Does Condescension Belong in Historical Non-Fiction?

To Condescend

To behave as if one is conscious of descending from a superior position, rank, or dignity, .to stoop or deign to do something

Soap Box 1cropped

Yes it is a return to my soap box and time for a rant.

When we take up a historical subject whether the plight of governesses, the institution of slavery or the narrative of an individual, is it an inherent condescension?

Are we the superior, educated wiser more knowing people who stoop down to explain a past culture? Do we deign to expose their shocking ignorance, cruelty or inhumanity? Is that the way it’s supposed to be?

Maybe condescension in non-fiction is the reason it has taken me so long to come around to reading it. I don’t like high handed dealing with a subject as if our current knowledge somehow  makes us inherently superior.

No group of people past, present or future can rightly condescend to another group of people on the grounds of inherent superiority.

People are not stupid just because they thought differently or believed things we now know to be untrue, because guess what in their day they were advanced and enlightened.

100 years from now some historian will scoff at what naive things we believed way back in 2016. 

Other People's Daughters: The Life and Times of the Governess by Ruth Brandon

I did overall enjoy this book and will be buying my own copy as a reference.

Last Monday in my Review of Other Peoples Daughters I said the book equally interested and annoyed me. The interesting bit was the content and the extensive quoting from the governesses and contemporaries themselves. I believe the book was as factual and accurate as as any historical non-fiction can expect to be.

The bit that ruffled my feathers and got my dander up was the condescension.

Now I am going to go very  un-scholarly because I could not locate a single infuriating quote or blatantly condescending paragraph, it wasn’t so overt, and maybe it was all in my reading of the text. 

However it felt like Brandon came to the material with the view point that women of the 1800’s were downtrodden, oppressed, ignorant, without hope, without prospects. The reason for this was men and religion and the governess was the tool by which women were kept in subjection.  This is the lens through which we are shown the governess.

by contrast…

Marmee and Louisa by Eve LaPlante

There is mystification, there is wonderment but no condescension

Eve LaPlante in Marmee and Louisa tackles many of the same issues, women’s education,  women’s health, their rights or lack of rights in the areas of marriage, children and property but she never once sounds condescending.

Her account is written with great compassion, with understanding of the overwhelming odds women faced. She also wrote with compassion for the men who tried and failed, in what society saw as, their role as bread winner and provider.  Maybe her compassion arises from the fact that the Alcotts are part of her family history. (For more discussion of Marmee and Louisa see here )

Cane River, Lalita Tademy, Historical Non-fiction, slavery

A fantastic compassionate read!

In Cane River author Lalita Tademy tackles the equally contentious subject of slavery. (Abigail Alcott viewed women’s suffrage as the next great hurdle to leap after the abolition of slavery)

In my late teens early 20’s I had to stop reading about slavery and civil rights because I got so boiling angry at the cruelty and injustice one race of people could inflict on another. (No really my blood pressure would go up, I’d turn red, get dizzy and turn that tension on whoever was at hand)

I did not think it possible to tell a story with sympathy for both sides of the equation and yet that is what Tademy  accomplishes in Cane River.  Again she is writing from her family history so maybe there in lies the source of her compassion. (I will be reviewing Cane River in future)

LaPlante and Tademy put us in the shoes of historical people, make their world live for us, their narrative fills us with compassion, understanding and we feel the injustice without being told it was an injustice, without being repeatedly told we are lucky to live today “when life is so much better.”

Why condescension in historical non-fiction really gets my goat

And here perhaps is the crux of the matter.

Condescension in historical non-fiction really gets my goat because while ,yes we have laws that guarantee equal education, equal rights, equal freedoms it doesn’t mean everyone gets them.

Much of what happened to women, children and minority groups in the 1800’s, is still happening today!

For Example…

In Australia this year,  2016, on average one woman a week dies as a result of family violence, in the US more than 3 women a day are murdered by a current or former partner. Despite the laws, despite education hundreds of thousands of  women around the world are still in the same position as the former governess Nelly Weeton and they find it just as hard to leave as she did.

Is there really room for condescension?

Yes it is terrible that children were considered the legal property of their fathers, in  the same way slaves were the legal property of their owners, no matter how violent or neglectful the father/owner was. But here is a frightening statistic: In the US in 2015 at least 70% of abusers who fought for sole custody of their children won.

Can we rightly condescend to the Victorian’s?

In the course of historical research we come across infuriating view points, inflammatory beliefs and ludicrous reasons to support those beliefs.

But people haven’t changed.

With the advent of the internet, social media and (gasp!) blogs,there are even more infuriating, inflammatory and ludicrous beliefs at large in society today than in the Victorian age.

Life then and now is complicated made up of many layered narratives. That is why I love Historical Fiction, it humanizes history, helps us put ourselves in their shoes because in the end we are all hopelessly flawed.

In summary:

No,  condescension does not belong in historical non-fiction.


How do you feel about Condescension in historical non-fiction?

Does it get your goat and ruffle your feathers?