I have been such a bad blogger lately and I do apologise. I just have too much on at the moment, and when something has to give, it has to be the least work-related activity. Also, the last couple of months I’ve reviewed books a lot less here in order to write reviews for Shiny New Books. Instead, I’ve enjoyed writing more personal pieces on this blog. However, there are plenty of weeks – and I call them good weeks – when nothing much happens of interest to tell you about. Having just written that, I should confess that I was at the Cambridge literary festival on the weekend, which theoretically is a good blogging topic but I can’t quite work the enthusiasm up for writing about it. It was good! Really, writers talked about their work, they were witty and clever, the audience enjoyed themselves. You get the picture.
Instead, let me tell you about a couple more of the books that didn’t quite make it into Shiny and my probably very contentious reasons for not putting them there: two historical novels from debut writers, The Tutor by Andrea Chapin and The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester.
Okay, so here’s a question: why set a novel in the past? Ostensibly there’s a simple answer to that – Andrea Chapin is writing about a part of Shakespeare’s life for which there is no actual historical record, Lucy Ribchester about the Suffragettes. Historical characters, in other words, for whom we still have a measure of curiosity. But I found myself wondering about the heroines of these novels and the role they served.
In Chapin’s lushly romantic novel, young widow, Katherine de L’Isle lives with her uncle and his family, having lost two families of her own. They are Catholics at a time of great persecution and all sorts of disturbing events occur, beginning with the murder on their grounds of the family priest. Katherine’s uncle, fearing his presence as the main cause of persecution flees to France, leaving a power vacuum behind in his family. Into this chaos comes the young Will Shakespeare, occasional player, unconventional tutor to the family’s young children, and would-be poet. This Will is a shameless flirt and a charmer, constantly on the lookout for opportunities to weasel his way into rewarding relationships. Realising Katherine is a keen and astute reader, he ends up sending her his poem on Venus and Adonis for Katherine to critique, and as the poem proceeds, so Katherine begins to fall for Will and to imagine that their responses to one another are echoed in the verse. More fool Katherine, for Will is a tease and too interested in his own aspirations to care for her; she is about to hit a rocky end.
In The Hourglass Factory, Frankie George is a rookie reporter for the London Evening Gazette, determined to make her name despite her gender. At present she is a reluctant ‘odds and sods’ columnist, teamed up with the overblown and demanding Twinkle, so when she is asked for a profile of infamous trapeze artist, Ebony Diamond, Frankie leaps at the chance. Particularly when she is quickly made aware that Ebony, with her Suffragette leanings, is swimming in dangerous waters. Following her to the London Coliseum to pursue her investigation, Frankie is as astonished as the rest of the audience when Ebony seems to disappear into thin air, the mystery compounded by an escaped tiger from an earlier act – which may or may not have eaten her. Frankie risks the ire of her boss, the vengeance of corrupt police officers and a variety of reckless and dangerous characters around her to pursue the truth.
Both of these novels are very well-written and carefully plotted with swooping stories. They’ve got everything: corpses, love affairs, mysteries, famous figures from the past, exotic locations. They have, in other words, a wholly 21st century mentality, nowhere more evident than in their female heroines who rush into the heart of the action without a backward glance.
So I get it; a lot of readers find it hard to forgive the past for its ideologies and don’t want to read about the sort of mindset women of those ages might likely have had. But why, in that case, write historical fiction employing such 21st century characters? Why not place them where they belong, in the current day? And weirdly, what’s the trend in popular contemporary novels but women struggling against their own weakness and dissolution, like the dreadful The Girl on the Train. If we still like the women-in-peril novel, if we are fascinated by women as their own worst enemies, why are we so insistent that women in the past should behave with autonomy and ambition? Is it only me who thinks that odd?
