Why You Should Care About “Kristin Lavransdatter” even if You Disagree with the Author

As much as I am angry about all the puritanism in Robin Hobb’s books, I accept the notion of sin in Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset. I accept the strong religiosity of its characters and all the deliberation about guilt and grace.

Why have I ever come to it although it’s not my cup of tea at all? Is it because Undset got the Nobel Prize? Maybe. When I read Kristin… the first time, I was a little snob who wanted to learn serious literature. When I read it the second time, I saw all its nuances and subtleties. I saw how all the setting is connected to its times, and how the worldview of the characters follows this pattern. I saw also how realistic the novel is, and how the opinions of the heroes and of the very narrator change.

This changing, shifting, so obvious to the life in all its aspects, might have made me embracing Kristin… wholeheartedly. Unlike in The Forsyte Saga, it isn’t the change from questioning the establishment to longing for it. Unlike some more popular books —like Hobb’s series, of course—nothing remains the same. Let’s take Fitz Farseer. Fitz doesn’t change a lot from his teen years, literally inheriting Burrich’s opinions on sex and relationships, and being a wheening hypocrite stern to his foster son and to his lovers.

Meanwhile, Kristin isn’t such a simple character. She begins as a girl feeling guilty for her premarital sex with her beloved Erlend on the one hand and defying her parents openly for the sake of her love on the other one. She grows into a woman who may hold grudge, but who doesn’t conceal important things from her partner *recalls Fitz and laughs*. She ends up as a person who accepts the life as it is, focused not on scorning anybody, but on bringing help even to those who are outcasts. Meanwhile, she makes up with her son Gaute bringing his fiancee to their household before the wedding. She approaches the girl with no slut-shaming and she welcomes her grandson, commenting the sumptuous christening of the illegitimate child with only a bit of irony. And her complex attitude towards love and sex is only a small part of her contradictory and strong personality. I wish Robin Hobb had created such a character instead of pack of archetypes whose traits remain more or less the same. I wish Philippa Gregory created her characters like that, instead of quite inconsequent shifting between a modern approach of GirlsPower&StupidArrangedMar-riages on the one hand and the rule of not perceiving the people from Old Days through our standard on the other one. I wish Maurice Druon had had an approach like that instead of depicting the women with deliberate or involuntary sexism.

Because, really, Kristin Lavransdatter is one of the best historical novels I’ve read, and one of the novels in which the fantastic and subversive elements have been incorporated in a very subtle and unobvious way.

Still, why should I care, you may ask.

If you are an engaged Catholic, you’ll be probably glad to read a novel which is complex on the one hand and compatible with your worldview on the other one.

If you are a Conservative perceiving the private live in the past through the life of your parents or grandparents—who were probably stabily married without illegitimate kids—you’ll be surprised.

If you are a liberal or generally progressive, and doubtful about religion, you may wonder why should you care at all about a book written by a devoted Catholic who seemed ranting against extramarital sex. Then, I would advise you on reading Kristin Lavransdatter with your own eyes. You are wholly entitled to be sceptic. You are entitled to see the things which the author tried to conceal or saw as perfectly neutral. And the paradox is that those things are as visible in this book as in the works which are progressive or feminist retellings. Sometimes, they echo even more soundly.

Medieval World Without Purple-Washing

Kristin Lavransdatter might not be the most progressive novel in the matter of reproductive rights and explicit sexual freedom, but it is also better from conservative historical fiction on two levels. On the first one, it doesn’t conceal the fact that the people will fall in love and part from one another, and have illegitimate kids and illicit affairs no matter their religion or convictions.

On the second one, it’s more sincere in the question of women’s situation.

Nowadays, people like Jordan Peterson claim that there has been no patriarchy. On the other hand, not only the conservatives, but supposedly progressive authors—like Roshani Chokshi or Guy Gavriel Kay in his first novels—purplewash the past and tend to omit the sexism in their books. The conservatives, meanwhile, do purplewashing to present themselves and their opinions as women-friendly and to justify themselves and the institutions they support.

Sigrid Undset didn’t do anything like that. She did it not necessarily because she was an aware feminist, but the result is telling to the modern reader anyway.

The times when a man who’s never bitten his wife was considered a particularly kind guy weren’t women-friendly.

The times when a pregnant woman who experienced abuse stayed with her husband according to “God’s Will” weren’t women-friendly.

The times when a girl was accused of provoking her would-be-rapist—a man who was trained for a priest, additionally—weren’t women-friendly.

The times when a husband stroke her wife and felt entitled to do it merely because he was angry on her or worried about her, weren’t women-friendly.

The times when a woman was considered a witch merely because she’d gained some medical knowledge, weren’t women-friendly.

