One of the big thrills of discovering historical fiction as a child (in my case, the usual suspects: Sutcliff, Treece, Garfield) was the realisation that – even if these characters were long dead, and even if they wore different clothes and spoke a little strangely – fundamentally they thought, felt, feared, loved and hoped just like us. And, arguably, writers who deal with history and its relation to the present, within the context of fiction, have a vested interest in creating empathy. If readers can’t relate to the protagonist of a novel, the writer has a major problem.
But there’s the rub: our ancestors weren’t ‘just like us’: they were the product of another age, and another culture, and therein lies the interest. So it’s up to the novelist to walk that line between remaining true to the mindset of a period and creating a narrative that reaches out to a modern reader. Historian Robert Darnton, in his brilliant, The Great Cat Massacre, puts it this way:
We constantly need to be shaken out of a false sense of familiarity with the past, to be administered doses of culture shock.
Without wishing to put you all off your breakfasts, Darnton (focusing primarily on eighteenth-century France), describes the widespread practice of cat torture and cat killings. In Semur, on the dimanche des brandons , children would tie cats to poles and roast them over the huge bonfires that celebrated the first Sunday of Lent. In Aix-en-Provence, at the Fête-Dieu, they played something called the jeu du chat which consisted of throwing cats high in the air and smashing them onto the ground. Darnton also tells the story of the printers who, in 1730s Paris, amused themselves by catching all the cats they could in the neighbourhood, giving them a mock trial and then proceeding to hang them. Darnton comments, fascinatingly, on the folklore and rich social symbolism that fed into this grotesque feline massacre. It is not easy, today, to countenance a sense of humour quite this Rabelaisian (Darnton’s epithet – I can think of a few more).
I note that Hilary Mantel, whose Bring up the Bodies we anxiously await, wrote on similar lines in the latest Royal Society of Literature Review. Outlining her approach to writing historical fiction, she comments:
Generally speaking, our ancestors were not tolerant, liberal or democratic. Your characters probably did not read the Guardian, and very likely believed in hellfire, beating children and hanging malefactors. Can you live with that?
Your immediate reaction to Hilary Mantel’s remark may well be, yes, if you can’t live with that you shouldn’t be a historical novelist. How many writers, though, would have the courage to pay more than lip service to a dictum that demands total adherence both to the letter and spirit of historical accuracy? Indeed, how many editors would not be making frantic pencil comments about losing readers in the margin of the first draft? I’m playing devil’s advocate, here, but, actually, it is no small thing. Eve Edwards wrote a thought-provoking post last month (entitled Censoring the Past), questioning whether we had the right to sanitise vocabulary from a less politically correct age, and I suppose I’m just extending that conversation. We all know how well children respond to the ‘yuk’ factor of history, particularly when it is presented in a darkly comic way. But in my capacity as a YA novelist, would I dare create a protagonist (and I don’t mean a villain) who believed (like his peers) that it was okay to beat his younger siblings, and to enjoy a good day out at a public hanging, and thought that it was acceptable to burn a cat alive and funny to hear its cries of agony? I suppose that my non-committal answer would be: I’m all for administering doses of culture shock but I’m also aware of the need for walking the line.
Ask yourself these questions. If you were writing about a child in 17th–century Burgundy, would you:
a) Include or omit the interesting historical detail about burning cats on the first Sunday of Lent?
b) Presuming that you did decide to include the detail, would you have your protagonist observe or actively participate in the cat burning?
c) If your protagonist observes only, would you allow your character to hoot with laughter along with everyone else as the wretched animal is incinerated, or would you have him or her turn mournfully away to camera and bemoan the cruelty of man?
Or, d) Would you tear the relevant page out of your notebook and conveniently forget you ever came across this disturbing historical detail. After all, your readers will never know...
Linda Buckley-Archer's Time Quake Trilogy is published by Simon & Schuster (US and UK)
Great post, Linda. Based on what I've come across so far and used or not used, I would say c)ii) or d). It's such a tricky area of presenting the past, largely because I don't want to upset or alienate young readers. I've included all sorts of unpleasant detail, but there have also been things I've had my protagonist disapprove of - or been guilty of leaving out.
