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Casual Racism


I've been reading, or rather listening to1 Dorothy L. Sayers Lord Peter Wimsey book Whose Body? and the casual racism and anti-Semitism of this 1923 work still makes me catch my breath.

The plot involves, among other elements, the disappearance of Sir Reuben Levy. You'll perhaps not be surprised to discover, given his surname, that he's Jewish and here is Wimsey's mother, the Duchess of Denver, talking about Levy in chapter three2 (my highlighting):

"Very curious, dear. But so sad about poor Sir Reuben. I must write a few lines to Lady Levy; I used to know her quite well, you know, dear, down in Hampshire, when she was a girl. Christine Ford, she was then, and I remember so well the dreadful trouble there was about her marrying a Jew. That was before he made his money, of course, in that oil business out in America. The family wanted her to marry Julian Freke, who did so well afterwards and was connected with the family, but she fell in love with this Mr. Levy and eloped with him. He was very handsome, then, you know, dear, in a foreign-looking way, but he hadn't any means, and the Fords didn't like his religion. Of course we're all Jews nowadays and they wouldn't have minded so much if he'd pretended to be something else, like that Mr. Simons we met at Mrs. Porchester's, who always tells everybody that he got his nose in Italy at the Renaissance, and claims to be descended somehow or other from La Bella Simonetta - so foolish, you know, dear - as if anybody believed it; and I'm sure some Jews are very good people, and personally I'd much rather they believed something, though of course it must be very inconvenient, what with not working on Saturdays and circumcising the poor little babies and everything depending on the new moon and that funny kind of meat they have with such a slang-sounding name, and never being able to have bacon for breakfast. Still, there it was, and it was much better for the girl to marry him if she was really fond of him."

I did wonder whether perhaps Sayers was being satirical, reflecting on the views of a past generation. But then in the following chapter we get to meet Levy's valet Mr. Graves. Here he is talking to Wimsey's man Bunter (again my highlighting):

"Now there's none of that here. A quiet, orderly, domestic life, Mr. Bunter, has much to be said for it. Meals at regular hours; decent, respectable families to dinner - none of your painted women - and no valeting at night, there's much to be said for it. I don't hold with Hebrews as a rule, Mr. Bunter, and of course I understand that you may find it to your advantage to be in a titled family, but there's less thought of that these days, and I will say, for a self-made man, no one could call Sir Reuben vulgar, and my lady at any rate is county - Miss Ford, she was, one of the Hampshire Fords, and both of them always most considerate."

and Bunter replies:

"I agree with you, Mr. Graves - his lordship and me have never held with being narrow-minded - why, yes, my dear, of course it's a footmark, this is the washstand linoleum. A good Jew can be a good man, that's what I've always said. And regular hours and considerate habits have a great deal to recommend them."

So there you have it: the view above and below stairs, by both the last and the current generation is that Jews are a funny lot although this one didn't seem too bad.

And just then, when I was thinking we were going to stick with anti-Semitism, we move on to racism as within a few paragraphs our hero Lord Peter sticks his oar in thus while speaking to Inspector Parker:

"Have you any Scotch blood in you, Parker?" enquired his colleague, bitterly.

"Not that I know of," replied Parker. "Why?"

"Because of all the cautious, ungenerous, deliberate and cold-blooded devils I know," said Lord Peter, "you are the most cautious, ungenerous, deliberate and cold-blooded. Here am I, sweating my brains out to introduce a really sensational incident into your dull and disreputable little police investigation, and you refuse to show a single spark of enthusiasm."

So that's two races she's insulted and we're only on chapter four. I wonder what more is to come?

None of this should be any surprise I suppose, views in 1923 were very different to today, but I bet none of this appears in modern day dramatisations ...

  1. Via a Librivox recording while walking Jack. It's actually a bit dubious doing this as, if I understand the copyright law correctly, the book is out of copyright in the US but is still in copyright in the UK, so although they're allowed to create the work I'm not allowed to listen to it until 2027.
  2. Again there's copyright issues here but I think I can rely on the "fair dealing" defence offered by s30.(1) of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

Tags: books Written 21/06/13

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