Tuesday 22 November 2011

CAUTION, NOVELISTS: historians at work - Emma Darwin

The other day I was talking to a writer friend about my current project, and she urged me to read a particular novel set in the same period, centred on the same sort of people. I made a polite but non-committal answer, because I can't tell you how certain I was that I'd do nothing of the kind.

The thing is, someone else's historical novel is their re-visioning and re-imagining of that time. How the novel is structured, how it's voiced, what historical material it uses, what it writes on the spaces between the facts, what it elaborates in the gaps in the record... all of those are the product of that writer's self. Their consciousness, their nature as a storyteller, is the creative engine and the organising principle, not mine. It's not just a question of not wanting to plagiarise unconsciously (and Heyer spotted Cartland's plagiarism in Cartland's taking things Heyer had invented as historical material). It's much more that while all writers of historical fiction are at one remove from the world they're trying to evoke, I don't want mine to be a third-hand world.

Charles Dickens' French Revolution in A Tale of Two Cities is not the same as Hilary Mantel's in A Place of Greater Safety, or Marge Piercy's contemporaneous City of Darkness, City of Light. Georgette Heyer's Waterloo is not Thackeray's (she was shocked by how wrong many of his facts are!), and I avoided both when I was writing The Mathematics of Love. From the moment when I realise I want to write about a period, I stop reading historical fiction set in it.

What's less obvious is that a similar problem exists with the history books. What a historian writes is also - to an extent that historians haven't always been willing to acknowledge - filtered through that historian's consciousness: not just their personality but the biases and discourses of their time. Carlyle's French Revolution is not the same as Simon Schama's, and both will leave things out - different things - that I need to know about.

Mind you, History, as a discipline, has changed. J H Elliott's classic short study, Imperial Spain, was first published in 1963, and has been on syllabuses and reading lists ever since. For the second, revised edition, which came out in 2002, he points out that a book of this kind written now would never have so little to say about the experience of women. In the meantime, Women's History has brought us treasure troves such as Marilyn Yalom's History of the Wife. As someone who writes battles and politics, but also childbirth and cooking, that's not the only kind of book I need, but it helps a lot.

But there's a more fundamental problem. History, as a discipline, is about finding the larger patterns and forces which shaped lives in the past. An honest historian may acknowledge some evidence which exists but has yet to be fitted in. But still, the project will be to synthesise things to explain the whole picture. And yet always, as a novelist, I'm aware that the opposite was probably also true. You know that plan of a medieval village you copied into your exercise book, aged around ten? No one village looks like that because they all have their quirks, but that plan is more true as History, beause it presents the essence of the matter. If you think round your friends I'd put money on every single one of them having several characteristics which don't fit the norm for their job/background/class/ethnicity/gender/nationality. The essence of gender history is that husbands batter wives, but that doesn't mean that no wife has ever battered her husband, and my characters are individuals, not essences. If I want to put a battered husband in my novel, I shall. I'll have to work harder to convince the reader, but that's never a bad thing for me as a writer, or for my reader. As I was talking about on my own blog a while ago, the expected thing slips past the reader too easily: it's the surprising, the off-beat, the taking-aback thing, done properly, which catches the reader and holds them long enough for the story to come alive.

Of course ordinary, individual lives aren't ignored by historians: history "from below" is big business. We've got more sophisticated, too: a book such as Judith Flanders' The Victorian House starts with the evidence of books about etiquette and household management, but then the much more complex and slippery reality needs a different kind of teasing out. Even the absence of evidence can now have shrewd insights read into it, which is something at which novelists might be able to teach historians a thing or two: apparently Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall is on several undergraduate History syllabuses, not because it should be read as History, but as an example of the kind of imaginative effort that should be part of any historian's practice.

And you can go back to original sources. If you're trying to bring to life a real, historical character then with luck there will be plenty of those - though again, you have to be wary of the biases and discourses forming anything with more creative input than an account book or a warrant of execution. As Alison Weir describes, Eleanor of Aquitaine's contemporaries didn't find her day-to-day presence, ruling the kingdom for Henry II, worthy of record: women were only good for sex and procreation, so that's what was written down about Eleanor, and you need to go back to charters and Privy Council records to discover otherwise. Yet (as I found, similarly, when researching Elizabeth Woodville for A Secret Alchemy), later historians still didn't examine, let alone challenge, the version of the Queen that was handed down from her own time: the discourse of their times wasn't so different. What we think of as History is, much of the time, just someone else's version of it.

