Saturday 2 March 2019

Novelists and their sources - by Gillian Polack

Today I want to explore primary sources. Let me be honest: every day I want to explore primary sources. Today, however, I have a special reason. I’m in the middle of an online chat with some of my writer-friends about making a choice about what a character is going to do in a novel. The novel is set in the nineteenth century (and it’s not mine, so I can’t share more details, I’m afraid) and the character has done something that requires deep secrecy or they will lose everything.

Something that I always return to is that the type of secret a character will have depends very much on the nature of the historical novel rather than the nature of the history. If the novel is Gothic, there might be a child out of wedlock or an imprisoned wife. If the novel is historical fantasy, then the secret is likely to be hidden magic or a family heirloom that could destroy the world or that proves the character is royalty. If it’s historical fiction, then the secret is likely to be something that has been demonstrated as a secret in history as we know it. The character might be Giulia Tofana and the revelation would then be that she had poisoned an extraordinary number of people, for Tofana was possibly the seventeenth century’s most notorious professional poisoner.

The type of novel helps decide the type of secret. That’s a key part of how we tell our stories: finding the right example for the tale we’re telling. When you’re reading a fine novel and you stop and blink and think “That can’t be right” one of the reasons might be that the secret was perfect for another novel, but not for this one.

One of the aspects of historical fiction that I love most is that all these secrets can call on primary sources. Our actual past is complex enough and rich enough so that choosing the right sources can give the perfect secret for a character. The best historical novelists often have an almost uncanny knack for matching up story with source material. (Some of the best have an uncanny knack for inventing an entirely false past that feels perfectly real, but that’s another subject.)

The historian in me has a lot of primary sources on the shelf. I selected three volumes pretty randomly (if I’d seen my copy of Mary, Queen of Scots' trial record, I’d have selected less randomly, but it’s currently hiding from me). I want to introduce you to these three sets of sources and talk about how they might be used in historical fiction. As I said, today is a day for exploring primary sources. This whole article is an excuse for me to play with books, which is one of my favourite, favourite things in life. The reason for this isn’t because I am desperately intellectual. Some days things go wrong and today has been one of them, so this is me sharing comfort food with people who will appreciate it.

The first volume is The Letters of JRR Tolkien. The cover was viciously attacked by silverfish years ago, so it has a false air of antiquity. It’s a modern edition of a modern writer.

What do I need to know about it as a writer? 

Firstly, it’s an edition of selected letters. This means that the editor, Humphrey Carpenter, is presenting us with his view of Tolkien using Tolkien’s own words. Volumes of selected letters for some other writers on my shelves are very selected indeed. So much has been edited out that the person is a shadow of themselves. The first thing I did when I read this book, many years ago, was ask myself how much was Tolkien and how much was Carpenter’s view.

If I were writing a novel about Tolkien, this would be a critical question. These letters explain Tolkien’s interests and his writing style. They’re full of insightful thoughts and self-disparaging wit.

If I were using the letters to give glorious colour to an historical novel set in England’s literary scene in the middle of the twentieth century, then it’s easier. Tolkien’s letters are full of his participation in that world and illustrate it beautifully. 

If I were writing historical fantasy based on anything other than the quite specific world Tolkien inhabited, these letters would be no use at all.

The type of novels we write governs the way we use sources.

Let me go back in time. 

The wonderful thing about going back in time is one reaches a moment when one doesn’t have to seek permission to use a writer’s words directly. Their writing still has to be acknowledged: to claim the words as one’s own is still plagiarism, but it doesn’t break copyright law. This is why some writers use many, many words from Shakespeare’s plays in novels about Shakespeare. It’s an easy way to get colour. It’s not always a wise way to get colour. I’ve pointed out elsewhere that using the very clearly metred lines Shakespeare uses in his plays can totally foul up dialogue when Shakespeare is speaking them as part of ordinary conversation.

Some of Tolkien’s letters may give a hint of his speech. Others are purely formal. 

My next volume is Ethel Turner’s diaries. Turner (1872-1958) is best-known for the  novel Seven Little Australians (published 1894), and she was a very popular novelist of her time. Ethel Turner’s diaries were written in her private voice, and are more likely to reflect some aspects of her actual speech. In some conversations, it would be possible to reflect her actual words. It’s still not a good practice, for her words are from  a different time and place and carry a different shape to the words of a novelist in the twenty-first century. 