The times when priests and parents alike admonished women to obey their husbands, weren’t women-friendly.

The times when a well-born woman was an outcast because of living in an informal relationship, weren’t women-friendly.

The times when a master could seduce or rape his servant, and he was only to worry about providing (or not) some incomes to his bastards on her, weren’t women-friendly.

The times when a girl fell in love with her rapist and, many years later, wanted her husband to punish her for it, weren’t women-friendly.

On the basis of Kristin Lavransdatter, you can multiply such examples touching almost every female character in the novel.

Although the book doesn’t defy the patriarchy and the Church’s work on it openly, one could draw hope from some particular fragments featured and opinions expressed by the characters.

Kristin begins as a girl wanting to follow and obey her beloved, Erlend Nikulausson. Over the years, however, she starts seeing that Erlend relies on her and her managing skills a lot but he doesn’t respect her as his equal, excluding her from the things he considers important. In the end, she starts seeing the injustice of it.

It illustrates well how the women—despite of their hard work and their contribution to the society—are underestimated by men, even if they do the work considered male, like supervising incomes of an estate.

Fru Aashild, Erlend’s aunt, meets a similar fate, actually, working for her drinking husband whom she’s chosen on her own request. Additionally, she is clever and keen on herbs, and known for her elegance and beauty. Undset approaches her with sympathy and compassion alike, do not stepping into cliches of a woman who is weird because of her knowledge and dubious past, or a woman who deserves her not-so-happy marriage because she might have killed her first husband.

I just think that such characters and their thoughts may be read as feminist ones. Especially that even the male characters in Kristin Lavransdatter break some gender roles and seek women’s counsel if they are the good ones. Both Lavrans, Kristin’s father, and Simon, her kind-hearted ex-fiance, like children and take care of them after a way, taking interest in the infants’ ailings and toddlers’ games. Because of it, they are even considered too weak and not enough masculine. #patriarchyhurtsmentoo

Erlend, meanwhile, is that type of a man who relies on her wife a lot but then he doesn’t appreciate her work. He is that type of a man who finds sick toddlers and crying babes boring and nasty, and then plays an easy-going daddy towards his adolescent sons. In a nutshell, he’s a guy who doesn’t need to work much to receive his kids’ gratitude while Kristin is that “bad” parent who coupes with her sons on the daily basis and thus is found more stern and more demanding. Her parenthood isn’t all ideal—unlike her daddy, she punishes some of her children with beating— but she worries about her kids much more than Erlend does. And I hope neverthless that the question of corporeal punishment is still more about showing the medieval attitude towards child-rearing than expressing possible author’s views.

The Unobvious One

If one expect a peacuful and harmonious image of family life in the past on the one hand and impassable social barriers and stiff hierarchy on the other one, one may be surprised by Kristin Lavransdatter. If one expect TerribleFeudalism&TerribleHipocrysy, one may be surprised, too. If one expect All a Fine Past, it won’t meet one’s expectations as well.

Some conservatives generalise the past as the time of perfect family life and imperfect political life which excluded the Decent People—like Puritans, merchants, farmers—from influence. Some—still—don’t mind even the feudalism.

Sigrid Undset has avoided falling into any of those traps.

One may think that her books are both too proclerical and too focused on the gentry and nobility. Her trilogy, however, leaves a lot of space for sceptic interpretation (unlike some “beloved” series of mine like Outlander or The Tawny Man trilogy), and her characters are lively enough to speak for themselves—sometimes even against the author’s appeal. Just as characters in any well-written book should.

Yes, religion is important for the characters, and the pious ones are usually described as the good ones. Yes, Kristin considers brother Edvin her spiritual mentor even if a modern reader may disagree strongly with the advice and opinions of him.

On the other hand, the priests and nuns portrayed in the book differ a lot. There’s Erlend’s brother who simply does good things by helping the poors. There’s an educated nun running a school. There’s sira Eirik, a local priest from Kristin’s valley who has three kids (and a grandson-rapist bastard) and lived informally with his housekeeper together for years. There are also Church officials who treat religion as a political tool, and a bishop who grows into a villain threatening Kristin’s safety. As you see, the Church isn’t portrayed all good and innocent in the trilogy, and a reader doesn’t even need to read between lines to find some very dubious characters. One, however, can always notice how contradictory are the thoughts of Kristin in the book third in comparison to the (medieval) Church’s teaching on women, and how Erlend is portrayed as a Careless Bad Boy because of his quite indifferent attitude towards religion.

The class question is complicated in the trilogy as well. One may observe how the noble ones guarded the social barriers, and how doing something caused different consequences depending on the social class .

For example, Simon Darre, Kristin’s ex-fiance, married an ailing rich woman and cheated on her out of solitude and boredom, and got a servant maid with child. The maid would be married off well, and the child take into care of its father. Simon avoided any serious punishment.