So original sources are no guarantee that your apprehension of your period hasn't been pre-sifted, limited, interfered with, and that's always supposing that you can find the sources. If your novel's about a fishwife in 12th century Cumberland, the original sources will all be in Welsh, except when they're in Norman French, and they're extremely unlikely to be in any such woman's own hand or voice (the same is true for, say, accounts of ordinary soldiers before the 19th century.) What's more, one particular, real fishwife's experience may not be at all what you want or can use, because your novel isn't about her, it's about someone else. So you might well be better off with more general accounts: a History of the Wife, and a History of the Medieval Cumbrian Fishing Industry, and any number of other histories of religion, food, textiles, architecture, transport, politics. And then you do the maths - the listening - the imagining - the dreaming - in the spaces between all that history. Historians are in the business of synthesising a general picture from particular experience. Novelists do it the other way round.


Will Coe said...


I'm surprised you're reluctant to read novels about your area/era. When you read historical fiction, you know it's fiction. Your pinch of salt is to hand. When you read a 'history book', it's less clear how much is interpretation. When you consult original sources, how often are you unsure what they actually mean? Language and values have moved on. So I prefer to read all around a subject and create my own atmosphere, knowing that I can never make it like it really was.

This is particularly necessary if you're writing about pre-Austen women. Unless they were very famous, you won't have much to go on. Other authors' imaginations can help you find your own flavour - if only through rejection of their Cartland style idiocies.

PS. Liked your 'Mathematics' - were those gory battle bits lifted or created?

Leslie Wilson said...

I know what Emma means. Well-meaning people are always urging one to read this or that book 'which is just like yours.' Aaargh!! When I have read these books, I have found that they're not much like my Work in Progress AT ALL. As a result, I don't talk to many people about work in progress nowadays, not informatively, anyway. A writer has to protect their space while the work is going on. And nobody else can tell you how to do this.

One other brilliant book that I used when writing my novel about a 17th century witch prosecution, Malefice, is The Working Life of Seventeenth Century Women, by Alice Clark. It is full of wonderful detail and makes it clear that women at that period were far more active and involved than we realised when I was a kid.

adele said...

I find this post really fascinating, as I do exactly the reverse! I read as much fiction as possible set in the period I'm writing about. And probably one book which is "Proper History" with all the caveats that you note so well, Emma. Different strokes as they say. This is very good and interesting post.

Emma Darwin said...

Will, I read them when I'm not writing one, but the whole process of writing creatively - in my case, at least - is about internalising everything, wherever it comes from (research, voices, knowledge, my own experience), so that it has equal status inside me. It's only once it is all equal that it can be part of the process of re-imagining which results in the single, coherent entity which will be the novel. Otherwise, it's just a patchwork of stuff.

It's actually another aspect of the reason I read very little fiction at all, when I'm writing a first draft: I pick up other voices very easily, and they interfere with the voice of the novel that my own ear and imagination is hearing.

Glad you liked The Mathematics of Love. The gory bits were pure imagination - I don't remember looking anything up for them, except the 'new cut' for Stephen's amputation, and some stuff about wooden legs.

Emma Darwin said...

Will again - sorry - pressed 'send' too soon - it's not true about women pre-Austen, you just have to find the right books, especially letters, biographies and so on. The Paston letters are full of women writing to each other. Then there are books like Yalom, Amanda Vickery, and my personal favourite, Roszika Parker's The Subversive Stitch. There's loads on Medieval Women, too, which I tapped into for A Secret Alchemy.

Emma Darwin said...

Lesley, that Witch book sounds wonderful - yes, really good example of Women's History bringing stuff forth.

Adele - how interesting that you do it the other way round. But how do you make sure that what you're using in your own fiction isn't made up by one of us, as it were, (or even plain wrong - there's plenty of that about) but it genuine to the period?

Linda B-A said...

I agree, Emma, sponge that I am, I don't dare read fiction set in the period. Everything is about personal interpretation, in the end. And your reader will have a different take on your take on history. Not a historical novel, but about the past and our frequently false interpretation of it, have you read Julian Barnes's A Sense of an Ending, yet? There's a marvellous quote in it: "History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation." Hurrah for the historical novelist, I say.

Theresa Breslin said...

You can get real insight into women of bygone days via their letters. Lucrezia Borgia's are fascinating and the poems of Mary, Queen of Scots tells you quite a lot about a certain Earl of Bothwell, and then there were the woman troubadours, often overlooked. Great post to stimulate discussion re writing methods!

Emma Darwin said...

