Wednesday 3 September 2014

Ahistorical Fiction by Y S Lee

What am I doing here, amongst the History Girls? After all, my title isn't a typo. I really mean "ahistorical fiction" and for the purposes of this post, I'll define it as a subset of historical fiction that includes elements which stand apart from mainstream history. I'm not talking about fantasy (set in an imagined world that may or may not straddle our own) or speculative fiction (which includes fantastic, supernatural or futuristic worlds). Neither do I mean fiction that is broadly anachronistic (Napoleon with a smartphone!) or counter-historical (undermining the very idea of history). Today, I'm here to defend the use of ahistorical elements in otherwise realist historical fiction.

The obvious, reflexive objections are:
1. Doesn't that undermine historical fiction as a genre?
2. Why bother with ahistorical fiction at all? Why not write something else?

My short answers:
1. No, it enriches it.
2. See answer no. 1.

Are you ready for my longer answers? In the afterword to Code Name: Verity, Elizabeth Wein explains some of her plot choices and acknowledges that her first priority is not perfect historical accuracy. Instead, she says, her goal is simply to tell a really good story. I like that justification; it's at the core of my writerly impulse, too. And Wein makes it sound so clean and easy. But I think it skims over some of the tricky decisions and border-drawing that happens when writers carefully include ahistorical elements in their work.

When we use ahistorical elements, we're being selective. We're not haphazardly inventing conveniences to rescue a stalled plot or sprinkling in some cute embellishments. Instead, we're trying to open up our understanding of historical relationships. For Wein, this is having an English girl pilot crash-land in Nazi-occupied France. For me, in the Mary Quinn mysteries, it's the creation of a women's detective agency in 1850s London. In both cases, the ahistorical element is technically possible (just about). For my detective agency, I'm leaning on two historical precedents: the beginning of progressive girls' education in the mid-nineteenth century (Bedford College was founded in 1849) and the career of Aphra Behn, the eighteenth-century playwright and spy. (The Agency is also an affectionate homage to Miss Climpson's "typing bureau" in Dorothy L Sayers's Peter Wimsey novels.) These specific historical leaps allow writers a different way of asking the big question at the heart of historical fiction: what if?

When I began to write A Spy in the House, the first Mary Quinn novel, I wanted to focus on an orphan girl without any advantages of money, social status, or education. I quickly realized that such a novel would be a swift, bumpy descent from poverty to prostitution to prison and, almost inevitably, early death. (This last sentence basically gives away the plot of Emma Donoghue's Slammerkin, which I highly recommend. It's a gorgeously excessive tragedy not the least bit diminished by its inescapable ending.) Yet I wanted to rescue my protagonist, not sentence her to death. I decided to play with ideas of power by giving my orphan, Mary, a quasi-realistic opportunity to make her own way in the world: a handful of allies, a good education, a job that was more than underpaid drudgery. She would carry with her the baggage of her childhood suffering, but she would have a second chance. It was my way of using fiction to right an ongoing injustice. It was also a way to, in David Copperfield's words, make Mary the hero of her own story.

Ahistorical elements in historical fiction are a way of rearranging the furniture. They're also a bit like social history's quarrel with the great-man narrative of history: what about everybody else? What if we shift our focus away from what's always been there, and ask a different question? The use of ahistorical elements is born of love and respect for history and historical fiction. As in any relationship, though, sometimes you bump up against its limits. Sometimes you crane your neck, trying to see what exists outside its bounds. Sometimes, a fresh idea knocks you breathless. And once you've considered it, it helps you to see your old love anew.

Y S Lee is the author of the award-winning Mary Quinn mysteries, published by Walker Books (UK) and Candlewick Press (USA). Rivals in the City, the fourth and final book in the series, is now available in the UK and will be released in North America in February 2015. Ying blogs every Wednesday at


Sue Purkiss said...

Perhaps ahistorical devices have more of a place in children's and YA books...? Discuss!

Carol Drinkwater said...

Your quote: "These specific historical leaps allow writers a different way of asking the big question at the heart of historical fiction: what if?"
Is this question 'what if' not at the heart of all fictional writing? At drama school it was one of our BIG questions as we took on the cloak of other human beings. I was trained by, amongst others, teachers from Lee Strasberg's Actors Studio in New York and it what the test they always laid at our doors, What if you were…
Also, to discuss!

Lydia Syson said...

All very thought-provoking...and I can't quite decide if I agree about this ahistorical thing being more suited to children/ya. I must confess that I do rather like making clear in an afterword what elements I've based on actual events and where I've been inspired by possibility, just as I'll say if characters really existed or not. But maybe I'm... No, actually, not maybe... I am a dreadful pedant.

Y S Lee said...

