Monday 16 June 2014

Did Victorians react differently to violence than we do? How to handle this in fiction?

A few months ago one of the first readers of Britannia’s Wolf sent me the question below:

“Today’s readers do not have the same sensibility as Victorians. Is there a compromise in Britannia’s Wolf between the way Dawlish and his contemporaries saw, and to some extent accepted, violence, and the way we respond to it today?”

It’s worth repeating the answer I gave then on my website and which I’ve updated with reference to my second novel, Britannia’s Reach:

The issue of making characters true to their period – in my case the Victorians, is critical. We shouldn’t graft 21st Century sensibilities on to 19th Century people, even sensitive and decent ones. The Victorians had a much more robust attitude to life and death than we do in the West today. Most families would have lost children and death in childbirth was still as common as it is today in Africa. Anesthetics were only in their infancy and people died regularly of complaints that are managed almost routinely today. There was somewhat of a cult of mourning and remembrance in that era (led by Queen Victoria herself - the "Widow of Windsor") whereas today many in the West have never seen a corpse until a parent dies. With us death is hidden – and is perhaps the last undiscussible.
The cult of ostentatious mourning supported a small industry - 1888 advertisement
Public executions continued in Britain until 1868 and were well attended. When they ventured overseas, as Victorians increasingly did as the Empire expanded, they encountered cruelty on a scale and intensity that shocked even them, as happened in China and India and Zululand and elsewhere  – they responded very robustly indeed. There’s a taste of this in Britannia’s Wolf, when Dawlish is confronted with a massacre of innocents and takes a rather tough reprisal against the perpetrators. There was a lot of similarly unofficial rough-justice against concentration-camp guards and other SS thugs in the immediate aftermath of WW2. Britannia’s Wolf is set in the brutal Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, which was provoked by widespread massacres of Christian villagers in Bulgaria by their Ottoman Turkish overlords and the course of which was marked by horrific atrocities and reprisals in both sides. The situations Dawlish encounters in the novel are, unfortunately, closely modelled on real events.
Bulgarian massacre victims 1877 - eyewitness sketch
And yes – people do get marked, indeed hardened, by such experiences. My own exposure to cruelty and callousness by the powerful in Africa and South America has left me with an abiding contempt for the self-styled elites in such countries and makes me understand, even if I cannot condone, violent retribution when the tables are finally turned. History has taught us that overthrow of one corrupt and tyrannical regime is usually followed by one equally bad, no matter how noble the ideals proclaimed initially might have been.  I addressed this theme in the second Dawlish Chronicles novel, Britannia’s Reach. For a decent person to be caught in such a maelstrom, and to be forced to confront moral ambiguities on every side at a time when “doing nothing” is not an option, is a terrible one. A Mephistophelean bargain of the type portrayed in Britannia’s Reach (which I wrote a blog about on March 18th) is one which we should pray we are never tempted to make.
Western observers view heaps of burned Bulgarian villagers - eyewitness sketch
In writing about violence and atrocity I've tried not to shy away from the horrors inflicted on civilian populations - but one has to be careful. On the one hand there’s writing that blandly draws a veil over such pain and on the other there’s a danger of indulging in an orgy of violence. Finding the mean between these extremes is critical and I hope I do that.
Retribution: Turkish refugees flee before the Russians Winter 1877/78

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