Meanwhile, Erlend got excommunicated for living with a noble-born, marrried Eline out of wedlock openly, and their children couldn’t be sure whether they are outcasts or belong to the fine society.

It illustrates one of those things the author may not see but a reader does—that the social order of the setting isn’t about religious values, but about keeping the hierarchy clear and clean. That’s why the aristocrats and gentry could father kids on the peasant and servant girls, but the well-born women are to remain immaculate to ensure a noble house’s line undoubtfullness. And that’s why the virginity is praised among the well-born ones, and it isn’t neccessary in the commonfolk, among which having an illegitimate child with a BigGuy isn’t an obvious shame.

The paradoxes and contradictories of the social order in Kristin Lavransdatter aren’t only about double standards.

Among aristocrats, for example, Lavrans is considere a mere peasant, even if a respected one—because his line, famous in Sweden, isn’t important in Norway. On the other hand, some aristocrats are outcasts—like Fru Aashild or Eline. And Kristin has to work hard even if she is considered a misstress, a lady; her son Gaute adapts this style as a farmer who—because of Erlend’s political failure—inherited only her estate. And the numerous descriptions of household chores and agricultural works—often exhausting and tedious—make the books only closer to the ordinary life.

The commoners aren’t invisible and silent in the trilogy, anyway. They comment on the life of the main characters, they support them or mock them, and they always know something the nobs don’t.

The unobvioussness of the trilogy stretches out beyond the social and religious questions. The characters of it aren’t black-and-white, and neither their morality or their choices are—the reader is given enough of space to judge them and like or dislike them basing on their PoVs, not on the author’s whim. And the situations they encouter are often paradoxical.

Both arranged and love marriages grew unhappy over the course of the plot. Erlend is considered a womanizer because he’s lived in a monogamic but informal relationship. He is the main Love Interest but we are never suggested he’s the True Love and some God of Sex; instead, we are reminded more of his faults and shortcomings but not to an extend which would make him an Evil Husband cliche. Lavrans loves children but does not love conceiving them. Kristin and Simon regret the choices they’ve made freely. Kristin pretends being devoted and obedient, but over years, she defies her husband and she realizes that she has the right to do it. She pretends being pious but she saves her nephew with magic. She founds sex pleasant and sinful as a girl to find it sweet and almost sacred as a woman in her middle years—and this bitter-sweet, sacryfying view is quite rare both in the contemporary and the old fiction. And so her perceiving of religion changes—from terryfying sin to all-embracing compassion.

Even the literary technique responds to the novel’s tone—it’s one of the first works basing almost entirely on PoVs. The most of narration belongs to Kristin, but we get some fragments by Erlend, her parents and Simon Darre, all differing in vocabulary and atmosphere, giving a sense of drama and detachment alike. And all this is written so deftly that I must admit I consider Sigrid Undset the master of PoVs. Not one of the fantasy writers like George R. R. Martin, but her.

I’ve encountered an opinion that Undset got her Nobel Prize for Kristin Lavransdatter because the fascism was growing strong in Europe and the book/trilogy promoted the fascist values. And I must disagree with it strongly—not even because Undset was to defy the Nazis during WWII.

I disagree because there is nothing fascist about this book. It isn’t about strength, purity, exclusion and Aryan beauty. It’s about the women who are far from the “clean” innocent maidens, and who aren’t condemned for it in the end. It’s about women defying the men, fathers and husbands. It’s about a woman who ends helping the weak ones, the “unclean” ones—lepers, prostitutes and bastards. It’s about the people who—like Lavrans or Simon—are praised for their gentle heart. It’s, after a fashion, a novel condemning medieval Norway colonialism—because it is Erlend, the reckless one and the one who isn’t understanding enough but who is full of himself too much, who sees the people of far North as primitive and wicked.

So, where is the fascism? It isn’t a novel like that.

It’s a novel approaching the past from the unexpected, daily side. It’s novel of love, friendship and compassion. And a novel of strong women, even if they don’t act and sound like contemporary feminists.

Why I Stopped Reading the “Outlander” Series in the Middle of It

It’s time for yet another one anti-review, I’m afraid. Maybe it’s just me; I like writing about things I dislike or I disagree about.

So, supposedly you’ve heard about a wanna-be-doctor Claire Randall who travels in time to the eighteenth-century Scotland and meets the local god of sex Jaime Fraser, haven’t you? You must have heard. I heard about it, too, and I decided to read the series because I craved desperately for some books about Gaelic Scotland. It dissapointed me. On so many levels. And it irritates me so much that I’m going (or hoping) not to waste a lot of time on explaining why it is so damnably irritating.

