|Kendal Castle; tangible history in my childhood|
I've been thinking this rather a lot over the last while, as I have had the feeling of living through history, what with Brexit and Trump in America, and the way in which the UK seems to be morphing into a rather unpleasant place which isn't what I thought it was. Of course, nowadays, we access unrolling history, even across the Atlantic, as it happens. In the past, news arrived as fast as the report could reach you; on foot, or horseback, by boat, and later by train. (There was also the semaphore in the eighteenth to nineteenth century, the earliest form of telegraph.) But reading old newspapers, you really notice this lag. It took six months, in the eighteen hundreds, to reach India, so news from the subcontinent would turn into history on the voyage, maybe. For the unlucky few, history came and found you. In the Thirty Years' War, some people only realised that there was a war when the soldiers arrived to rape, loot and pillage.
I remember Hilary Mantel saying, when we co-tutored an Arvon course, that lived history looked quite different from history written up in a book, because when you're living through events, they seem fluid. This came back to me when I wrote about the Kristallnacht pogrom in Saving Rafael. When some hooligans arrive and start to smash up your house, you have no idea that it's happening all over Berlin. It takes time for this to become apparent; which is why I sent my hero and heroine out onto the streets to find out. It is not yet Kristallnacht, it is a series of terrifying events that you can't get a handle on, that provoke raw, horrible emotions. The function of history is to analyse, to get a handle on these events. Maybe the function of the historical novelist is to take the handle off; the door swings wildly in a howling gale, and you have no idea where the wind is blowing from.
|Berlin Wall art, East Side Gallery: Brezhnev and Honecker smash through the Wall.|
I suppose this question exercises me particularly because I'm a historical novelist. If I write a novel about the protest against the Iraq war (for example), is that historical? Or Berlin, when the Wall came down? If not, how far back does one have to go? Would Greenham Common be historical, for example? Dickens's novels, and George Eliot's, were usually set in the past, maybe twenty years ago, but would not regard themselves as historical unless they were dealing with events a good deal further back. Maybe it doesn't matter.
What do you think?