Saturday, March 10, 2012

A Victory of Research

Yesterday and today were more research days rather than writing days.


And no, "research" is not a euphemism for "Internet stalking." Really.

That's another good thing about revision; in addition to taking care of the actual writing, there is a chance to explore more research.

I was redoing Chapter Two last night--I decided to bring up a scene that was on page 88 of my first draft to the second chapter. Basically, Mady and Alex are in the garden of the square they live in while in Bristol with their nursemaid when a man comes up to them and demands that they leave.

It works better toward the front of the story--sets up conflict.


One of my main problems with the first draft is that while I could research Georgian and Regency England, read about the West Indies, look up maps, and read about the British slave trade and the abolition movement of the 1770s and 1780s (or watch, actually, since I re-watched Amazing Grace last night)--I figured out why there aren't books written in that period about biracial people, especially of the romance variety, which requires a certain assumption on the reader's part about the history of that time period.

'Cause there wasn't a lot out there on them.

It seemed that I couldn't really get anywhere with anything to do with mixed-race, colonial-born kids living in Britain--what would that have been like? How different would their grasp of identity be to my own now, when it's practically trendy to be mixed? How familiar would a rural villager have been with people of other races? What would their reaction be? And perhaps mostly, what kind of lives did the mixed-race children themselves live?

I can imagine all of that, of course. And I did. But not finding any examples of well-off, biracial young girls living in Britain made me wonder how far I had floated into "historical novel fantasy land."

Well, I found out some of my answers late last night, when I typed something like "British West Indies 1790s mixed race" into Google. I've done that tons of times before, ever since iterations of this story have been in my head, but this time, there was a doctoral dissertation entitled Children of Uncertain Fortune: Mixed-Race Migration from the West Indies to Great Britain, 1750-1820, written in 2010.

And I completely geeked out. Like, seriously. I read it and geeked out more. And by geeked out, I mean that I was beaming and doing a strange hands-only dance and muted squealing, because holy crap, I found it!!

And then I texted some friends because I couldn't keep my research victory to myself.

Having finished reading it now, it confirms some ideas I had, that a) mixing was prodigious across the islands of the West Indies and b)most of the women were slaves and c) if they weren't slaves, the women were most often mixed themselves, which led to children of the Unidentifiable Race, who were: d) sent to Britain for education, apprenticeship, family connections and marriage.

e) Hesitation or prejudice against these mixed children in Britain could be mitigated by a good education, a talent, connections, good manners and money. f) Many families in Britain had ties to the West Indies through business, a plantation, or family, so they couldn't have been completely unfamiliar with brown people.

I think the points that really interested me were:

  • the West Indian colonies had a reputation for licentiousness back in Britain, so some British people automatically assumed that any white person born in the West Indies had a mixed relative somewhere in the family tree.
  • Also, since the vast majority of mixed children were illegitimate, anything their white fathers willed to them could be taken away by a trustee or a relative. I've sort of flipped this in my story, since Alexandra is illegitimate while Madeline is legit, but it underscores how illegitimacy was viewed in those days. 
  • Mixed West Indians may have been more accepted (flying under the radar, as they were) in the 1760s, but with the strengthening fight of the abolition movement, mixed West Indians were not so well accepted from the 1790s onwards. In addition to the abolitionists, there was Haiti's revolution, which fanned the fears of British island colonists that their slaves would revolt and kill all of them. 
  • That last point kind of puts a damper on parts of my novel, but I can work around it. 

What was helpful to me were the case stories. Some families only had the boys leave and go to Britain; others sent all the kids, some of whom had the same father, but completely different mothers. Some of the children eventually went back to the West Indies, others stayed in Britain and married white people. Most interesting of all, to me, were the documented stories of young, British-educated mixed-race men going to India to make their fortune.

It reminded me that no matter what the history books say, real life and thus, fiction, can be a lot more colorful and varied.

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