1. Children’s Beating Obsession

Let’s say I’ve read some historical novels. Philippa Gregory’s, Sigrid Undset’s, Les Rois Maudits, Poldark series, Cashelmara. What’s more, I’ve read books written in the times when beating children was commonly acceptable, like those of Dickens or Dostoevsky.

What did I learn from these books? Children weren’t beaten for every “misdeed”. They might have been slapped, not beaten with a belt. The more timid ones might not have been punished with beating at all.

Jaime Fraser or his nephew Ian weren’t so lucky, apparently. In Outlander, SPOILERS Jaime recalls that he was beaten by his father (usually with a belt) for literally every childish prank or involuntary omission. From the age of six to sixteen. And he recalls his daddy as a good one. On the other hand, usual Ian’s punishment for the more serious pranks was fifteen beats with a belt. And he also considers his daddy a good one. SPOILERS And I have no clue what is the purpose of all that. To show that the Olden Days were stricter towards kids? They were, but not to such an extent. To show that we shouldn’t judge the people of past with our measure? Tell it to Gabaldon when she describes the series’ TrueLovers/slavery/pacifist tries of stopping Jacobite Rising or American Revolution ’cause “We dont wan’t bloodshed!1!” Maybe—alongside with some naturalist descriptions—it’s just the author’s fetish.

Besides SPOILERS Claire returns to her own time to raise Brianna, her daughter by Jaime SPOILERS Except for the obvious dramatic tension of such a plot solution (lost spouses&kids, and so on) it’s invented to yet another reason, I think. It’s convenient for your book to bring up a child far away from the guy—being described as a perfect wish-fulfillment as he is—whose convictions on corporal punishment were far from the modern ones. *sinister laughter*

2. Naturalistic Obsession

Explicit descriptions of sex/rapes/tortures are another problem to me.

SPOILERS Hell bunch of sex scenes in every book? Described. Jaime tortured and raped by sadistic Captain Randall who was Claire’s husband ancestor? Described. Brianna raped by an Evil! Pirate? Described. Her boyfriend Roger kidnapped and tortured? Described. SPOILERS

You see, I’m the last person to mind explicite sex or violence when such descriptions are needed. When such descriptions enhance our knowledge of characters, or show us something important. I’m the last person, especially, to mind them out of conservative reasons, modesty and so on. There are things beyond politics, however, like good taste or usefulness. And most of the “explicite scenes” at Gabaldon’s books do not meet these conditions. And it isn’t even the question of tortures’ scene. They are disturbing as they should be, but quite overloaded as well. But sex scenes? Usually, they are completely unnecessary, “just for the porn”.*recalls Guy Gavriel Kay’s books* They don’t tell us a lot about the dynamics and relations between characters. And that’s why I prefer the way of Marquez or Undset of writing about sex. Their descriptions are more metaphorical than anything else, and surprisingly—more telling. You cannot say it, unluckily, about these written by Gabaldon. Sometimes, actually, sex between her characters grows nasty. As when Jaime convinces Claire to have sex in the middle of a military camp. Or the first night of Roger and Brianna—I don’t know why, but the description of it seemed quite nasty to me. Maybe because of all the details of coitus interruptus or of what an uncleaned mouth tastes. Really, I don’t give a damn about it. Another question is how even the medical acts of Claire turns sooner or later to be connected with sex or genitals*prefers not to describe it in details*.

I must admit, however, that the naturalism of Gabaldon’s books has one advantage at least—it’s body positive. It acknowledges the fact that—surprisingly! —women have body hair and periods, and that it is nothing unnatural or nasty. I know it’s damnably important to remind the world of it. However, such important things about womanhood and dailyness are covered with tones of unnecessary sex scenes or torture fetish.

3. Toxic TrueLovers (or Sexism Overall)

If you haven’t heard that in Outlander book Jaime beats Claire with belt because she’d dared to disobey him and she got into trouble with Evil! Captain Randall, then you have it.

I have a great problem with this thread. I wouldn’t have it if Jaime Fraser was portrayed as an average man from eighteenth-century Scotland with all its patriarchy and bias. I wouldn’t have it if the book had that hint of realism beyond SteamySex and TerryfyingTortures. But you see, it isn’t that kind of realism. It’s rather that kind of fiction where eighteenth-century men—brought up in feudal, patriarchal and classist culture—are perfect Love Interests, the loving ones, the understanding ones, the caring ones, the passionate ones. If one is perfect and outstanding in comparison to the contemporary ones, than how could one beat his wife?

Beating isn’t the only sin of Jaime. He’s a rapist bastard as well. He prompts Claire to have sex at the others’ presence—although she isn’t especially willing. He mishandles her during another intercourse, even when she wants him to stop.

