Friday 31 July 2020

Why the eighteenth century? By Gillian Polack

My mind has been in the eighteenth century again. This is a bad habit. I studied the eighteenth century as an undergraduate and never quite escaped it.

When I went to put it into fiction, some years ago, I wondered why I did this. Why, when I was a specialist in an entirely different period, did I keep returning to the eighteenth century? I had to write a novel to find that out. The novel was just released (not a full release yet, COVID-19 has the strangest side effects) and so I find myself in the eighteenth century again, wondering what I learned about it from writing that novel.

It helped that the cover artist (Lewis Morley) is a friend and that he asked me questions about my novel when he designed the miniature street scene. I keep telling myself that this street lives in the Blue Mountains now, and that it perfectly summarises what I learned and why I had to write a novel to learn why I keep returning to the eighteenth century. Let me explain the image – that’s the simplest way of talking this through.

It’s not that what I do and did is complicated, it’s because I love what Lewis did with my world.

First things first: the story is fiction but I used a lot of primary sources and historical studies to write it and I used some of the primary sources in the novel itself.

The vendor in the picture reflects this. Lewis used pictures of London streets from the eighteenth century and then modified them. That modification is the heart of the questions I have been asking myself: our eighteenth century, the one I keep returning to, is never the eighteenth century at all.

The past is gone. We can’t get it back. When we return to it and return to it and return to it, we’re consolidating emotions and memories and creating our eighteenth century. It’s based on a real one. That research matters. Just as my cover picture shows, however, we start with our world and then add a doorway here or change the roofline there. It’s a work in progress. Often it’s a glorious work in progress.

This is why I keep returning there. I want to see what I remember as having enjoyed, sure, but I also want to add what I just discovered when I read a political harangue from the period. I want to use it to change my remembered eighteenth century and make it more like what I think the real one might have been like. I want to watch my eighteenth century grow and I want to look at its relationship with historical sources and with the work of archaeologists and… it’s an ongoing intellectual inquiry that fills a profound emotional need.

One day, I’ll discover why the eighteenth century is one of five places I visit to feed this emotional need. Right now, I’m enjoying the voyage. I’m enjoying it so very much that I created a future world far away from here, where the whole population is involved in a reinvention and re-creation of the eighteenth century. If I can do it, so can they.

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