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)