Saturday, March 6, 2010

Traveling to Teens: Y.S. Lee Guest Post

Everyone please welcome Y.S. Lee to Reading in Color! She wrote The Agency: A Spy in the House which will be a trilogy. Read my review here. You can follow the rest of the Traveling To Teens tour by going here (and I highly recommend you do, the guest posts on Victorians are fascinating! I've learned so much).

Hello! This is the 3rd of 8 guest posts I’m making as part of the T2T blog tour. As an ex-professor and writer of historical fiction, my theme is Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About the Victorians. Yesterday, I talked about Extreme Child Labour at Books by Their Cover. Today’s topic is Victorians of Colour.

First, off, breaking news: Victorian England was not lily-white! Not in major cities, at least, and especially when those cities were port towns like London, Bristol, and Liverpool. Regular readers of this blog may be rolling their eyes at this point: “Um, OBVIOUSLY.” The problem is, you’ll have to read very carefully, and for quite a long time, before the fiction of the Victorian age starts to reflect that reality.

Exceptions: Thackeray’s Vanity Fair features a handful of very minor characters with brown skin; there’s a much-abused servant in Dickens’s Dombey and Son who’s known only as the Native; and there’s the theory that Heathcliff might be Romany (because he’s found in Liverpool, and kind of swarthy, and yeah, that’s it). But there ain’t much else. And the POCs you see in these novels are either incredibly minor characters (practically throwaway lines), or else objects of abuse or ridicule. They’re the victims of the authors’ racial, and frequently racist, assumptions.

So when I started to imagine my novel, The Agency: A Spy in the House, I included a population I’d stumbled across in my PhD research: Lascars, aka sailors from the Asian subcontinent. Some were simply passing through London between ocean voyages; others chose to settle down, marrying English women and having families; others still were stuck in England, unable to find passage back to their home countries. For this last group, there were actually specific charities that aimed to help them (and convert them to Christianity at the same time). The “Imperial Baptist East London Refuge for Destitute Asiatic Sailors” mentioned in Spy is parody of their usual tone.

Now, London is actually a network of tiny villages: you could grow up in the East End and never leave it for years, so it’s quite possible that a sheltered girl (like Angelica in my novel) could grow up five miles from all these South Asian and Southeast Asian sailors and never realize they existed. But some of them – or their wives, and especially their children – must have journeyed through the city at some point. And Spy is a novel about those possibilities, too. But enough said, for now. I hope you enjoy the book!

I always thought of Victorian England as lily-white so it was super interesting to hear that it did actually have some color and different cultures! Thank you Ms. Lee :)
Visit the author's website and everyone needs to go pre-order the book. Also the author is having a launch party in Ontario, check it out for more details.


  1. WOW--I'm so excited about this book thanks to your excellent review, Ari, and the author's informative guest post...I grew up devouring British literature and almost preferred when there were no PoC mentioned b/c if they *did* appear, they were certain to be ridiculed...I'm already sketching a novel set in England, perhaps earlier than the Victorian period, and so this has got my wheels turning. Thanks to you both!

  2. I suspect that in many places all around the world, the people aren't as monochrome as the majority like to think it is. That being said, omg Asian sailors in your novel!! So exciting!! I can't wait to read Agency, lol.

  3. Interesting that she was a professor (of history?) before becoming an author of historical fiction. I spent two years in graduate school, hoping to become a history professor, but I couldn't stop making things up. ;-)

    Looking forward to reading the book.

  4. How interesting! :) I'm so looking forward to reading Ms. Lee's book!

  5. Hello all, and thanks so much for your kind comments!
    @Zetta, you're absolutely right. The valet in DOMBEY & SON, for example, exists purely to be beaten up (people smash into him, kick him, etc) - it's pure Three Stooges stuff, but with the brown man as constant scapegoat.
    @Ah Yuan, for sure. But it's odd how rarely the subject comes up even in contemporary revisionings.
    @Lyn, I taught English lit but with a really historical emphasis. It's better outside the academy!

  6. Fascinating! Been thinking about this lately as I started watching the BBC adaptation of Little Dorrit (cast a Black woman as Tattycoram)...Many thanks for this post, and I can't wait to read The Agency!

  7. @Zetta- Thanks! I enjoyed the book so much and I will eagerly be awaiting your novel set in long ago England :) I've never read any Victorian England novels with POC, they've all been lily white so I wouldn't know, but the Agency does not fit in that stereotype.

    @Ah Yuan-So true but like Y.S. Lee says, it never comes up that most societies are not all lily white in fiction. the Asian sailors/Lascars was so interesting!

    @Lyn-It was a really good book, I think you will enjoy it.

    @Katy-Yay it was so great :)

    @Y.S. Lee-Thanks so much for this guest post, it was very informative and eye opening!

    @Olugbemisola-Hmm I've never heard of Little Dorrit but I'm glad that some color was put into it =) This was quite an enjoyable post for an enjoyable book :D

  8. I was thinking of the BBC adaptation of 'Little Dorrit' when Dickens was mentioned above, but reading through the comments it sounds like maybe she is not black in the book? I'm really excited about this series - spies!

  9. This sounds great. I will definitely add The Agency: A Spy in the House to my TBR list.

  10. Populations tend to be insulated, whether by choice or design. For those of the "ruling class", it is often their attempt to maintain the fiction of their view of the world as it should be. I think in Victorian times the barriers were starting to break down. Society as a whole was changing and the racial roles and positions were part of that. Just as the wealthy merchant class was becoming more prominent and influential, minorities were slowly becoming more a part of society in general if only at the fringes.
    I look forward to finding out more about this series.

  11. I just picked up The Agency today and, reading the author's bio, found that she was born in Singapore, which made me wonder more about her, etc etc, Google brought me here (of course you know me, Ari, but it's been a couple months at least since I've been able to keep up on blogs!).

    You so rarely see the reality of Victorian England's diversity in literature (acknowledging, however, its rigid socioeconomic structure's problems). After all, the British Empire engulfed so many countries, not to mention that it abolished slavery in the late 1700s or early 1800s--long before we did in the US--which combines to mean that of course there will be a variety of people of color in Victorian England just from all that moving about.

    Yet so many of the stories we see are told from the point of view of the ruling class. I loved, for example, the acknowledgment of Indian people in the 90s adaptation of A Little Princess (the Sikh who attends the old man next door), even if the guy felt like a magical-being-as-object rather than a full-fledged character, because so often we don't even get that much from Victorian stories. Glad to see it's expanding to a wider view. Looking forward to reading this!

  12. @Jodie-I'm not familiar with much Dickens so I don't know. It's going to be a lovely series, I can't wait for the sequel!

    @librarypat-Thank you for sharing that, it was quite interesting. I agree, Victorian society was changing for the better (though progress was slow as usual). Definitely check out this series, it's great.

    @stacy-I miss you! I feel like I don't see you as much on blogs but I do 'see' you on Twitter so it's not so bad :)

    That's how I first found out about the series, I saw the author's name. I then emailed Doret (thehappynappybookseller) since she always knows if a book has a poc or if the author is (can't say more than that!)

    So true, usually only the Victorian upper class or male middle merchant class is portrayed. I want to read more about how England treated its colonies and if the people they ruled over moved to England.

    I remember watching that movie and thinking the same thing! That I liked the diversity of having a Sikh, but I wanted him to be more realistic or to have his story told. A must read =)

  13. My absence on blogs lately is for a good cause, though. I'm reading up a storm, and we're coming close to acquiring our first books! :)


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