I balance the normality of slavery in the Viking era, fir example, by having a couple of my main characters be ex-slaves and tell their stories. And so on. There are some difficult decision to make writing for a young audience.
What an excellent post, Linda. Such difficult questions. I don't feel able to lay out my views because they're in a constant state of review - an ongoing internal debate!
Really interesting Linda. I'd probably 'chicken out' and have my character go through some inner turmoil, which would be totally unrealistic for the time... but somewhere in history, someone had to think it wasn't a good idea to torture cats or keep slaves otherwise we'd all still be doing it. I suppose the test of the writer if you take this 'chicken out' route, is to make it convincing. I once gave a whalerman's son a conscience. I'm not sure if it worked... yes its a fine line.
Hmm...what an interesting and difficult point. Writing about such ghastly things would give me nightmares, however, so I would definitely go for (d)and pretend they never happened.
Many thanks for these responses. I have to say it is a relief that everyone hasn't instantly plumped for b) ii and insisted that the protagonist burns the cat AND enjoys it. Of course, there is part of me that now wants to do this just to rise to the challenge... What prompted this post wasn't in fact cat torture but reading about the extent to which poisoning was so incredibly rife at the Court of Versailles. I wouldn't go so far as to say it was socially acceptable, but the numbers are shocking. I might write about it next time. Huzzah for living in the 21st century, I say.
Do you know, my instant knee-jerk reaction is that poisonings might be easier to deal with than cat-torture... I think it's a mixture of a sense that people sometimes get more outraged about animals than anything else (not that I'm supporting this order of priorities) AND that there might be more worry that readers might be encouraged to perpetrate acts of copy-cat (sorry!) cruelty to animals than to go about poisoning each other...
But then I'm drawn to writing about protagonists who do dreadful things, I think. Which is perhaps something I should worry about!
Oh, my, Harriet - what a moral maze. Which is worse: cat-torture or poisoning by arsenic? I can imagine what sensitive, writerly decisions you're having to make with your current novel...
I've spoken to someone ths morning who suggested cat torture was possibly bound up in the persecution of witches - a kind of lingering after effect. Seems very likely. And also why it's something we can't relate to today. Also the old-Christian view that animals were put in the world for our use has now largely given way to the animal rights movement. And it's so true that we are more disturbed by cruelty to animals than to people!
I'm sure you're right, Marie-Louise. Darnton discusses the link with witchcraft and devilry, as well as the rich folklore associated with the cat. One memorable Breton superstition involved a recipe for making yourself invisible: eat the brain of a freshly killed cat. Of course, it only worked if you ate it while it was still hot...
Ewwwwwwww. I'd rather be a Viking. They ate sheep's brains, but to guard against scurvy in winter. More likely to actually work than an invisbility charm.
Thank you for a great post, I've really enjoyed reading your debate on this issue. I am still undecided whether I am going to let one of my characters get hanged in the 14th century for being gay, or let him escape and head for France!
Writing about cruelty to animals - that is such a thorny Scylla-headed question, Linda! And not just the questions of historical integrity. There are other moral questions for a writer to face. Should these things be aired? What if the book gains publicity and profits from the sensational aspect of it? What if, as Harriet says, some sick person is inspired to copy? And in any case, how can one actually stomach doing the research?
I've just crossed that Rubicon in my WIP, forcing myself to mention for the first time something vile that really happened in Santa Maria Formosa, Venice, every February 2nd for years: a cat was tied to a post and a man beat it to death with his bare head. Gabriel Bella painted it: the picture's at the Querini Stampalia. There's no getting away from the fact that Venetians once thought this was fun. I'm using it in a book that takes on big game hunting editorially, but I've already written a note at the end to explain why I have avoided the Santa Maria Formosa cruelty during twelve years of writing novels about Venice, most with a high cat content. But, for all the reasons above, I'm not sure if it will stay in the final draft.