What I’m saying is that another reason we, as readers, might be jolted out of a perfectly good book is because something inside us is noting that change of voice when the writer has used the words of someone else without making it clear. If there is a paragraph added as “Bob read in Ethel Turner’s diary…” and then the words from that diary are quoted, that’s less likely to jolt the historically-aware reader.

Apart from helping a writer understand the voice of a character, what use are the diaries? So very many uses… They’re one of the best sources around for bringing everyday life to the reader. Letters can be good (I love the Paston letters specifically for the moment when Margaret Paston demands a tub of treacle – that demand brings all the Pastons into everyday life) but a good diary shows what the writer did that they felt worthy of comment. 

It might be waking up with a headache, or it might be writing down a secret. It might be hints as to family relationships.  Opening Turner’s diaries at random, I find that, on 26 June 1893, that someone said “a very wicked word, and I overheard’. She went through his denial and his excuses and then declaimed that the child was being ruined. This is immediately followed (in the same paragraph!) by a note about her newest publication.

One small day, and one small diary entry and it reaches out to us. This is why diaries are so handy for historical fiction writers who can use them (not all cultures and not all time periods have diaries): a good diary can make the everyday in a novel vibrant. 

I love diaries and letters so much that I have four shelves of them. They give me time with fascinating people. That’s the gift they give fiction writers who use them cleverly, too.

Alas, I’m a Medievalist, and very few diaries exist for the Middle Ages. In fact, most written sources are quite different for the Middle Ages. The random primary source I pulled down from a shelf (do not ask how many shelves I have of Medieval material, for it’s embarrassing) was Pipe Roll 45, of John I, or, to be more precise, The Great Roll of the Pipe for the First Year of the Reign of King John, Michaelmas 1199. This is one of my actual favourite books. In my perfect world I own many more volumes of pipe rolls. In my imperfect world I have wonderful friends, one of whom gave me this volume.

This volume was published in the year that Tolkien let his friend CS Lewis read The Hobbit for the first time and when Ethel Turner had her sixty-first birthday. It was over seven hundred years after John’s administration was documented in the Pipe Rolls.

It takes a lot of work to write fun stories of daily life from this kind of document. First, knowing Latin helps. Second, knowing the sort of documents copied into these rolls is essential. They’re not casual documents: they’re part of governance. 

Understanding the rules and the background means that a lot of cool stuff can be obtained to write fiction about or to use to bring a place and time to life… but it’s hard work. I was going to do what I did with Ethel Turner’s diaries and open this volume at a random place and give you a cool quote, but the pipe rolls are not written the way diaries are. They’re full of abbreviations and formulae. Names are there, easy to read (Hugo Bardulf, Galfridi f. Petri, Willelmus de Stuteuill) but they are the Latin forms and if you shouted that out to the street only some of the owners of the name would recognise themselves. The language of formal record and the language of every didn’t overlap the way they do, say, for modern England: they were entirely different languages. 

The writer needs to know more about what actually happened in England under John’s rule to effectively use a pipe roll. These rolls were not made to be read alone. They work alongside other documents. This gives writers handy approaches, for used alongside chronicles of the early part of John’s reign and the reasons for some of the entries springs out and gives novelists tools to illustrate disturbances and unrest or to give the actual names of those who might have met with John during his month in England that year.

Not all primary sources are easy for writers to use, and this is an excellent example. Where these are the critical sources for a place or time (as the pipe rolls are for John’s reign) then novelists depend more on the work of historians to make sense of it.

This brings us full circle, for the choice the novelist makes of which historian to use will depend very much on the story they want to tell.

1 comment:

Sue Bursztynski said...

Thanks, Gillian, a fun post! I have a copy of the letters of Tolkien and downloaded some Paston letters from Gutenberg. I suspect you might need to be a bit more leaned that me to make anything of the pipe rolls. However, primary sources are good. I’ve had great pleasure in downloading issues of the Women’s Weekly from the 1930s and 1940s. So full of advice on how to make the best of your ration card, or how to run your house smoothly, admiration of new movie stars and after the war, a reference to something happening in San Francisco which I realised was the start of the UN. There was even an issue with a painting of Stalin on the cover!

When I was told we had to use primary sources for Year 8 history, I assumed you had to look up some actual primary sources(turned out they just meant pictures of objects in the textbook!). I found a snippet of Ibn Fadlan’s writings where he described Vikings he had met as absolutely filthy, describing their revolting habits. Then I found another text, written much later by an Englishman who complained that those annoying guys were getting all the girls because they were clean, damn them! I read them and discussed both with the kids, who enjoyed them.
They really take you there in a way secondary texts can’t.