For my money, the only reason to write about the past is to inhabit the strange otherness of the past, the way it differed so profoundly from life as we know it. And for sure, we see that in the backdrop of both of these novels. Are we to think, then, that history is only used as intriguing scenery? A particularly attractive backcloth? If I go down this track, then I become cynical. Are authors latching onto these famous names – Shakespeare, the Suffragettes – just because they will sell? The reader gets a little bit of a history lesson from the details, and can enjoy a rambunctious story with lots of strong characters?
It’s the current style, and I am out of step. But in my heart, I find myself uneasy with this sort of falsification of history. This is not how it was. And it’s important we remember how it was, the reasons human beings chose eventually to live and think differently and the reasons why we do not wish to go back to those old habits. The past was not a nice place and women certainly did not think as if they were free. And the world today is not a nice place, with all sorts of self-serving ideologies still doing the rounds and holding us hostage. I hope future writers will not spare us by prettying it up and pretending we valiantly rose above it all.
In all fairness, Lucy Ribchester does give a very vivid portrait of what Suffragettes went through at the hands of the police and the jailors and Andrea Chapin makes it clear how brutal persecution of Catholics was in the time of Queen Elizabeth I. As I said, they are very good books on their own terms, with a lot of verve and colour. You will probably enjoy them! You should certainly try them to see what you think.
It’s a common complaint I’ve heard, heroines being out of step with the times they were supposed to be in. I have seen that comment made about The Miniaturist (although I don’t think that was as bad as other books I have read). It annoys me because it strikes me as lazy on the part of the author, therefore knocks me out of the “zone”.
It’s odd, isn’t it, and The Miniaturist was a huge hit, so lots of readers can’t particularly mind. I’m encouraged to think it’s not just me who feels this way, though!
You’ve so well expressed how I’ve been feeling about a number of “historical” novels I’ve read lately.
Maybe readers like to think that they wouldn’t have put up with “it” (being whatever position women found themselves in at the time). But then – we’re dealing with fantasy, and not history, aren’t we?
Stop with the 21st century sensibilities, already!
Yes, now that’s a very intriguing point. Is it all about the identification between reader and protagonist? About readers wanting to put themselves in the story and inhabit a comfortingly heroic place? I can understand the desire, though it isn’t particularly mine. I’m a big believer in constraints provoking creativity, though, and I wonder what stories we would get if authors had to make readers understand with sympathy what it was to live in times with very different attitudes? Thank you for the lovely comment!
Like Debbie, you’ve summed up my reservations about this type of novel. There’s so many of them and they never gel and now I know why! I think I’ll stick to classics or Russians! 🙂
I think if you are a devoted classics reader, it must sit rather awkwardly with you when you are reading. You remind me, Karen, that I really must read more Russians. I was given a copy of The Spectre of Alexander Wolf by Gaito Gazdanof for Christmas and am most curious to read it!
It’s strange and rather wonderful – hope you like it!
“If we still like the women-in-peril novel, if we are fascinated by women as their own worst enemies, why are we so insistent that women in the past should behave with autonomy and ambition? Is it only me who thinks that odd?”–this gets to the heart of the weirdness! Thanks for articulating it. It IS odd that we should find our modern-day female protagonists so venal, weak or corrupt, whilst simultaneously anachronizing historical women, and more attention should be paid to the inconsistency.
You put your finger on what I’m curious about – what’s going on behind that strange split? Bring on the feminist theorists! I’d love to know more about reader response in such cases, and really we know so little about that at all. Mind you, empty speculation is undoubtedly a great pleasure!
I suppose one theory could be that we have a societal instinct to punish deviance in women to whom we could potentially relate (i.e. contemporary women, women who could be us), but we want to be able to look up to women from the past? So we give them the most palatable advances in female behavior (have you noticed that often they’re “spunky” or “feisty”, but not many of them really transgress gender/sexual boundaries?)
Thank you, you’ve put this so perfectly and it is good to know that I’m not alone in finding this infuriating
Thank you for the solidarity! I’m glad to know I’m not alone too.
