Today, I am taking a look at a passage in The Hired Girl that has bearing on heated discussions of late about diversity and "who can write." Meg Rosoff's comments on Edith Campbell's Facebook page and Michael Grant's post are two recent examples of the discussions, and I think Schlitz, through her character, is chiming in, too, in the later part of her book.
David, a Jewish character in The Hired Girl, has his heart set on being a portrait painter. He doesn't want to take up a position in his father's department store. He wants to study painting in Paris. He is working on a painting of Joan of Arc, for a French woman named Madame Marechaux. A devout Catholic, Madame Marechaux wants to see Joan of Arc made into a saint and wants to hang a large painting of her at the top of her stairs in her house on Fifth Avenue in New York City. If his painting is chosen, David thinks it will help him in his dream of being a painter. He asks Joan to sit for him because he thinks her physique and her face, are like that of Joan of Arc.
Well, Madame Marechaux does not choose his painting. She chose the painting done by a French painter named LeClerq. David tells Joan (Kindle Locations 4253-4259):
“The wretched woman chose LeClerq! LeClerq, can you imagine? Of course you don’t know LeClerq, but he’s an idiot! He can’t draw, his perspective’s faulty; he couldn’t foreshorten if his life depended on it. All he does is slather on a lot of greasy impasto with a palette knife — it’s sickening; the man’s a fake, but he’s French, which makes him a god to Madame Marechaux, and he’s not a Jew —”
“The way he carries on about religion, you’d think he was Beato Angelico. Oily little highlights everywhere; it’s enough to make you sick. Madame Marechaux said his sketches were imbued with the deepest piety. Can you imagine saying that — imbued with the deepest piety? Did you ever hear anything so pretentious in your life?”In the first paragraph, note how LeClerq's abilities are denigrated. In the second one, his speech about his religion (Roman Catholic) is also denigrated--especially in how it informs his art. David continues (Kindle Locations 4265-4268):
She says that I’m bound to be at a disadvantage with Joan of Arc because I’m not a Roman Catholic. What does she know about it? When I’m painting, my religion is painting! I could paint Mahomet flying into the sky on a peacock, or a jackass, or whatever the hell it was. I could feel it, I swear I’d feel it, I’d be imbued with the deepest piety —”*Two things come to mind. Muslims do not depict Muhammed. People depict him anyway, and use free speech as a defense of their decisions to depict him. What is being communicated to readers through David's words?
Is Schlitz--through her characters--pushing against the growing call for diversity of authors? I think so, and, I think it is an overt move on the part of Schlitz, her editor, and her publishing house.
What do you think?
*Update, October 25, 11:30 AM
In her Author's Note, Schlitz addressed her use of Mahomet:
In The Hired Girl, I have tried to be historically accurate about language. This has led me to use terms that are considered pejorative today, such as Hebrew, Mahomet, and Mahometans.
I used Mahomet and Mahometan for two reasons. The word Muslim, which is now preferred, was not in use until much later in the twentieth century. And, as a reader of Jane Eyre, Ivanhoe, and The Picturesque World, Joan would have encountered the words Mahomet andMahometan. These are the words that were used at that time.