I’m currently listening to the audiobook of the first Amelia Peabody novel, which I snagged in a sale from Audible because a) I like “old-fashioned” mysteries, b) I like Ancient Egypt and archeology and c) I like strong female protagonists. Also, it sounded fun. :)
And it is all of these things: Amelia is an intriguing, intelligent woman, used to getting her way, even in the face of Victorian conventions, and her dry humour and keen observations pull the modern reader quickly into her world. Having inherited her father’s money, Amelia decides to flee her interfering relatives by going on a long journey to Egypt to indulge in her passion for archeology. On the way she meets a young woman, Evelyne, who becomes her friend and companion, and the two women encounter a number of interesting (and sometimes shady) men, ending up caring for a sick English archeologist and his brother at a dig in Amarna (Achenaton and Nefertiti’s city). This is where the action takes off, really.
So far so very good, right? Yet I find myself struggling a fair bit, for one particular reason: For all her strengths, Amelia is a product of her time, which most plainly shows in her descriptions of native Egyptians, alternating, in what strikes me as a typical ‘enlightened colonial’ tone, between condescending, patronizing and derogatory of their character and way of life. However, would Amelia still be as believable a Victorian heroine if she treated issues of race the way a well-educated, anti-racist 21st century white person might?
After all, one thing I dislike in historical novels is if the main protagonist suffers from “Mary Sue-ism” and could just as well be a time traveller for all her unrealistic ‘enlightenment’. Amelia, with all her strong convictions, is shown to have flaws and blind spots, making her human and, to me, more likable and relatable. I am fully prepared to give the author the benefit of the doubt, that she means Amelia’s well-meaning but very colonialistic attitudes to be part of the commentary. Still, intention doesn’t make up for the fact that I suspect many readers will read the descriptions of anyone not English (in addition to unreliable Egyptians who let their children’s eyes be infested with flies and are incapable of governing their own country, “swarthy Italian complexions” and “Gallic tempers” abound) as accurate historical descriptions.
I’m still on book 1, though, so it’s of course possible that Amelia’s opinion of “modern” (ie. Victorian) Egypt will become more balanced as she spends more time there. There are enough good points (and fun entertainment) to keep me reading. Or rather listening. (A note on the audiobook: the reader does a great job, but overall she sounds a bit too old for 32-year-old Amelia – in the beginning I thought I’d misheard and that she was meant to be 42.)