I’ve had a discussion similar to this with test readers for my own novel, which is period fiction (I wouldn’t call it historical fiction b/c there are no characters in it that actually lived). I’ve been pretty careful with the female characters, whose inner lives and outer lives are not in alignment, because…well, they can’t be; it’s the 19th century. It’s weird how contemporary readers don’t “get” that fact…that the past was, you know, different. And certainly there have been plenty of women in the past, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Vesta Tilley, who didn’t exactly conform to expectations. But I think where historical fiction fails these days is in its reluctance to make clear what a huge price women paid for being out of step with the times. Sure, you could be real-life George Eliot, and live with a man who couldn’t divorce his wife, but you’d also suffer horrifying social estrangement for making that choice. There have always been pioneers and groundbreakers of both sexes, but not without a cost.
Absolutely! That’s a very important point indeed. There was a huge price to be paid for stepping outside the guidelines of culture – as indeed there still is today. I’m really intrigued by this difficulty with understanding that the past was very different – did you have any idea what was behind it with your own test readers? I’d always trust your intuitions. (And I’m sure your novel is fab.)
Well, what was behind it is simply that they literally don’t understand it…I’d say that the average modern reader doesn’t understand history, or how things were for people in the past. What I ended up doing was explaining things a hell of a lot more than I wanted to, as a result of this incomprehension, so that the reader could follow the story. This felt really unnatural to me, because much of the story is told from the POV of the characters rather than an omniscient narrative voice, and of course, they understand their own lives, so it was interesting to come up with ways for them to think about their own lives without seeming to obviously educate the reader.
Before I did this, test readers questioned why the female characters seemed so “helpless.” Well—it’s because in real life, they would have been. A big piece of the story is the ways in which these women manage to attain some degree of agency despite being trapped, whether it’s artistic, intellectual, etc., but it baffled me that people didn’t understand the strictures of 19th-century life. They also don’t understand class differences, which I then had to explain endlessly (or so it felt to me) as well. They don’t understand what a massive commodity beauty has always been and frankly still is, but certainly it was a much bigger deal 150 years ago than it is now, insofar as it was just about the only thing a woman had with which to bargain for her quality of life. I think actually that one of the reasons people shy away from understanding these things is that we’re not as far away from them as we’d like to think. Novelists writing period fiction want to focus on characters who are unusual, who break out of ordinary life—and there were plenty of those people, absolutely…even in fiction written during the 19th century, those are often the characters focused on…Jane Eyre isn’t a typical woman of her era, forex.
But this brings us back to the question: Why write period fiction, if we are focusing only on people who are anachronisms, but who aren’t real people?
One of the things that interested me about writing period fiction was to think about how people dealt with life-altering trauma in the days before effective mental health treatment. If you take someone in 1885 who basically has PTSD, who is an atheist, and who doesn’t drink to excess…how would such a person survive the dissolution of the mind? How did these women in horrifying marriages manage to stay sane…or did they manage? We look at people in the past who seemed to do completely crazy things, or who had a level of courage that we can’t imagine now, and I have to wonder how much of that was fueled by being, in fact, crazy, or having a death wish, or whatever. I think what bothers me most is anachronistic psychology in period fiction, even more than anachronistic action—and that’s part of what I mean about prices to be paid for failure to conform. There was no Xanax to help that process, and there was no pop psychology. There was philosophy and religion and liquor and OTC opiates…none of which are especially helpful to overall functioning. Then again, maybe Xanax and psychology are equally bad. These are the things that interest me, but which are apparently…hard for the average reader to imagine.
I couldn’t agree more with your description of the problems with fiction with history as a scenic backdrop. What interests me more is that some authors actually do use fiction to explore our pasts in significant ways. Some use what can be known about people left out of traditional history to create stories about problems and possibilities that we have inherited from the past. My favorite is The Moor’s Account, by Laila Lalami, but this issue is something I have pondered in my reviews.
Marilyn, thank you for that recommendation. It’s an excellent idea to bring together some of the books that really do use the past in striking and profound ways. I’d vote for Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch, and there must be lots of Francophone novels I read that would be in that category too. I’m very glad to have your knowledge in the debate!
