Monday 22 August 2011

Is the historical novel the ultimate novel? - Emma Darwin

As soon as you start researching a historical novel, you discover that the past really is a foreign country, and they really do do things differently there. That's part of the fear and part of the fun: you're the pioneer in this strange land, hacking back the jungle and getting the measure of the natives, before you go back to collect your readers, and lead them through it in their turn.

And yet they also say that the first person you meet when you travel abroad is yourself. We read and write historical fiction to experience our own time and our own selves from another angle and sometimes a more revealing one: to find out the constants in human nature, as well as the variables. When Rose Tremain wanted to write about Eighties Britain, she wrote Restoration, about the court of Charles II. When I wanted to conjure up the last, pre-digital generation of photojournalists, for The Mathematics of Love, I shared their story with the first stirrings of photography 150 years earlier. And it's because of this dual nature of historical fiction - the way that, like history-writing, it embodies Now, as well as Then - that I want to suggest that the ultimate kind of novel is the historical novel.

As philosopher and novelist Richard Kearney puts it, in all storytelling the storyteller works with bits and pieces of experience from their world: things the listeners know, and things they know about from others past and present. The storyteller spins the bits and pieces into a tale which makes sense of them and shows the world in a new and clearer light.

Non-fiction-storytelling confines itself to giving the reader a logical experience of the probable: the best description possible of how things actually are or were. Fiction-storytelling offers an imaginative, affective experience of how things might be, or may have been. Our minds' neural pathways can't tell the difference between an imagined experience and a real one, and so fiction also tells its tales "as if" they really happened, to give us the experience of other lives and worlds. You could say that fiction offers us the memories we don't have ourselves. And in her essay about her novel Alias Grace, which is based on a true story, Margaret Atwood says this:
Fiction is where individual memory and experience and collective memory and experience come together, in greater or lesser proportions. The closer the fiction is to us readers, the more we recognise and claim it as individual rather than collective. [Canadian novelist] Margaret Laurence used to say that her English readers thought [her novel] The Stone Angel was about old age, the Americans thought it was about some old woman they knew, and the Canadians thought it was about their grandmothers.
I think Atwood has put her finger on two important things. First, her "memory and experience" is clearly the same as Kearney's "bits and pieces": fiction is where particular stories can be shaped and related to general ones. Second, she's saying that being distanced from the world of the story helps us to see the general (old age) underlying the particular (grandmother's) life. She's talking about geographical distance, but of course temporal distance comes to the same thing.

Some literary critics hate historical fiction, because it doesn't deal "authentically" with the experience of Now, but by definition can't be authentic to Then, either. No writer now setting a novel in the mid-eighteenth century is seriously trying to convince the reader that it's a long-lost manuscript by Henry Fielding, whatever games she or he plays with us along the way.

And some historians hate historical fiction because History, as a discipline, depends utterly on being honest about the distinctions between a provable fact, a trustworthy record, a reasonable assumption, and pure speculation. But to tell a story "as if" it all happened, novelists must waltz to and fro between probable and possible, across the historians' all-important boundaries, without the reader ever feeling the bump.

But to me what these historians and critics hate are some of the greatest strengths of the historical novel: the kind of strength which comes from growing up on disputed ground. When you write about history in any way you have to work under the tension built into a story which is about "not only Then, but also Now". And when you write a novel you have to work under the tension built into "not only Is, but also Might Have Been". So, if Atwood is right about what fiction is, then historical fiction has to hold together all four poles. It has to stretch backwards as well as sideways, reach across time as well as space, evoking particular experience to bring us collective memories beyond our individual reach. A historical novel, in other words, is doing explicitly what other kinds of novel only do implicitly. The ultimate novel, you could say, is the historical novel.


Stroppy Author said...

Thank you for a such a precise formulation of something that is so slippery - the link between Then and Now. I like the image of the historical novel holding the four poles apart, too.

catdownunder said...

Hmmm...this will take thinking about! Is setting something in the end of the 1960's writing an historical novel - or does it need to be older than that? (It can harm the plot to have access to a mobile 'phone!)

Will Coe said...

Or is it ultimate history?

The main difference between a writer of histfic and an historian is that the former is more accessible and less opinionated. A histficer creates a feeling about the past from the available evidence. An historical novel engages imagination not reason. An historian attempts to create fact from similar, possibly more extensive, evidence. That is only possible with alchemy. A history book presents conclusions which, however well grounded, are only opinions.

History is an idea, it is never tangible, notwithstanding the countless ruins and monuments that are flagpoles of the idea. It’s a form of ancestral worship distinguished from folklore by a supposed affinity to truth. Truth is entirely manipulable as any totalitarian regime will attest. This suggests that history as a subject only exists in the gap between opinion and fiction. Truth, or fact, doesn’t come into it.

