I always reply to readers who write me emails. The reasons readers contact a writer vary a great deal, from suggesting a correction to a personal memory, from questions to, yes, some very kind words. Of course there have also been some complaints. Cotton is not a gentleman I was told and had treated a female character ungenerously.
Fair enough. After four books, however, I have been surprised to be taxed for my use of vocabulary. A reader has emailed me to protest about my using the word ‘girl’ or ‘girls’ twice to refer to female characters on the first page of Washington Shadow, the second Cotton book. This has prevented the reader from getting past that first page, for fear of being ‘ambushed by this belittling term’. The use of the word ‘girl’ - to describe a secretary - is ‘not acceptable in the 21st Century’.
As always, I replied, saying that I always try to take readers back into the atmosphere and attitudes of the period in which the books are set, and that Washington Shadow particularly deals with a number of issues: among them, the way women were treated - but also the way homosexuals were treated and the race relations in the US in 1945. These are things that we should not forget.
Of course I do appreciate that vocabulary is power. And that the words we use portray us. I am, of course, also conscious that our view of history is through our view of now.
But I write historical novels in an effort to see how we got here. I am aware that misogyny, racial hatred and homophobia continue, sometimes but by no means always less overtly but I am not convinced that efforts to rewrite the vocabulary of the past do the past - or us - justice.