What a fascinating viewpoint. I don’t read much historical/period fiction, whether by living authors or those writing in their own times, but do realise that much, especially the lighter fare, is almost pastiche. I do like a Gothic, Dickensian etc feel to an adventure or period crime novel, but most of these are plot rather than character driven… That’s got me thinking!
I used to read loads of historical fiction when I was in my late teens and early twenties. I had a passion for Medieval settings in particular! And then I sort of fell out of the habit, as I was reading so much other stuff. Now I’ve begun to start again (thanks to Shiny, of course) and I think I’m probably trying to figure out my own tastes. I know just what you mean about how appropriate Gothic and Dickensian colour can feel in certain types of stories – I like that too. But then I am a bit tender about old-fashioned speech; too many prithees and forsooths can get on my nerves too. Maybe I’m just really picky!
Litlove, I’m completely with you. I think those books are entertainment, not literature, and there is a place for that, and I don’t demean it in any way. I’ve often wished I was more Agatha Christie. But for me the past is a setting for literary fiction, and it’s both the incomprehensible strangeness and the universality of the past that attracts me. On the one hand, it’s planet mars. On the other hand, plus ca change, plus c’est la meme. (Excuse lack of accents! I’m supposed to be writing and don’t want to stop to insert them!) But personally I don’t find books that are messing with the past entertaining.
Your historical novels are exemplary in that respect, Lilian. And you’re quite right – stories can be good entertainment without being held up by the history police. I do agree that there just must be a continuity of human nature across time, so maybe it’s just very difficult to decide what lasts and what doesn’t?
Yes, I think we make erroneous assumptions, not realizing they’re assumptions, about what’s universal and permanent. It takes a certain openness and humbleness to discover what it may be.
Yes. I think we make erroneous assumptions, not realizing that they’re assumptions, about what is universal and permanent. It takes a certain openness and humbleness to discover what it may be.
Like so many of your other commenters, I’m with you on this one. I don’t tend to read very much in the way of historical fiction by living authors and your post echoes some of my own reservations about the genre. (I’d rather read a novel written around the time of its setting!) The one exception that comes to mind is Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring. I don’t know how she pulled it off, but she seemed to capture a sense of Russia in the early 1900s. All those tea rooms bustling with activity…
Oh I so agree with you about The Beginning of Spring. I adored that novel and really must read more Penelope Fitzgerald (I’m actually reading Elizabeth Taylor at the moment, inspired by your review of a couple of week’s back!). I stopped reading historical fiction for a long time, but seem to be picking it up again lately. That being said, any book set in the 20th century I will happily read without thinking of it so much as historical, though of course it is!
Oh, marvellous! In a Summer Season? I hope it’s living up to expectations. I’m looking forward to reading more of Taylor in the future.
A really interesting topic, thankyou. I’ve written books set in the past myself, and try very hard to place myself there too, when I’m working out how characters respond, think, speak. But novels or films “of the period” may themselves be full of assumptions about women that were no more generally true at the time than they are now – just more fashionable.
Patricia, that’s another excellent point that you make. Isn’t it hard to find a way through this hall of mirrors? Though I must say that I absolutely loved Aren’t We Sisters, which read pitch-pefectly to me.
Maybe it is a matter of wanting your cake and eating it too–so I am going to have to be an odd reader out here as I love historical fiction. I know all the reasons you mention and completely understand where you are coming from but for me if I want pure historical accuracy I will happily pick up a biography or other nonfiction–if it is storytelling, well, I guess I am more than willing to suspend disbelief to some degree, know that the author is taking liberties and just go with the story and all the drapings that go along with it. I like the story and the ambiance and all the little extra details–the feeling of another time and place, but for the matter of excitement and a good “story” I know that a woman or man might not have actually behaved in exactly such a way, but I am in it for the escapism. I feel a little guilty saying that–as if I am wrong and I should not admit to this. But if I am honest, I am a great fan of historical fiction even with all these paradoxes of the genre these days. But I totally respect others who prefer not to read the genre. It’s good to like different things! And there are so many choices out there–happily! And I have just gotten the Ribchester in the mail and was looking at it longingly and ready to start reading, but I have too many other books on the go now. And I think I will add the Chapin to my wishlist as well. (So no guilty feelings for not putting the books into SNB–you’ve still managed to ‘sell’ them! 🙂 ).