SPOILERS Later, when Claire is gone, he remarries to a widow called Laoghaire who has been infatuated with him for years. SPOILERS He admits that she wasn’t glad having sex with him. What a reader can guess out, actually, is the fact that Jaime was raping Laoghaire. He wouldn’t ask her whether she wanted to have sex, and he was brutal and indifferent to her during “love”-making.

And guess what? There’s NO justification for it. No “sexist times” and no narrator’s comments about Evil! Laoghaire who’s always had a crush on Jaime and hated our Mary Sue Claire. If Jaime is such an ideal, he shouldn’t rape anybody.

On the other hand, the very demonizing of Laoghaire is the proof that the series isn’t well-written. If you need to make a villain of your hero/ine’s love rival, than it means that the plot doesn’t stand for itself. *recalls Kristin Lavransdatter and lady Eline, more tragic than villainous* Why, some writers can write such things decently. Some not.

And yet, Jaime is still not as wicked and irritating as Roger, at least. He isn’t your Typical Harlequin Badass with bad reputation and numerous sexual partners; actually, he’s a virgin younger from his wife when he’s marrying Claire, and such a trope is always refreshing. Additionally, most of his unforgettable actions seems more the author’s appeal of “Past is brutal and Laoghaire Evul!” than the consistent and deliberate deeds which are corresponding to his personality.

And Roger McKenzie? Roger is perfect. He’s perfect as your Harlequin Hero observing the world with his male gaze. He despises sexual revolution but he admits he used to have quite a heartless and random sex. Even when he falls in love with Brianna, he perceives her mostly through her hair, legs, breasts and buttocks. When she wants to have sex, he says that if he wanted just to bed her, he could have had his way with her several times. She slaps him. I don’t like beating anybody, but it’s hard to me not to think that Roger deserves it. He’s one of those hypocrits who want to fuck whores and love Madonnas, the worst nightmare produced by the pre-revolutionary society. SPOILERS And later, when he’s drawn to the eighteenth century and learns that Brianna is pregnant (possibly not with his child, but a rape-child) he rejects her. Meanwhile, for Jaime it’s obvious that Brianna isn’t to blame for the crime which was committed on her, and that Roger should help her if she wants that help. SPOILERS

It doesn’t mean, however, that Jaime is fair about sexuality from the modern perspective, SPOILERS being quite indulgent about Ian having sex with a prostitute. Later, the same Ian calls Brianna a whore, because she dared to have premarital sex with her beloved one. SPOILERS Well, I’m not going to point who’s a little whore here, actually.

The examples of sexism (and double standards as well) in the books are more numerous, and often, quite ridiculous. Claire, for example, says something like that the great quest of Jaime is being a male. *Facepalm* She allows her daughter to decide about having an abortion, for the pregnancy might be the result of rape. On the other hand, when a fourteen-years-old girl rejected by her family and seduced by a man much older from her, wants an abortion, Claire compares her to a murderer. Double standard rulz! And, if you forget, the feminists hate men.

4. Commonfolk Out of Question

To put it plainly—even the simple statistics can show us that Outlander isn’t about the commoners. Jaime and his sister are of gentry origin. Their uncle is the chieftain of McKenzie clan. Their aunt owns a plantation. They might suffer because of Jacobite Rising and being Gaelic Scotts, but that suffering is so typical for historical fiction—make the readers believe that the privileged ones unaccustomed to humilation are suffering more than the commoners accustomed to submission and abuse. Such a suffering is worth more, isn’t it? And even the fact that our heroes embrace some commoners (like Fergus) or make friends with Native Americans doesn’t change it.

Not to mention that usually, we like to identify with those who are both influential and similar to us at once. And eighteenth-century gentry—literate and moderately clean—sems undoubtedly closer to us than ignorants working in dirt, doesn’t it?

And if you miss it, Claire’s “contemporary” husband is a professor with some aristocratic origin, and they lead quite a wealthy life. Upper-middle class people’s problems so much.

5. Gay Men Obsession

The problem with Outlander series isn’t the eighteenth-century people calling non-heteronormative men with ugly names. It reflects the sad truth of the society’s attitude towards homosexuality.

The problem is how non-heteronormative people are portrayed in the series. Surprisingly, they are all males. Aristocratic men. One of them is quite a nasty aging man harassing adolescent boys. Another one, captain Randall, is a psychopath and rapist bastard obsessed with Jaime. The last one, John Grey, is super-intelligent, super-kind and super-handsome. He’s our heroes’ buddy, and he loves Jaime, of course. He’s probably also a rapist bastard abusing slaves, but as we’ve already learnt, rape is a relative thing in Outlander series.

