Depicting Violence in the Dawlish Chronicles
A Correspondent asks:
Today’s readers do not have the same sensibility as Victorians. Is there a compromise in Britannia’s Wolf between the way Dawlish and his contemporaries saw, and to some extent accepted, violence, and the way we respond to it today?
The issue of making characters true to their period – in my case the Victorians, is critical. We shouldn’t graft 21st Century sensibilities on to 19th Century people, even sensitive and decent ones. The Victorians had a much more robust attitude to life and death than we do in the West today. Most families would have lost children and death in childbirth was still as common as it is today in Africa. Anaesthetics were only in their infancy and people died regularly of complaints that are managed almost routinely today. There was somewhat of a cult of mourning and remembrance in that era whereas today many in the West have never seen a corpse until a parent dies. With us death is hidden – and is perhaps the last undiscussible.
Public executions continued in Britain until 1868 and were well attended. When they ventured overseas, as Victorians increasingly did as the Empire expanded, they encountered cruelty on a scale and intensity that shocked even them, as happened in China and India and Zululand and elsewhere – they responded very robustly indeed. There’s a taste of this in Britannia’s Wolf, when Dawlish is confronted with a massacre of innocents and takes a rather tough reprisal against the perpetrators. There was a lot of similarly unofficial rough-justice against concentration-camp guards and other SS thugs in the immediate aftermath of WW2.
And yes – people do get marked, indeed hardened, by such experiences. My own exposure to cruelty and callousness by the powerful in Africa and South America has left me with an abiding contempt for the self-styled elites in such countries and makes me understand, even if I cannot condone, violent retribution when the tables are finally turned. I’m addressing this theme in a forthcoming Dawlish Chronicles novel.
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