How a book earns the Mistorical tag: A case study

by Sunita

Dhympna and I completed and posted our Spoil of War Dual Review over at Dear Author. Dhympna did an amazing job, and I tried to hold up my end of the collaboration. In conjunction with that, Robin posted DA’s weekly letter of opinion on a new DA blog-post tag, Mistorical, and my goodness, that worm can turned out to be much larger than I had anticipated when we batted the term around on Twitter. Commenters have described us as outraged, full of hubris, arrogant, intent on telling the blogosphere what to do, condescending, and various other uncomplimentary adjectives.

Everyone is entitled to her own perspective; these all seemed to be sincerely held opinions, so I’m okay with that. But after wading into the comment thread repeatedly and feeling as if I wasn’t really getting anywhere, I decided to use my own blog to lay out what it takes for a book to get the Mistorical tag from me.

Dhympna has masterfully demonstrated why Spoil of War is a quintessential Mistorical. Last week, Jane and I did a dual review of a very different book, In the Arms of the Marquess by Katharine Ashe. I picked up the Ashe book because it was set partly in British India, and for a change the setting was Madras, in south India, rather than Calcutta or Delhi. I was wary, as I usually am about historical romances set in colonial India, but I was predisposed to like it.

I wasn’t familiar with the author, but when I googled her name, I discovered that Ashe has a Ph.D. in history from Duke and is a professor of history in her day job. In addition, her author’s note thanks her history colleagues and someone who turns out to be a professor of religion for help with the India-specific material. What could go wrong?

If you read my review, you know quite a bit went wrong, in my opinion. Given the comment kerfuffle over reviewers’ ability to judge historical accuracy and what we should expect from historical romance, it’s worth taking the time to lay out the process by which I arrived at that opinion.

Since I had read Ashe’s biographical information and the author’s note, I starting reading the novel with the expectation that the historical backdrop would be of a pretty high standard, even if it didn’t play a big role in the overall narrative. Rightly or wrongly, as a reader and an academic, when an author emphasizes her academic chops and they are relevant to the work, I assume I’ll see evidence of them in the text.

As I read, I bookmarked things that seemed off to me. I did this not because I was primarily looking for errors, but because numerous errors caught my attention as I was reading. As I said in my review, I found the romance scenes compelling, but I kept getting jerked out by context issues. The most egregious ones were (1) a reference to sati (the Hindu practice of widow immolation on the husband’s funeral pyre); (2) a character’s speculation that the hero was hugely endowed because of his Indian heritage; and (3) the hero and other Indian characters’ use of Sanskrit and Hindi.

(1) The British were obsessed with sati, first regulating it and then banning it in the mid-19thC (after the time in which the book is set). My understanding was that sati was primarily a north Indian practice but I wasn’t absolutely sure. So I checked my own library of South Asian historical sources, JSTOR, Google Scholar, and Google Books. There were cases recorded in the Madras territory, but they were far fewer than those recorded for Bengal and other parts of north India. In addition, I found articles and books discussing how sati was not particularly common, but it was important to the British (as confirmation of how primitive Hindu practices were, among other concerns). So, it is possible that Ben’s Indian community would have expected his aunt to commit sati? Yes. Is it likely, or as the book puts it, customary? Not according to the data. And given how loaded the whole topic is in post-colonial and feminist discourse, is it reasonable for the author treat it merely as an interesting factoid, added for local color? Not in my (academic) opinion.

(2) I had done quite a bit of previous research on 19thC colonialism and British stereotypes about Indians, and I remembered them as emphasizing the effeminacy of the native population, not its masculinity. So I revisited some relevant citations in my first book, checked a few more south Indian-specific ones, and felt pretty comfortable that this would not have been a stereotype in 1822. A more accurate invocation of the stereotype would have been for the character to mock the hero for having a tiny set of Precious Jewels, but that would not have been in keeping with Romance Hero stereotypes or the novel’s repeated treatment of the hero as “exotic” (at least not exotic in a good way).

(3) South Indians speak Tamil, which is part of the Dravidian language family. Sanskrit is an Indo-European language. Tamil has many loanwords from Sanskrit, but they are adapted and treated as Tamil words (see this wiki page for some examples). In 1812/1822, what Ashe is calling Hindi is what we now call Urdu, and it would not have been the mother tongue of Hindus outside a specific region of northern India (although Muslims might well have been speaking it in south India).  The languages which were closer to current-day Hindi, like Braj Bhasha, were unlikely to have been spoken anywhere outside north India.¹ I scoured the novel to see if Ben and his mother’s family were supposed to be north Indian, but Ashe never gives them a last name, and I could find no other useful markers. Ben’s uncle is described as a “Brahmin trader,” but since Brahmins were not usually traders, I wasn’t sure what to do with this information; traders came from a different Hindu class and caste.

As I read the book and checked sources, I realized that I wouldn’t have been nearly as bothered had the Indian aspects of the novel been set in Calcutta rather than Madras. I might have disagreed with the interpretation and presentation, but these would have been intellectual disagreements, not clear errors. But Madras and Bengal were essentially different countries, and you can’t transplant material from one to the other seamlessly.

The errors in (3) are ones I would usually note in a review, but they wouldn’t necessarily lead me to downgrade the book. Errors (1) and (2) are more problematic, because they involve the unquestioning reproduction of culturally loaded stereotypes. Neither is at all necessary to advance the plot or the characterizations. Therefore, they are difficult to treat as the kinds of fictional liberties authors take to integrate non-fictional material into a novel. And finally, Ashe appeals to historical authority in her biography and her author’s note, so the reader is led to believe the historical material in this book is more reliable than the norm.

This combination (multiple small errors, reproduction of culturally problematic stereotypes, and appeals to authority designed to enhance historical validity) adds up to a misfire for me. Hence, the book would have earned the Mistorical tag.²

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¹This review article offers a fascinating if somewhat tendentious discussion of the British role in the 19th and 20thC division of Hindustani and Khari Boli into Urdu and Hindi.
²The Mistorical tag isn’t attached to the review because it wasn’t formally in use at that point. I had used it an earlier “What I’m Reading” column because Spoil of War had been the immediate catalyst for the discussion of the term on Twitter, and DA reviewers have generally been free to make up and add tags as we wanted. Only one person noticed the tag and asked about it.
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