I’ve just got an impression that when you portray some group with two villains and one Mary Sue, there’s something utterly wrong about it.

6. The Reign of Mary Sue

Jaime and Claire (and Brianna plus John Grey, to some extend) are Mary Sues. They are either beautiful/handsome or captivating despite of their Uncommon Beauty Type. Jaime is a warrior/clan-leader/ship captain/gentleman/politician/hunter (delete when not applicable) and he’s good at all of this. He’s also a passionate lover to his wife and—as we are to believe despite of several nasty questions—a perfect True Lover. He can rock a child or build a house as well, and he speaks several languages. Could he be a better Mary Sue? A character more wish-fulfilling and more inaccurate to one’s times? An eighteenth-century guy who takes care of kids from time to time and respects his wife as a professional doctor?

Claire, however, is even more Mary-Sue-like. She’s got rare golden eyes (the Cullens approve) and at the age of fifty, she’s still found attractive and visually competitive by randomly met prostitutes. And if I have a problem with it, it’s because that being an attractive woman past fifty (or even forty) is still seen as some exception. This time, it’s the sign of Mary-Sueishness.

What’s more, SPOILERS Claire possess some kind of clairvoyance, and makes out the theory of time-travelling on her own. As a doctor, she rules as well, inventing antibiotics in her makeshift laboratory at her eighteenth-century home in Carolina. SPOILERS

The worst aspect of Claire’s coolness is her attitude towards the people of colour, however. In ’60s, she’s shown as Sooo Tolerant because she befriends an Afro-American doctor. In the eighteenth century, because she feels sorry for the slaves and cures them, and she finds slavery terrible. And has friends among the Native Americans, remember! It’s just sad to think that the people of colour were introduced to the series probably only to show how Good, Tolerant and Gracious Claire is.

Not to mention that Claire’s Buddy is put in the show mostly to say things which would be find unforgettable at whites and to mock the Afro-American counter-culture with its hairstyle and clothing.

7. The Guise of a Serious Fiction

Maybe I’m a prejudiced snob. But I don’t consider Outlander series something beyond a romance with some multi-genre traits of adventure, historical and fantasy novel. It’s just an exceedingly well-packed and overloaded harlequin written a bit better than a mediocre work of this type. It meets all the tropes of a romance novel—historical setting, attractive men not entirely resembling the people of their times, shallow womanizers portrayed as True Lovers, pathetic sex.

But the series pretends it’s something more. That’s why all the “social issues”, historical characters, religious references or profound descriptions of converted and down-trodden Roger are thrown into.

8. Too Much Content and Too Little Important Action

OK, this was the main reason of putting this series aside by me. Not occasional sexism, not toxic True Lovers, not pretext PoC’s portrayal, not stereotypical gays.*feels ashamed* It’s just too long, with hell bunch of sub-plots which aren’t relevant at all. And book by book, it grows only worse. Thus, even the perspective of receiving a family tree in the book eighth didn’t convince me to go on with Outlander.

Why I Stopped Reading Santa Montefiore on Two Books (or Rather, Why I Will Always Return to Victoria Hislop)

Or maybe, one thing about the hidden neo-colonialism of our culture?

Reading A Room with a View can explain us, I think, an Anglosphere phenomenon. It’s the phenomenon of the people born into relatively influential and wealthy countries fascinated with the countries more “exotic” and less influential at once. Fascinated to such an extent that they suppose these countries to be more colourful and interesting, and they are quite dissapointed when the truth comes out to be different. And with this phenomenon of boredom and false expectations, another one is connected.

These countries might vary a lot. They could be Mediterranean, Latin-American, Asian, or even — Eastern-European. But there is one thing which connects them. They are a guise. An escape from the author’s country. A mere background for a drama. A better drama, because a more exotic one. A stage which one could shape to one’s whim, just as the colonists and politicians did.

It is, I would say, the neo-colonial fantasy of the people so privileged that they can’t even see how shamelessly they interfere into one’s life and culture.

But then, where is the difference between this fantasy and, let’s call it, the Forsterian phenomenon? E. M. Forster also wrote about “exotic” countries like India or Italy. And guess what? He wasn’t so careless.

The difference between A Room with a View and all the “Mediterranean fiction” is that the former one actually mocks the Englishpeople seeking experiences and impressions outside their country and culture-circle. It’s a book self-aware of their “exotic guise”. While all the books of, let’s say, Santa Montefiore, Victoria Hislop or Rosanna Ley, sadly, aren’t.

Or let’s take A Passage to India. The racial, political and colonial tensions are no decorations there, no careless background for the dramatic story of True Love, Family Drama and so on (recalls Dinah Jefferies and snorts). There are the core of the book. It doesn’t make it pleasant, but sometimes, books aren’t to be pleasant.

