Tuesday 2 July 2019

Reading historical fiction, by Gillian Polack

The interesting papers of colonial Australia have to wait a bit for my life is suddenly full of the relationship between fiction and history. I’m teaching it, in fact, and am embedded in reading things I already knew and rethinking them. That’s what I love about the history end. There is always rethinking. This is why it’s possible to read twenty different novels on the exact same subject and, if they’re all good novels with thought behind them, discover twenty ways of reading that part of the past.

For today, then, I thought I’d give you a list of five things (only five out of hundreds, so you can expand the list until you run out of thoughts) that help make the history in a particular novel thoughtful and unique. Another way of saying it is five reasons why many people enjoy the history in historical fiction.

1.        A good novel gives a voice to the past. That voice isn’t a still, small voice speaking to the soul, that voice is the novel itself. 

2.        A good novel can make us feel as if we’re walking down the street or eating a meal with the characters. Or even that we are one of the characters. That use of telling detail in an historical novel reminds us that we use five senses every day and that people in history, likewise, walked down streets and ate meals. It reminds us in a visceral way: we live in that moment at that moment in our reading.

3.        A good novel shows us what our current culture or what someone else’s culture thinks of a place and of a time and of people. I’ve just read a book that changes Judaism to make a Jewish character fit into the novel in a way that suits the writer: this is a reminder that the past may be immutable but the way we see it is ever-changing. The relationship between the fiction and the history is negotiated by the writer for us, for readers. That negotiation shows us a lot about the writer, but also about the culture the writer takes for granted. It’s a snapshot of two moments in time and is absolutely beautiful.

4.        A good novel also negotiates between scholarly history and the reader. Before the novel is written, while the novel is being written and often even while the novel is being edited, there is a conversation between the writer and between researchers. One of my favourite moments in this is when the writer asks a book about King John’s household what evidence there is for something they want to put in the book. “None” says the book. “Do I invent this,” the writer then has to ask, “Or do I find another way to tell this part of the story?”

5.        A good novel makes us forget all the negotiations and all the invention and the fact that it’s a one-off depiction of a place and time. It may drag us in or it may pull us in gently or it may lure us, but it gets us in and it says to us, “This is real.”

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