Tuesday 22 January 2013

THE PAST AS LUCKY DIP, by Jane Borodale

Bran tub, 1922 (Berkshire Newspapers)

Something that historical novelists are supposed to do is to 'capture the spirit of the age' in which their book is set. Books are very often judged according to how successfully they might (or might not) have caught this elusive thing. But what is it, exactly, and at what point does it get fixed and generally agreed upon to be so? It is far too slippery to pin down in the context of the present; it only begins in the past. It’s something that only seems to manifest behind us, when we’re not looking – we have to turn back to it to see it for what it is. So how much time needs to elapse before the spirit of it can be felt – a decade? Fifteen years? Is it the distance from ourselves that makes it graspable as that complex texture of things (objects, attitudes, occurrences) that we sense as the spirit of an age. Or is it simply that by the time it’s clearly in view, a kind of consensus has settled on what was significant or widespread about an era – the official or generally accepted/ selected accumulation of facts, versions and bits of evidence. And if so, should we be wary of such a construct?

I’ve been turning this over (having spent all day shovelling thick pieces of ice like giant’s Kendal mint cake – there was a lot of time to think!) as last week I glimpsed a vivid reminder of how so many ages co-exist within any age, at any one time. This was a small-town scene from someone else’s era altogether - an elderly lady sweeping her front step with a very old dustpan and brush with proper bristles. She wore a housecoat, sensible russet brown shoes, tights and headscarf; and she was talking to an elderly man leaning against the porch in a dark waistcoat and jacket with string tied around his middle, smoking a pipe. (I think there was a cat and a washing line with pegs but I might have made that bit up.) It could have been the 1950s, if not earlier, and certainly looked that way. And I really liked the unexpected jolt of this slippage in the neat chronology of my nearest town, the reminder of how untidy the passing of time actually is, the raggedy-endedness of it, whichever way you look, how very composite and layered and in flux the whole thing is. When I look at photos of my parents’ wedding, the older relatives look already like ghosts from a previous decade.

So my perturbation is (today at least, whilst I shovel) just how, as a novelist, one can really set out to pick out the right parts of an age to be definitive, particularly when selecting primary sources and first-hand accounts in order to get an idea of what the age is. No… Strictly speaking, I suppose I should be asking not what the spirit of the age is, but more precisely – spirit of whose age, exactly? Which does make me feel better – to cut a long story short it must all surely (don't you think?) be rooted in character... Phew. (Thanks for listening to me laboriously work that one out!)



Joan Lennon said...

That is a very interesting point, well made. Thank you!

Susan Price said...

It is a good point. The spirit of the Victorian Age, for instance, is something invented after - the Victorians wouldn't have recognised it.
I find that one of the first things you learn about any 'age' when you start to study it, is how untypical it was of any 'spirit of the age' label that's been stuck on it.
These labels are always reactions, for and against, what we think is 'wrong' or 'right' in another age, compared to our own - and as fashions change, so do our reactions. It's a quagmire.

adele said...

Very interesting post! And quite right too. The Sixties, eg, didn't start till quite late in that decade.

Leslie Wilson said...

Well, my Sixties would be different from that of people who can't remember it. The assumption that the Sixties are defined once and for all by the drug-taking is a limiting one that would shackle any novelist. And as Adele says, the Sixties are too often defined by the last three years. Beehive hairstyles, seamed stocking, stilettos and wide skirts, were very much part of the decade. As you say, it's how your character experiences the period, and also perhaps how YOU want to focus on it. Look at Mal Peet's excellent 'Life as an Exploded Diagram.' No acid or Sergeant Pepper there, I think, but the Cuban Missile Crisis, which marked a whole generation with the terror of nuclear war. I think it's probably the job of the novelist to confound the stereotypes, which is of course what Sue is saying, too. The bran tub brings back happy memories. Oh, they were so exciting, even if what you got out wasn't wonderful. It was that moment when you put your hand in and all was possibility. Like wrapped presents.

Jane Borodale said...

Thanks Joan and Adele, and yes, absolutely Susan - when one is fully immersed in research about a particular period, it does feel like exploring the present, doesn't it, and therefore impossible to pin down. I just wonder whether the idea of spirit of an age is something artificial, or is it a bigger presence or essence that we can't see when staring close up at the tiny pieces. Like narrowing your eyes to cut out unnecessary detail in order to see the tones when drawing.

Leslie I'm sure you're right about confounding stereotypes, or certainly the need to keep a sharp eye open in order to give at least an illusion of freshness to the POV you're hitched up to. Quagmire indeed. (And the snow is still falling out there; note to self, shovelling is futile...)