MG Mason

Creating Authentic Historic Characters: Portraying Racism as A Fact of Life


My current project, for those who have been following this blog, is a crime-comedy set in a small fictional Cornish town on Land’s End AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty). It’s a town occupied almost entirely by ghosts and one retired former DI from Cambridge.

I decided early that the ghosts would come from all periods. So far, I have introduced a woman whose husband died aboard HMS Hood in 1941, a pirate, a medieval monk and a shopkeeper from the early 19th century. One thing that I think needs to be handled delicately is social attitudes of these returned characters – such as how people in the past thought about other races and nationalities, disability, sexism and other issues today where we might differ vastly.

By Brantz Mayer – Own work by the original uploader, Public Domain,

I think, no matter what we do when handling these delicate subjects, it will upset someone. Do we play it down and make people a bit more modern in their attitudes? Then we stand accused of belittling suffering of people in the past in order not to offend the sensibilities of the majority who many not want to be reminded of past transgressions. If we play it up, we are in danger of moralising about something that it is not relevant to the plot. If we treat it as a fact of life, we run the risk of accusations of passive acceptance or indifference to the social issue – which is probably not the case at all.

I want to address issues such as nationalism, racism and even slavery but treat them as a fact of life (which it would be for the people involved) without passing commentary. I’m not sure that’s quite so easy to do without harshly judging a character who might otherwise be a decent person. Hindsight is a great thing, and attitudes that we would find distasteful today would have been the norm in past periods – we need to recognise that – and they would not  have been judged then for holding views we unacceptable today.

One particular example I have written so far is the shopkeeper who laments that his daughter (also returned from the dead) has got too comfortable with 21st century life, she wants to go on dates with the ghost boys in the village, she wants a mobile phone and she wants to drink in the pub. This frustrates her father who is firmly stuck in the 1830s – the decade they both died of cholera. It’s important to remember the year they died was 25 years since the Slave Trade Act, which suppressed the Slave Trade in the British Colonies (but didn’t abolish it). Total Abolition would come in 1833 and the movement have been building for years so it’s likely he had an opinion one way or the other on slavery.

The shop owner is a social conservative and in 1832, that is likely to mean having attitudes that we would consider racist, sexist and bigoted by our standards. Though I have not discussed slavery even though it would be a hot topic for this character, I have mentioned his distaste for foreign influences on the English language – particularly from the “Mohammedians and pagans” of the Indian subcontinent. That’s about as racist as it gets at the moment, but it did make me ponder as to how to handle his (what would be to us) borderline or fully racist attitudes.

Has anybody else pondered this question? What was your outcome and experiences or did you avoid presenting attitudes from the past we might find distasteful today?