While The Forget-Me-Not Sonata and Meet Me Under the Ombu Tree by Santa Montefiore are, I would say, an excellent example of the neo-colonial fantasy.

They are strange books. Supposedly set in Argentina, they are filled mostly with the characters of UK descend. If there are Argentinians, then they are rich ranchers marrying outside the country or episodic, stereotypical servants and gauchos, like in Meet Me Under the Ombu Tree. The Forget-Me-Not Sonata is even a better example of Anglocentrism, however. Argentina is merely a background there for a secluded English colony, and all the main characters are English. The Argentinians — or the Spaniards overall — are just servants. Servants who not only clean and cook. They entertain with impressions, entertain with impressions of fiery tango or beautiful countryside landscape. They give a guise, give some emotions to the bored and well-to-do characters. Otherwise, they don’t count, they aren’t important. And the worst thing is that the author probably didn’t intend it like that. The very presence of Argentinians was to be the proof of tolerance and diversity. Montefiore? It isn’t.

And the character of Mercedes, the cook in Audrey’s home, the protagonist of Sonata (Audrey, not home😁), is probably the worst example of such a neo-colonial portrayal. You see, Mercedes is a very stereotypical Latino servant-woman. Kind-hearted but superstitious, sharing her folk wisdom to the English missies. She throws words in Spanish into her English conversations, and she has numerous illegitimate children with random men. These Spaniards. So lusty and unordered. And their country. Who cares about some piece of true customs and history, when there is pampa and handsome gauchos?

So here we are — a safe story about well-to-do and secluded Britons, their kids and love dramas, set in Argentina, but English to its bone, and going back to England as well. And in England we have an aunt and her French lover. Who is a lazy guy having sex with her EvilSensous niece, of course. And we have a boarding school. And there are Gypsies. Roma people? Who bothers with calling an ethnic group with its own name, anyway. All which is important is their colourful carts and life-in-travel, and their gardening skills. An Other could be accepted as long as one is exotic and colourful, as long as one could entertain the colonist and apply to the colonist’s images of the Otherness.

This book (and Meet Me Under the Ombu Tree as well) is not only careless about some ethnic groups, and plainly neo-colonial. It’s also quite careless about all these who aren’t upper-middle class, and it uses non-heteronormative people as a mere joke as well. Remember, gays are half-males in pink clothes, and bisexual people are horny and trecherous.

The both books have a very strange morality, too. Boys sleeping around are perfectly good and normal, and their evanescent affairs do not hinder in finding a True Love. While girls sleeping around are either looking like “porn-stars” or are Evil Bitches using their bodies as a weapon. Double standard rulz!

Also, remember — cheating on your devoted husband isn’t bad as long as you do it with your TrueLover. Cheating on your bossy husband who decides on your kids’ education behind your back isn’t bad, either. Later, however, don’t be surprised when the said husband would be described as an understanding, noble and forgiving one.

The pop spirituality doesn’t help either, especially in Sonata, with ghosts being present at their own funerals and the wonderful kids of wonderful affairs, foreseeing the future of EvilUnhappyBitches.

In a nutshell — if you want to read about Argentina, never ever pick up Montefiore’s books!

Then, what is the difference between “exotic” Latinoamerican books of Santa Montefiore and “exotic” Greece-Mediterranean books of Victoria Hislop?

Oh, I could point several of them.

Let’s begin that her books about Greece are about Greeks at least, and her novel about Civil War Spain — about Spanish people. There are some Anglo-Spaniards or Anglo-Greeks in every book, serving as connectors — and this formulae is quite generic, I would say. But the characters most vital for the books are autochthons, and the action is placed in their countries with no guise of Express-UK-Emmigration. It is proceeded to such an extent that usually, the author throws hell bunch of Greek terms I must google out then. Some description of dishes, for example, would be quite useful. But, of course, throwing “exotic” names without any explanation is easy. Thoroughness of Hislop, however, have some advantages as well. From her books, one could always learn about details of flamenco or Cretan customs, and about the social and historical factors determining the behaviour and convictions of the characters. It is still more “I’ll show you how the life looks there, in this country far away” than anything else, but such an attempt is more sincere than the quasi-setting of Montefiore’s books, at least.

The interesting thing is also how — over the books — the human relations grow between Hislop’s characters. Except for quite simple morality of The Island, the next books offer us the female solidarity and the value of sisterhood instead of Madonna-whore dychotomy. The women — young and old, related or not, sick or healthy — are true friends there, giving help and support to each other. It’s already begun in The Island to reach its top in Those who are Loved where the main heroine chooses the well-being of her friend and her child over the lover who cheated on them both.

