 2021


 I've really enjoyed Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings | "Vivre le livre!" ( 1936 book club. As it goes it's probably the year that I've read the most popular fiction from just in the general way of things. I got to revisit a couple of favourites, read something that was if nothing else, at least thought provoking, and realise that I've got a whole pile more serious things to look forward to from 1936 at some point in the future (I think it might be interesting to read Djuna Barnes Nightwood and Sylvia Townsend Warner's Summer Will Show together some time when I'm in the mood for lesbian and modernist classics).

There's a lot to be said for looking at the books expected to be popular though, at least if you want some insight into the kind of thinking that might have been taken more or less for granted back in the day. Heyer's Talisman Ring is as full of 1936 attitudes as her Behold, Here's Poison. Both have something of the screwball comedy about them and The Talisman Ring particularly suggests an intellectual equality between men and women that feels quite fresh.

It also makes passing mention of Jewish money lenders that I'd happily see amended to read loan shark, or indeed money lender, in modern editions as it's more or less a throwaway slang description. Add it to Dorothy L. Sayers comments about Jewish money lenders in 1935's Guady Night, some observations Angela Thirkell makes in High Rising (1933) (these come immediately to mind, but I don't think I'd have to read very far into 1936's popular fiction to find more examples) and then look again at Rafael Sabatini's particularly troubling Captain Blood chapter and I have a whole new picture of how prevalent and ingrained anti-Semitism clearly was in the period.

All of these writers, along with P G Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, and Nancy Mitford share a particular sort of snobbery too. In some cases it's more engaging than others. I enjoy it more in Heyer and Wodehouse than in most of the others, perhaps it's the comic elements in both, and the romantic conventions Heyer employs that make me feel so. It's also a reminder that the society pages must have been much more like celebrity gossip columns than I'm currently used to.

That Sabatini book is bothering me too. I'm not sorry that I read it, but it has made me wary of picking up anything else by him again. If you read old books your always likely to encounter views and tropes that are now completely unacceptable. Sometimes I don't much care - I did after all choose to read the book knowing it was a risk, other times it really bothers me. This one bothered me for the casual asumption that the public would find a slave trader a sympathetic character.

Sabatini was a successful author at this point, Captain Blood (the first book in the sequence) had been made into a film in 1935, a few of his books had been adapted for silent films in the 1920's. Sabatini must have known his audience, and they must have known him. It's certainly an eye opener. I'm also left feeling unsure about how books like this ought to be treated now. I doubt The Fortunes of Captain Blood is likely to see another serious reprint, so questions about whether that particular chapter ought to be cut or not are moot. It was interesting from a social history point of view, but I kind of feel that some sort of content warning to that effect would have helped. 

Anyway, thanks to Simon and Kaggsy I feel like I've had some of the best and worst of what 1936's popular fiction has to offer, and it's definitely been one of the most interesting book club's to date 


  1. I find Heyer's anti-Semitism difficult to deal with in her murder mysteries. However, accepting a slave-trader as a hero who needs his slaves back is really beyond the pale, especially in 1936! I am not sure about leaving stories out of collections, though.

    1. Happily 'Behold, Here's Poison' was mercifully free of those references, but the more I read from the era the more disconcerted I am by what common currency anti Semitism was. I like older books for all sorts of reasons, and accept that part of reading them will mean finding points of view and prejudices I'm uncomfortable with and are sometimes deeply offensive. I definitely find Sayers worse than Heyer or Thirkell on this score - there are some awful things in her books to the point that I no longer really enjoy reading them. The Sabatini was another level - that slaver didn't want his slaves back, he wanted payment for them knowing he was leaving them somewhere where yellow fever had killed the last lot and everybody is fine with it. If nothing else books with content like that need proper introductions, and some sort of content warning so the buyer has some idea of what they're letting themselves in for. I do think in this case there would be an argument for an edited collection of Captain Blood stories that made it clear some had been omitted - but then if I feel like that do I have any business reading Sabatini?

      On the other hand, reading things like this do make it a lot easier to understand other things happening in the 1930's, and act as something of a warning about the rhetoric you don't have to look very far for now.

  2. Yes I think that's a really interesting point and it's refreshing to read your opinion on it. I am always unpleasantly surprised when I encounter anti-semitism in books, even when it's someone I know has a track record for it (like Heyer or Sayers). And I imagine it would be worse if I were Jewish or a person of colour. But I honestly think that if you removed them, people simply wouldn't understand a really massive and important part of social history, or would comfort themselves that this sort of thing only happened in Germany and not in other countries.

    Furthermore, we've seen a distressing amount of denial of anti-semitism recently, and even the suggestion that slavery may have had 'benefits' for the slaves (that was suggested in the Sewell Report...). Removing uncomfortable references strikes me as facilitating that sort of revisionism and allowing people to dismiss those who complain of racism.

    Proper forewords seem the best way for me, if books are otherwise worth republishing. Maybe Captain Blood has had his day? Worthier books than his fall out of print every day.

    1. That particular book has certainly had it's day in terms of being good light reading, but from a historical point of view I'm glad I read it, the over all effect was educational if unpleasant. I'm inclined to think that the popular fiction of previous eras is worth reading to understand who we are and were - which I think it can show in a way that better, worthier, books don't.

      It's hard, I think we need to face the history and be honest about it, and sometimes that's a really uncomfortable experience. On the other hand this wasn't the sort of story that I think anybody should have to come across unaware - and I suspect there's a ton of stuff like this, free for kindle etc. which comes with no context at all. Essentially I want to live in a world where every book comes with a scholarly, and regularly updated, introduction.