What an interesting question, Sue. Insofar as young readers are more tolerant of ahistorical devices because they have fewer preconceptions of What Historical Fiction Is? Absolutely. But I hope things won't stay that way! In the same way that genre snobbery is beginning to give way, I hope the perceived hierarchy of adult/YA/children's fiction will also crumble.

Carol, absolutely. I was specific about historical fiction above because I'm leery of broad claims that I don't have space to support! But I think we're talking about the same thing: a window into an experience, or a fresh way of seeing the world.

Lydia, I'm interested in the sense of responsibility you attach to the afterword. Do you think it's inappropriate to invent a plausibility/possibility and not tag it as such?

E Wein said...

The passage from my author's note reads: "Despite my somewhat exhaustive quest for historical accuracy, this book is not meant to be a good history but rather a good story." I wanted to remind readers that Code Name Verity is not a textbook and shouldn't be used as one. (I have already stumbled across someone using Code Name Verity as a "source" for Gestapo torture techniques - UGH!)

I don't feel that I've taken liberties with my plot-based "what-ifs" that aren't taken all the time in ANY kind of fiction. Within the boundaries of my historical setting I haven't created inaccurate historical facts, but rather have created a plot (which I hope is plausible) based around the facts we know. I haven't changed the *rules* of the time and place of my setting, if you see what I mean. Although I've made up events that maybe never occurred (and isn't that fiction, straight up?), there's no reason to argue these events couldn't have occurred, or that the consequences wouldn't have played out the way I've imagined them playing out.

So I don't think of my books as "ahistorical" - though I realize I am defending myself and maybe "protesting too much"! But readers with real life ties to the events I've depicted don't protest, "That's not precisely what happened to my own mother/uncle/flight instructor"; they tell me, "Thank you for making these events known to a wider audience."

Nor do I think the example from your own work, in which you give your character the right mix of advantage, intelligence and good fortune, is "ahistorical." Again, it's a "what-if" situation placed against an accurate backdrop of time and place. The impulse to defend fiction against "lack of evidence" is HUGE (I just did), but though I relate to deeply to that impulse, I feel that we're doing ourselves a disservice to apply labels like "outside" and "alternative" to our work (unless it really is, of course).

We work a heck of a lot harder than fantasy or contemporary fiction writers in terms of struggling for an elusive perfection of temporal accuracy - research, tone, mores, and all the petty details of daily living -they're HARD!

Regarding ahistorical devices in YA - I actually think that the fact-checking and copyediting process is more demanding in children's (and by extension, YA) fiction than it is in adult fiction. But perhaps there is a certain open-mindedness in the readers that makes them more forgiving (hence the need for more stringent editing?).

OK, I will stop now. Thank you for generating this interesting discussion!

Y S Lee said...

Thanks for joining in, E Wein. To start, I want to make it clear how much I love and admire Code Name Verity as a work of historical fiction. (That sounds like craven sucking-up but after some thought, I decided it was more cowardly not to say it.) I take your point about not wanting to label the whole work of fiction as "outside" or "alternative", especially if doing so implies a lower standard of historical accuracy. I don't think it should. As you point out, we work so very hard to get it pitch-perfect.

My recognition of ahistorical elements within a work of historical fiction is a response to questions about/objections to the probability of such events (female combat pilots in WWII, a women's detective agency in 1858). It started with a reader's question about why I'd chosen a framework that seemed predicated in fantasy, yet written a story that was bound by realism. Her question made me realize that I should explain why I was deliberately stepping outside common historical conventions (Is it very likely? Does it have a direct precedent?). For me, this is the difference between Maddie's flight into France and, say, Thomas Cromwell's unspoken feelings for Jane Seymour in Wolf Hall. We can't prove that either happened, but in the latter case, nothing in the well-worn course of received history changes. In the former, it really might. Do you think that's a distinction worth acknowledging?

E Wein said...

I can't decide. I want to say yes, but I also want to make a sustained argument explaining why it doesn't apply! I guess that ultimately I don't feel Maddie's flight to France *would* have changed the course of received history, even if it *might* have. It would have been viewed as a fluke, or she would have fired. Soviet women in WWII DID fly combat missions in mixed male/female fighter squadrons and most of us still don't know this. British women ferry pilots received equal pay with men as early as 1943, and yet it wasn't till 1987 that British Airways hired a woman as a commercial pilot.

I think my dragging my heels at this is tied to the reason I don't write fantasy: I take great pleasure in placing these weird possibilities in the known world, because hey, maybe that really happened! It is probably a flaw in my own perception of history - what makes me a fiction writer (and a folklorist) rather than a historian. I am heavily into the idea of "what might have happened" as a distinct possibility.

But if I admit I'm not a historian, that does pretty much amount to me saying there's a distinction. So, YES. After all that.