The morality of the books tends to be specific, however. In The Thread, we have a heroine who kills her Evul!NaziColaborantHusband with a very unhealthy diet. He was a Nazi friend, so who cares if murdering is good or bad? On the other hand, in The Island we are suggested that an unfaithful wife deserved her death. Wellp, I’m hoping it was to portray more the Cretan point of view sixty years ago than anything else. Overall, however, the values promoted in Hislop’s books are consistent and not toxic. A rich hypocrite abusing her wife and cheating on her is a bad guy. The people reporting their Jewish neigbours to the Nazis are the bads. The people killing the others for their sexual orientation are bad. The people helping the rejected ones are the good ones. The lepers aren’t to blame for their disease.

Some basic social sensibility is the most interesting aspect of Hislop’s books, anyway. Usually, the popular literature uses poverty, social conflicts or diseases as a dramatic guise, adding some emotion to the already emotional stories of love, wars and so on. It’s always nice to feel compassionate and generous cause you are reading about poor, discriminated or disabled people, isn’t it?

Here, it isn’t the case. Whatever drives Victoria Hislop to write about protesting workers, political prisoners, repressed and genocided Jews or rejected lepers, it seems to be more the true compassion than anything else. And it rings so true that for the mere sake of it, I can forgive her the whole package of the Mediterranean guise. Moreover, I should be grateful to her, for her books gave me some knowledge about leprosy and the history of Greece and Spain in the previous century. A priceless knowledge, actually.

You see, as a kid I thought (thanks to the Biblical stories, probably) that leprosy=zombification. I thought that you can contradict it by the mere touch and get sores&bumps&limbs falling apart at instant. And I wasn’t the only one to think like that, I suppose. I dehumanized the lepers and I was afraid at the very mention of the disease. Later, I grew compassionate towards the ill ones and disabled ones overall (and it might have had something to do with the changes in my worldview). The literature, however, would still give me an image of WalkingDeath, including Of Love and Other Demons and the Thomas Covenant series. And then, I read The Island. It was my first book by Hislop and I learnt hell bunch of useful things from it. At last, I read a book where the lepers weren’t some naturalistic token (and it’s very sad to use ill and disabled people like that altogether) or CrippledVillains (Fiona McIntosh and her Destiny, ugh). I read about characters I felt sorry for, and whose life hadn’t been as sad and hopeless as I suspected. I mean, the novel Spinalonga colony is quite a nice place — cafes, shops, gardens, a movie theatre…

Already in her first novel, Hislop made a rejected social group the main character, and she should be praised for the mere sake of it.

Her next works, however, emphasize classism and antisemitism more than ableism. It doesn’t mean that suddenly, her characters become healthy and pretty — there is still place for the deformed ones (in Those who are Loved one of the main characters gets terribly scarred during city riots) and the ill ones, either mentally or physically. But in these stories, the conflict between the rich ones and the poor ones, the privileged ones and the abused ones, is always present. There are the stories of strikes and persecutions, of citizens’ protests and the government’s violence. And it isn’t only the guise of Dramatic Times. It’s the homage for those who were rejected and persecuted, for the warriors of fredom. It always supports the side of the ordinary people, not of those who are happy, pretty and wealthy. Every political and historical reference — unlike at Montefiore’s — is deliberate.

The social problems raised in Hislop’s books gave me yet another important personal experience. I live in the country where nobody gives a damn about the crimes of right-wing dictators like Franco, Salazar, Trujillo, Somoza, Pinochet (…) or the Greek Junta actually. On the other hand, everybody with some social ideas is called a communist. And then, there are those books. Books in which the communists are on the democratic side, this time. Books with no Soviet propaganda justifying cruel dictators and crimes on humanity. I mean, it was nice to read it and to feel that you don’t support the bad side. It was nice to gain a proof that not only in the communist countries the human rigts were threatened. Actually, Franco’s Spain or monarchist Greece weren’t as bad as Third Reich or Soviet Russia. It was rather the level of communist Poland or Czech, or Hungary, and so on. In some moments, it was far worse. In others, slightly better. But, ye know, for some people, as long as the righties rule, there is no dictatorship.

And this thread in Hislop’s books is a mystery for me, altogether. Otherwise, they aren’t all progressive in the most obvious way. There are some atheists and illegitimate births described with no scorn, and Those who are Loved tells the story of a woman military rebel, but altogether, these tropes have been embraced into the western culture years ago. I just wonder who Victoria Hislop is — a decent conservative simply caring about the others and thinking that “Everybody’s better than Nazis”? Or maybe a left-winger who, for some reasons of her own, rarely raises some particular topics? Or maybe it isn’t the point.

The point is that her books, imperfect as they are, are at least more fair and more justful than most of the supposedly exotic and supposedly Mediterranean English-language fiction.