You’re quite right, Danielle, that good storytelling just does come first when we think about what makes a great book, and that there are times (and I’m sure I’ve read books that are like this) when it really doesn’t matter if liberties are taken, because the novel is so engrossing. I completely adored Ellis Peters writing as Edith Pargeter, and was gripped by her Heaven Tree quartet. I don’t know anything about the Medieval period really, and it might have been inaccurate, but I was enjoying them so much I didn’t care. It’s also completely true that there’s non-fiction and biography for historical accuracy. I’m glad you’ve put a different perspective on the debate – thank you! – and I’m very glad indeed that you like the sound of the books. They really are very good in so many ways, and I’ll be very curious to hear what you make of them!
In particular, I hate it when the ONE GIRL is so plucky and ahistorical, and she’s all sneery at Other Girls of their time and the Typically Girlish Things they enjoy. I feel like historical fiction is either moving away from that, though, or else possibly I am moving away from historical fiction that does this.
And also, I always think that it’s a mistake to create an essentially modern character and plunk her down into a historical setting. It’s just more interesting to have characters who are OF THEIR TIME, even if that’s not always sympathetic to us. I was reading a romance novel recently where the hero is secretly Jewish, and when he confesses to the heroine that he’s Jewish, her immediate reaction is “Ew.” Which — gross! But also, interesting!
Jenny as ever you are very good at putting your finger on what’s most disturbing! I can say thankfully that neither of the above novels does that, but I do think I’ve read books like those you describe, and it is to be hoped that that trend is dying down. I’m now really curious to read your full review of the romance novel you mention. That’s a very good example of historical fiction taking the problems of history as a central focus.
Lovely to hear your voice again. And to hear your eloquent argument about why these sorts of books don’t quite work. I realise now that I had similar misgivings (although not as many) about The Miniaturist. And I know you say we should read for ourselves to make up our own minds. But it’s also refreshing to hear some constructive criticism of books for a change.
I keep wondering whether I should read The Miniaturist and change my mind daily! And thank you for your lovely comment. I’d hate to think I was putting anyone off because books can strike us all so very differently, but I’m delighted that you enjoyed the post. 🙂
I was going to add that these books feel like time-travelling literature. Put a 21st century mindset in the past and see what happens.
What an interesting notion! That may be an excellent way to explain what is so very appealing to readers.
I’m so with you and with everyone commenting. I’ve also written a historical novel and while researching and writing I became infuriated by how little power late-19th early-20th-century women had over the course of their lives. But in my novel, I hope, I stuck to the way-it-was. But my fury with the way-it-was makes me wonder whether some writers just can’t bear their female other-centuries characters to be shown as the powerless creatures they were and so the writers (mistakenly) give them 21st-century attitudes and mores?
Angela, your novels are so emotionally truthful that I am sure you paid careful attention to accuracy of the historical type too. That’s very intriguing what you say about being angry – I’ve experienced something similar when reading Dorothy Whipple who wrote about her own time but was very insightful about its constraints. She usually has a deeply dislikeable male character and is second-to-none at making me hop up and down in my seat, wild with fury at his actions. In a way, I don’t mind this, but you’re right – there may well be people who do find that painful. Power is always a sensitive subject.