Yes, letters are great - for my purposes, the voice is the most valuable thing.

Trilby said...

I can't imagine limiting my reading of history from the period about which I'm writing (fiction aside, I've had to develop an extended historical note for the UK edition of Stones for my Father)... but I can kind of see what you mean about not wanting to read other people's retrospective projections.

What I absolutely would advocate is reading fiction *from* the period about which you're writing, if possible. So many details of daily life and vocabulary to be discovered that way, which would be easy to miss if you only went by the 'big' history...

Barbara Mitchelhill said...

Very interesting blog, Emma. I do agree with Leslie about some surprising women's roles. When researching my last book Road to London one fascinating book I read was Germaine Greer's Shakespeare's Wife which changed my outlook on women's lives and responsibilities.

alberridge said...

Great post, Emma - and yes, I'm another 'sponge', who simply daren't read fiction set in the same period I'm tackling. Not until I've finished, anyway.

But like Trilby, I'll definitely read fiction of the period. Just as when I visit someone I can't help but look at their books, I like to know what my characters would be reading, and how it would have shaped their outlook. One of the characters in my Crimean novel only came alive when I realized he must have read 'Alton Locke.'

I do find it hard to limit my actual 'history' reading too. You and Will are absolutely right about every historian and even every primary source all applying their own filters, but for me the solution is to read a LOT of them. When I've looked at my world through a hundred different filters then it starts to do the kaleidoscope thing and take on dimensions I haven't read at all.

Or, of course, to become a positive soup of other people's ideas...

Emma Darwin said...

Yes, yes, yes to reading fiction of the period - primarily, for me, for voice, but also for manners and mores and habits of thought that you can't get at through history-writing. Although that only works if the period is post-Defoe. As Margaret Yourcenar talks about in her essay about writing her novel Hadrian, before the novel, the available narrative forms aren't in the business of evoking ordinary, conversational speech and daily lives, so it's not quite so easy. That's where letters and things are so vital.

(I've been slightly staggered, mind you, by the several readers who've said to me, "Oh, you write historical fiction? I love historical novels - Jane Austen, the Brontes...")

I cut the point about contemporary novels from my first draft of this post because even I know that a blog post has to stop somewhere, and I think the question of what history you do (or don't) read is the more interesting one, in some ways.

But it's also very true of history, as with other writers' voices, that the key to not being taken over by one is to read lots of different ones. I sometimes feel that a novelist has jumped her whole novel off one particular history book, and it's a shame, because it tends to become docu-drama - a demonstration - as un-thrilling as the kind of novel-of-real-historical-character which is just putting frocks and dialogue into a biography. Boring and functional and not what I'm interested in writing.

George Gardiner said...

I doubt today's writers are really fully equipped to reproduce with any accuracy the cultural climate, social complexities, economic realities, sexual idiosyncrasies, health issues, or plain comparative defects of a long-past era. In my own preferred genre (Roman-era fiction) I am constantly aware how as a writer with a subliminal 21stCent mindset I am probably reproducing my chosen era very imperfectly. I am probably missing something extraordinarily important, or seeing through today's eyes my distorted view of 2000 years ago despite very careful research. In fact perhaps my earnest attempt to 'reproduce' such a distant time is, unavoidably, sheer fantasy? Nevertheless one does one's best to communicate such an alien environment to the best of one's understanding.

Emma Darwin said...

Well I think you have to write for readers now, and you have to write fiction. The project isn't to give your medieval peasants an accurate picture of their world that they'd reconginse, it's to give modern readers now a sense of that world.

For example, the average nice, kind, decent 18th century bloke, with a strong sense of honour and love of family and home, would, authentically, hold opionions on Jews, say, or Catholics, or slavery, which would make the reader incapable of identifying with him. And yet he's your detective: for the purposes of the novel you do want the reader to care about him, feel that he's a Good Guy, even if he has his faults, and enjoy his company. It's impossible to be both accurate, and a good storyteller, in other words.

History is about representation and probability (as in, it's probable that X was like Y), so if readers want history, they can go and read a history book.

Whereas fiction is about verisimilitude and possibility. That sense of verisimilitude has to take account of readers now, because it won't work if you don't work with their sense of kind, good, family man, etc. Which doesn't easily include anti-semitism, say, because we have such a visceral reaction to it.

So the process of re-imagining (which as Rose Tremain says, involves a kind of forgetting) needs to transmutes all that data into something which works as a story now. Fiction as data-handling isn't fiction, and it's not much better when the re-imagining gets as far as docu-drama. It's still not a good novel.