And the interpretation of an idea comes more naturally to a writer of historical fiction than an historian, doesn’t it?

Joanna said...

What a rich and fascinating post. Thank you for giving us so many interesting things to think about this Monday morning!

Leslie Wilson said...

Very well put, Emma. And I had never thought about the past as the mirror of the present, and yet it's true, when we look into the past, we do meet ourselves there, and also the way we experience history is quite different from the way the Victorians did.
It's a truism that futuristic dystopias are about the present, of course.
Odd, though, that people feel we have to justify writing about the past. I wonder if people muttered about Shakespeare's history plays?

Linda B-A said...

I’m interested in adaptation studies - which I only mention because some of its most interesting debates arise from how it falls between two stools. It’s not film studies and it’s not literature studies but neither and both at the same time. Similarly, as your great post demonstrates, when you write historical fiction you are very conscious of being a hybrid creature – not an historian but not a ‘straight’ novelist either. You have to do this ‘waltz between the possible and the probable’. It’s also a two-edged sword: on the one side it’s a fascinating area of literature to work in; on the other you sometimes feel you must defend your corner. But then, the most interesting things happen in boundary conditions.

Re learning through stories about how to cope with life, given the number of horror films consumed by my children’s teenaged friends, it’s a horrible thought that the neural pathways can’t tell the difference between actual experience and fiction. I’m sure you’re right, though. Watching a film certainly has a physical impact on us. Slavko Vorkapich (montage specialist) spoke of motor impulses “passed through joints, muscles and tendons so that at the end we duplicate internally whatever it is we are watching.”

Jessica Brockmole said...

Beautifully said! I love this about writing historical fiction. I don't have to choose between being a historian or a novelist. I can do the things I enjoy most from each.

And I can agree with the assumption that the distance of history allows us to see the broader themes. When reading a historical novel, it is always the universality that strikes me. The fact that the same limitations, desires, failings, exist not only across place but also across time.

adele said...

Quite fascinating, Emma! Will now have to go back and re read. Lots to think about here!

Richard said...

Fiction set in the present isn't truthful to the 'now' either. That's why it's fiction. I've never heard a critic complain about the non-existence of, say, a President Jack Ryan--but get a couple of Doges out of order and they're all over you!

H.M. Castor said...

This post expresses elegantly and clearly so much that I have muzzily thought, but never sorted out sufficiently in my head - thank you for doing it for me! I find it very interesting that many histfic writers - myself included -feel the need (or are challenged) to justify themselves in terms of their historical accuracy ( many posts on this site have pointed out 'I'm not a historian, but...', almost perhaps anticipating an attack). Of course accuracy is important to us - that has been discussed so well in previous posts - but what interests me is the assumption that we ought somehow to do everything that a nonfiction historian does (and more - make it a novel), when in fact we are doing something different and/but every bit as valid? I realise I'm relieved to hear you say 'No writer now setting a novel in the mid-eighteenth century is seriously trying to convince the reader that it's a long-lost manuscript...'. No - precisely because of this dance that histfic does betw the past and the modern reader, precisely because histfic illuminates the present as well as the past... as does nonfiction history in its angle or preoccupations. Historians may be challenged on that score (how often, I wonder?) but their whole discipline is not disparaged because of it.

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timqueeney said...

Wonderful piece. I think historical fiction is so much fun because people in the past had the same human feelings we have and so are just like us. Yet they saw the world through the culture of their time, which could involve actions horrible and bizarre by our standards, and so they nearly alien to us. This same/alien dichotomy makes historical fiction a true journey.

"No writer now setting a novel in the mid-eighteenth century is seriously trying to convince the reader that it's a long-lost manuscript..." Um, er, that's exactly what I've done with my mid-eighteenth century book George in London ( How did Emma Darwin know? ;-)

George Gardiner said...

As a writer interested in the ancient world (Rome particularly), I suspect my attempts to climb into the skin of a character from that milieu may possibly be delusional? Coupled with my innate desire to express a contemporary relevance to ancient goings-on, it's possible this double-thrust bypasses the lived economic, social, & existential stresses of the era & casts a modernising patina over the entire scenario? Nevertheless, in my opus "THE HADRIAN ENIGMA: A Forbidden History", set in Imperial Roman times, I tried to capture the almost-alien or dystopian cultural & sexual environments which prevailed in that pre-Christian era (at least in my mind, based on reasonable research). Only an impartial reader of the paperback or Kindle could assess my actual success in this endeavor.