Look– Jane Austen included characters of color. Stop citing “historical accuracy” with an all white cast.

Euphemia Toussaint

Euphemia Toussaint

So, there’s this Jane Austen  game that people keep pointing me to with great excitement. There’s been some conversation in the community because all of the characters in the prototype are white. Their FAQ says:

Will you provide choices in race and ethnicity? We will provide historically accurate racial diversity. This only becomes an issue where we get into aristocracy and with ethnicities that had not yet migrated to England at that time. If the historical accuracy interferes with the fun of the game rather than adding to it, we reserve the right to decide to ignore it further in development. For now we believe that we can manage these issues and maintain the historical accuracy without conflict.

Which makes just makes me want to say, “Have you read Sanditon?” In Jane Austen’s unfinished final novel, she included “Miss Lambe, a young West Indian of large fortune in delicate health.”

She had several more under her care than the three who were now come to Sanditon, but the others all happened to be absent. Of these three, and indeed of all. Miss Lambe was beyond  comparison the most important and precious, as she paid in proportion to her fortune. She was about seventeen, half mulatto, chilly and tender, had a maid of her own, was to have the best room in the lodgings, and was always of the first consequence in every plan of Mrs. Griffiths.

I’ll grant that Miss Lambe is a largely non-speaking role, but please note that she is the most eligible young lady and when you read the partial novel, there are no mentions of “unfortunate” skin tone. There are a number of West Indians in town and their presence is treated matter-of-factly, except for the delight at their fortunes. In fact, a significant number of Jane Austen’s heroines have a brown complexion. Are they West Indian? No, or she would have said so, but it’s worth noting that she did not consider a lily-white complexion a thing of beauty.

 ‘[Henry Crawford], was not handsome; no, when they first saw him, he was absolutely plain, black and plain; but still he was the gentleman, –Mansfield Park

By the by, though I have thought of it a hundred times, I have always forgot to ask you what is your favourite complexion in a man. Do you like them best dark or fair?” “I hardly know. I never much thought about it. Something between both, I think. Brown–not fair, and–and not very dark.” “Very well, Catherine. That is exactly he. I have not forgot your description of Mr. Tilney–’a brown skin, with dark eyes, and rather dark hair.’ Well, my taste is different. I prefer light eyes, and as to complexion–do you know–I like a sallow better than any other. You must not betray me, if you should ever meet with one of your acquaintance answering that description.” –Northanger Abbey

Emma Watson was not more than of the middle height, well made and plump, with an air of healthy vigour. Her skin was very brown, but clear, smooth, and glowing, which, with a lively eye, a sweet smile, and an open countenance, gave beauty to attract, and expression to make that beauty improve on acquaintance. […]The next morning brought a great many visitors. It was the way of the place always to call on Mrs. Edwards the morning after a ball, and this neighbourly inclination was increased in the present instance by a general spirit of curiosity on Emma`s account, as everybody wanted to look again at the girl who had been admired the night before by Lord Osborne. Many were the eyes, and various the degrees of approbation with which she was examined. Some saw no fault, and some no beauty. With some her brown skin was the annihilation of every grace, and others could never be persuaded that she was half so handsome as Elizabeth Watson had been ten years ago. –The Watsons

Miss Dashwood had a delicate complexion, regular features, and a remarkably pretty figure. Marianne was still handsomer. Her form, though not so correct as her sister’s, in having the advantage of height, was more striking; and her face was so lovely, that when, in the common cant of praise, she was called a beautiful girl, truth was less violently outraged than usually happens. Her skin was very brown, but, from its transparency, her complexion was uncommonly brilliant; her features were all good; her smile was sweet and attractive; and in her eyes, which were very dark, there was a life, a spirit, an eagerness, which could hardily be seen without delight. –Sense and Sensibility

“Did you ever see such a skin? — such smoothness! such delicacy! — and yet without being actually fair. –One cannot call her fair. It is a most uncommon complexion, with her dark eye-lashes and hair — a most distinguishing complexion! So peculiarly the lady in it. –Just colour enough for beauty.” “I have always admired her complexion,” replied Emma, archly; “but do not I remember the time when you found fault with her for being so pale? –When we first began to talk of her. –Have you quite forgotten?” –Emma

To say nothing of the embassies in London, which means pretty much every ethnicity was represented in the aristocracy. Outnumbered by white people? Sure. But to imply that historical accuracy might prevent having a diverse range of choices is ignoring your source material.