I take it there is no true past, only events recorded and decisions made, as we can never fully know those people and cannot make anything beyond assumptions about what they were really thinking. If I sometimes am not totally sure why I did something I can’t be sure why a different person form a different time and culture did something. On the other hand the study of history gives us broad guides to how things were and what the norms and pressures were, the ignoring of which is what you are concerned with here. I take it these books are following popular media with ‘The Tudors’ all a rather chocolate box, even when nasty. In between even ‘Wolf Hall’ picked up flak for Cromwell from people who ‘clearly’ knew more about him than there is available to know and could not accept their own pet version could be seen in a different light. That is not to say I view Mantel as the sort of writer you are commenting on here. However, even academic movements suffer from placing the present onto the past. It seems impossible to avoid, even when they proclaim awareness of the tendency. I suppose Mantel might be echoing recent historicist trends to see people as enmeshed in the machine of their times, their actions the outcomes of huge processes they cannot transcend. I think her Cromwell doing what he has to to survive could be seen in that way. Sorry, I seem to have wandered way off topic, will blame the biological determinism of my ageing brain!
Bookboxed, that’s another excellent point! Wolf Hall is a novel that I wholeheartedly loved (though I haven’t seen the TV adaptation) and I felt that Hilary Mantel, by keeping herself to the machinations of court and political intrigue, steered clear of much that might be contentious. When Cromwell lost most of his family in the plague, she goes rather quiet about his emotions, leaving us to fill in the gaps. But oh I can imagine how academic scholars would argue and quibble over her portrayal, and how many would have a very particular and personal view of the man that they could not bear to see deformed. You are absolutely right that we can never ‘know’ for sure who anyone in history was like, or how it was to live there, and so best approximations are inevitably coloured with modern day perspectives.
I was having a very interesting discussion on twitter last night (we can safely say it was my first) about the perfect distance on past events to gain full perspective but without the loss of living memory. I think 60 years seemed to be the ideal – and the gap from which Middlemarch, Waverly and Vanity Fair were all written. I did not know this! I learned lots!
I run into a variation in this when discussing books from past times with students: they often dislike characters (specifically women characters) who don’t conform to their modern values — and celebrate the ones who do as being “ahead of their time” as if they don’t also represent strains of genuinely past thought.
I hear you! I had the thankless task of explaining Madame Bovary to several years of female students (the male students had no particular problem with her) and often hit a brick wall. Why do you think this is? Is it because of the elasticity of identity at that age? They cling very hard to role models and very black and white ideas of morality so as to have some solid ground in their minds? It’s most intriguing.
This is why I am always hesitant to read historical fiction. I want historical fiction to be of the Hilary Mantel and Cromwell sort but so much of it is as you describe these two books, history as scenery. And you are right, it is odd that we want our historical women to be sassy and adventurous but our present day women seem to be their own worst enemies.
And didn’t Hilary do it well? I loved Wolf Hall, and I really must finish Bring Up The Bodies (I started it but got interrupted by SNB reading – you know how it goes!). I do so wonder why those female roles are swapped around so frequently in fiction. You’d think we’d need sassy female figures in contemporary novels to encourage us!
Excellent post, Litlove. FWIW, at the end of Lincoln, Gore Vidal includes a 1-page Afterword that addresses this “urgent question for any reader,” and explains “all of the principal characters really existed, and they said and did pretty much what I have them saying and doing.” He goes on to explain an exception, and to describe the fictional characters he created to facilitate storytelling. I liked his solution.
This is a bit off track, but my missus is a big Game of Thrones fan. It exasperates me. I get that it’s fantasy, but if there are knights in armor, and it’s pre-gunpowder, isn’t the Age obvious? Enough heraldic coats of arms display dragons that it isn’t too much of a stretch to bring them to life in that era. And yet the characters are 21st century cosmopolitan in speech, with TV’s 21st century hypersexuality. But peope seem to love it, so Martin has tapped into something, even as it has lost me.
I hear you about Game of Thrones. I would absolutely love to read an in-depth analysis of those books/programmes, as I think they are setting new standards for popular fiction and having a very profound cultural impact. And it would be really intriguing to think about why that may be, what they respond to in our current contemporary world. Between you and me, it’s really not my kind of thing, but Mr Litlove and our son both love them.