I can't bear to read this post or many of the comments.
Have to say, I am with Mary Hoffman on this. Most interesting post though about the principle. Coward's way out for me, I think....
Adele and Mary - even though that was the point of the post - I am sorry to upset you with these horrible accounts. If you are a cat lover, you should definitely avoid Darnton on the subject! Michelle, the Santa Maria Formosa tradition is horrific, and I'm not surprised that you are in two minds about writing about it. Until I read Darnton I wasn't aware of the extent of cat hatred in Europe. It sounds like a fascinating project, though, and good luck with it. The arguments around avoiding writing about human behaviour that is hard to stomach, are too complex to discuss in a comment box (!) But it seems to me that if fear of a copy-cat reflex also means that a difficult subject does not get aired, this does not seem a healthy thing either. So should Astrid (thanks for your comment) let her homosexual escape the cruel laws of the age or let the reader see him hang? What a dilemma - sometimes historical fiction can feel more like History versus Fiction. You must let us know what you decide...
Really challenging post Linda, thanks. It's a tightrope that YA writers walk, to thrill without traumatising. And hard choices have to be made even when books are set in present day, ref: the current trial re the person killed due to the belief in witchcraft, and I came across some really horrible stuff when writing a children's book on bullying. Re poisoning.. My research for previous books and the current one indicates that we have Catherine de' Medici to thank for the bringing the art of the poisoner, in addition to perfume-making, to France.
Fascinating post and comments. I don't think this dilemma is limited to history; after all, it wouldn't be too difficult to find somewhere in the world where something ghastly is done to something and nobody cares. In the end it is down to what sort of book you are writing. If your character abhors cruelty then there is no reason to feel you are fudging the issue. (Hogarth, for example, is not supporting cruelty in his engraving.) And it seems to me that you can safely leave something out if it was simply regarded as 'normal' at the time. Historical fiction doesn't have to be a complete guide to life in the past.
There's no doubt that there were mindsets in the past which are incomprehensible and abhorrent to us today. And writing historical fiction forces us to make decisions: we want to be true to the history (as far as possible) but also to write a book which will sell - which cat-torture might, but not to our target audience. I've been reading about English seasonal customs and it's amazing how many 'entertainments' involved what we now see as cruelty to animals.
Most of us avoid the subject if at all possible, I think, for fear of alienating the reader.
Mark - good point about the Hogarth engraving. He is not approving but highlighting cruelty in this picture. And you're certainly right that this kind of dilemma isn't limited to history, and that it depends what kind of book you're writing. But fudging some historical issues - 'sugaring the pill' so to speak - can seem like bad faith. As Jan comments, writers are often pulled in two directions: representing what the past was really like while writing books that modern readers will actually want to read.
I think I'm on the side of include the detail if it's critical to the story. I write about WWI which presents many, many opportunities for gruesome details - occasionally I include them but I try not to be gratuitous with the horrible violence with the thought that readers will fill in the blanks.
I think one thing to bear in mind is that just because something was "common", does not mean that EVERYBODY approves of it. Just because there is a lot of littering, say, to use a modern, very mild, example, does not mean that EVERYONE does it - or approves of it. What it does mean, however, is that it would not be shocking - it would not cause surprise. It may still cause annoyance or anger - it just has to be true to character. After all, people had pets - including cats. I don't know much about the philosopher Montaigne, but I just recently learned that he had a cat - would he approve of torching it? And so on.
Many thanks for your comments, Mary T and LRK. I think that choosing whether or not to include historical details should, as Mary T, suggests, be governed purely by the story. In terms of a narrative, random, historical tidbits, are distracting. With regard to LRK's example, I agree that, if Montaigne had a cat, I would like to think that he would not be one of the people laughing at the bonfire! Of course cat-killing, is rather an extreme and emotive example. But I suppose the point I was trying to make in my post was that, given that historical novelists do make a contribution to how people see the past, they perhaps have a responsibility to be aware of the extent to which an 'acceptability' factor governs their narrative choices. It is so horribly easy to skew the truth.
Post a Comment