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13 Responses

  1. Judy Tyrer

    As the author of the comment you are railing against, I honestly do not understand why you are quoting me and then railing as if I am not doing the exact thing you are doing. You are correcting historical inaccuracies about blacks in the period. I am doing exactly that. So yes, be upset that history has not been accurately representative of the ethnic diversity. But please don’t use my quote incorrectly. We are not having a Japanese King of England in the game. Nor are we having a Korean Queen, or a native American Duke of Windsor. So if that is what is upsetting you, let’s talk about THAT. But historical accuracy is what I am going for and that is what your blog post is about. So please don’t use my game as a springboard for your rant simply because our only male and only female model were both white. All the characters in the prorotype being a grand total of two models with 3 outfits each.

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal Post author

      Thank you for stopping by. I’m not sure why you’re are bringing up the King of England or the Duke of Windsor, since I’m raising a question of about characters, though I realize that isn’t clear in my post. You also mention the prototype having only two characters, which again, is not one of my complaints. My concern was completely about the way your FAQ is worded. I was hoping that there would be a clear statement that the game would have racial diversity. Too often “historical accuracy” is used as a shield to explain away non-diverse settings, which is what your FAQ looks like it is doing.

      I saw multiple people bring up the question in the comments thread and it looked like they were ignored. The only time I saw you address it was with a statement that you would collect resources and offer links. Now, I did just scroll through all of the comments and I apologize for not doing that earlier. I see that on November 7 you say:

      And on race, some people are reading that as a reluctance to include races which is not the case. I just want to see what I can do with race within historic context and then when I see what cannot be done I will have to choose how to handle it. BUT, wouldn’t it be more fun if we could include ethnicities in historically accurate ways? I want to see what I can do that way first.

      If we decide to have a non-Anglo Prince of Wales, we need to so as a conscious action, not a default “didn’t want to deal with it so just ignoring it”. I am actually hoping to find some delicious scandals that will blast through some of our stereotypes and a lot of players have been sending me some great research links.

      I can’t promise everyone will like all our decisions, but they won’t be taken lightly and without listening. So please, keep those links coming.

      And

      Yes, there will be racial diversity in the game. The question I have is “how do we manage it”? Do we just ignore it and it’s not relevant to the game? Or do we use the history of the time to influence game play in some way? Do we include ethnicities that did not live there (American Indians? Indigenous Australians?). This conversation has centered on blacks but there is much more to it.

      This discussion leads me to worry that trying to include any kind of honesty with regard to history is going to be highly controversial. That makes me sad. I’d like to put all the links I’ve gotten up on the web page so people can research as well. I’d like to find a way to make this part of the game play, not at the expense of others but in an interesting way, slipping into the skin of another person in another period of history.

      For those of you upset that I don’t want to simply ignore race without seeing if there isn’t something beneficial to the game in doing it historically, I apologize and I just have to ask you to trust me not to be a jerk. I’m not going to shove a vision you don’t want down your throats. If I can’t make it fun, it won’t go in.
      What I also plan to do (warning, tech talk) is to make all of these rules configurable parameters so we can turn them on and off and test what works best in which environments. We can turn them on for the educational servers and off for the play servers. There are a lot of solutions to this. We don’t have to make it win-lose. What we have to do is find the right balance and way to approach it.

      But these are both buried in the comments on the Kickstarter. Honestly, if I had seen “Yes, there will be racial diversity in the game,” in the FAQ then it would have answered my concerns. What troubled me was that the FAQ appeared to be unwilling to to make a clear statement. The fact that multiple people kept asking suggests that I was not alone in feeling like the wording was a dodge.

  2. Rob Bannister

    That is interesting. I imagine that, to some extent, the colour thing came about in America because dark skin meant slave, which didn’t apply in Britain and, by all accounts, didn’t even apply in Ancient Rome. On the other hand, there was a snobbery about sun-tanned skin simply because a sun tan meant “labourer” and we know rich ladies went to lengths to avoid getting a “common” tan or almost worse, freckles.