I am a fan of historical afterwords in novels – I do always want to know where history ends and fiction takes over, not least because that’s really interesting! Do you know, I have never read Gore Vidal either? I know I say it all the time, but one of these days, I must remedy that!
Such a well articulated post and it’s an important area – Rohan Maitzen’s comment about “genuinely past thought’ is very appropriate .
Not to say that it can’t be done:Hilary Mantel being a wonderful example mentioned by other readers.
I am right in the Hilary Mantel camp here, as I loved Wolf Hall. And I also loved The Night Watch by Sarah Waters. We should think about compiling a list of really intriguing historical fiction that approaches history in clever ways. I do agree about Rohan’s comment too – in fact, so many excellent points made in this discussion! I am in awe of my readers. 🙂
As usual a lively discussion, and it raises questions I hadn’t thought about before. I do like historical fiction, done well – as Hilary Mantel does and, I believe, Phiilppa Gregory (although I think she sometimes goes beyond the bounds of belief and I find myself saying, “Oh, come on. Really?”) My big question to you is, how could you possibly have been able to put down Bring Up The Bodies for any reason other than actually having it snatched from your hands by a book thief? :> I hated it to end.
“…the dreadful The Girl on the Train.” Thanks for the tips. I know what to eliminate so to save time. And, talking about women in the past… I just learned about Meryl Markham a few days ago, from another blogger, and now I must read her works and yes, just bought a biography on her, Straight on Till Morning. Never heard of Markham before, but now know she was close friend with Karen Blixen, and was hailed as “Britain’s Amelia Earhart.” And since you mentioned the word, I highly anticipate the upcoming movie The Suffragette, likely a 2016 Oscar contender for Carey Mulligan… yes, even before I see it. (and oh… I suddenly got some ideas for the next SNB article) 😉
Sorry, typo there, it’s Beryl, not Meryl, … at the back of my mind always that strong woman called Streep.
These novels often tire me for the reasons you mention.
I know there’s a trend of rewriting history but I don’t like it. It’s like telling a trauma victim to pretend it never happened.
Then there’s the commercial factor. If you read some of the big agent’s wishes – they love historical fiction because it sells. On the other hadn they want strong feminine charcaters because those sell as well.
I feel I must defend The Miniaturist: I found the writing so atmospheric that I forgave it its weaknesses. How anachronistic it was I couldn’t say, certainly in a couple of respects – without wishing to spoil it for you – I thought Nella had a surprisingly liberal attitude. But perhaps that wasn’t entirely uncommon after all? I saw a bit of a documentary by Diarmuid MacCulloch (sorry if I’ve misspelt that) about the history of sex in the West, and it was a much more complicated and nuanced story than I’d imagined.
I find these ‘strong’ female characters irritating too, I feel they’re there for we readers to identify with and yes, these are just modern women in fancy frocks sold to entertain us. (It’s also monstrously patronising to the women of the past who behaved differently, who accepted their places.) It can really break the spell of a novel if you think, hey, I don’t believe that!
Still, while it’s an excellent general rule, I don’t agree that historical fiction should always be concerned with inhabiting the past accurately (and is that even possible, and doesn’t historical fiction ‘date’ too?). There are books which look to the past to talk about the present, not that I can remember any examples right now so not very helpful, maybe Szerb? And if I think of Orlando, or Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry, or even Tom Stoppard’s wildly anachronistic Shakespeare in Love, well, they aren’t accurate but playing games, and I’d be sorry to lose them. But maybe this is a different category of historical fiction, and another discussion?
Fascinating post, as always, and discussion. MUST read Wolf Hall.
A great post, and I have so enjoyed reading people’s comments!
“The past was not a nice place” — but surely that’s anachronistic too? It must have been nice sometimes, and not very nice other times. It’s like a book I read recently (about the use of technology in education — I was not reading it by choice) that made the argument that all change was very slow until the latter part of the 20th century. I beg to differ. Change always feels fast when you’re in the midst of it.
Dorothy Dunnett writes excellent historical fiction, and so does Patrick O’Brien.
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