    The 19th century must have seen the beginning of the time when rich people were able to travel (as opposed to being transported) and so a beginning of the idea that sun tan equals sufficient money to travel to a warmer country, especially in winter. To oppose this, I am sure I remember reading stories in my youth where a “swarthy complexion” in a man indicated possible wickedness – I think it was referring to carelessness about shaving, which makes today’s peculiar fashion for men with stubble, quite strange.

  3. Jane Pinckard

    Vanity Fair also includes a character of color — one of Becky Sharp’s school mates at her finishing school is a young lady of good fortune from the West Indies (although I don’t believe she has any lines.) More evidence to suggest that there was a society of well-heeled people of color circulating about in England at the time!

    I’m one of the commentators who is a backer of the Kickstarter who has asked for more diversity and inclusion in the final game, understanding that this is still a prototype and that not all features can be present right away. But I just think how much more interesting and fun it would be to have an Austen-inspired setting that allows us to remix and play with her world in ways that I think do more justice to her than if we try to recreate her time precisely.

  4. Jane Pinckard

    I also admit I am a little disturbed by some other commentators’ implication that somehow the game would be less enjoyable if there were characters of color in it, and I’m still trying to mentally unpack that and understand that.

  5. Rob Bannister

    I am equally disturbed that some people think skin colour is so important that is vital to make a game, which is supposed to be based on a novel largely about middle-class English people, into something quite different. I can only suppose this is to promote some sociological or political point. No doubt the game could be even more enjoyable for some people if it included Italians, Germans and Russians or even vampires and zombies, but then it wouldn’t have any connection to Jane Austen.

  6. Margaret Organ-Kean

    I pick up bits of trivia. One them is that the King and Queen of Hawai’i died in London in 1824 of the measles while they were the guests of King George IV. I have not heard that all of their party died.

  7. Ouranosaurus

    Suggesting in the same breath that there were no “American Indians” in Britain and that the game will be historically accurate suggests a lack of research. In the 1700s and early 1800s, traders from the Hudson’s Bay Company and North West Company (the Nor’Westers) tended to marry local First Nations women across what would become Canada. Many of their children were sent back to England to go to school. Some of them married into middle-class English society. (A giant pile of fur trade money tended to make this process easier.) Read a history of the HBC, and make a drinking game of the phrase “His father was a Scottish trader, his mother was Cree/Metis/Iroquois/etc.” You’ll be hammered pretty quickly. Then there were people like James Douglas, born 1803, whose father was (drink) Scottish and whose mother was “free coloured” from Guyana. James Douglas joined the HBC, married Amelia Connolly, daughter of a Scottish trader (drink) and Cree mother. He became governor of British Columbia colony, was knighted, and left descendants in Canada and Great Britain.

    The number of British people who consider themselves “purely English” but who have a great-great-great-grandmother from Bengal or the Six Nations or the West Indies is probably pretty high.

  8. Solomon

    Funny that even as we enter the 21st century, we are still having to address and try to explain the intentions of famous authors from the distant past. Sadly, alot us today deliberately try and put modern racial stereo-types to characters of the past, mainly because we just cant see past the lies we have been taught and adopted since child.

    Racism and racial superiority as we know it today has not been around that long, taking form right about the time of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, approximately 450-500 years ago. And, ever since, the very mind-set and thought processes of folks has been channeled through this insipid funnel.

    After the European Renaissance period, alot of history books seem to make only vague inclusion of non-white people across the European continent, and if they were famous in their time, written accounts are careful not to be definite on their racial heritage.

    Just to let readers know that…blacks/negros/Africans people did not only arrive in Europe during, or because of the slave trade! They traversed, lived, fought and inter-married with others on the continent.for thousands of years! Jane Austen lived in cultural mixed English world, where many well-to-do blacks were part of the everyday society. Remember that there were famous families such as the Dumas and Pushkin.

    As we go forward into the future, it is with great hope that we go with an open mind, and work to shed the medicine of ignorance which destroyed so many!

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