On that whole ‘relatability’ thing

Painting - St Catherine reading

Somehow in recent years, the idea has taken hold that characters – especially protagonists – in novels have to be ‘relatable.’ I blame Stephanie Meyer. She created the character Bella in the Twilight trilogy as a blank canvas onto which her teenage readers could project themselves; an audience surrogate that appealed to an audience of around 120 million.

Thanks for that.
So an entire generation of young women, in particular, has grown up with the idea that girls in novels should be just like them, even when surrounded by brooding vampires.
Many of those readers go on to read books by authors who construct powerful or difficult or troubled or hilarious female characters, and come to realise that a blank canvas is pretty, well, blank. To be fair, some writers have also argued that Bella is actually a feminist role model:
Bella is more or less modelled on the traditional fairy tale hero [not heroine], as her eventual accession to a type of monarchy is characterized not by humiliation, but rather by her gaining qualities that enable selfgovernance.
–  Meghanne Flynn
But whether or not it’s reasonable to blame Twilight (and I was being just a little facetious), I still hear and see so many comments that this book is so relatable or that book is not, and therefore no good. I just can’t relate to anybody in it.
On the other hand, in historical fiction, you will hear and see lots of emphasis on ‘authenticity.’ This somewhat mystical quality transports the reader into an imagined past and provides them with an experience that’s just like being there. Or something.
If you think these two things are possible and desirable, there’s an obvious tension here. On one hand, an ‘authentic’ figure from the distant past is very unlikely to be someone to whom a modern reader will relate – unless of course the reader projects madly onto that character, in which case the veneer of authenticity is smashed.
But do not fear, gentle reader, because I’m here to help. Kind of.
Both ideas – especially when they are framed as rules – bring trouble and strife to the act of reading, and possibly writing.

Reading and relating

What, after all, is relatability? (Apart from not actually being a word.) Is it the idea that people in books will be just like you? How tedious. Who wants to read about themselves over and over?
Of course, sometimes we all want to escape into another world, another life, and it’s easier to do that in partnership with a companionable character – a brain transplant, if you like, that enables you to feel supported and comforted as you accompany your heroine or hero on her or his journey.
But that’s just one type of reading experience. There are many others, involving characters that bring us face-to-face with the unfamiliar, unfathomable, unpleasant, perhaps even the unbearable.
lolita book cover
And what about those amazing and memorable characters who are nothing like us, but who we end up adoring? Severus Snape. Albus Dumbledore. Indeed, if you think about it, the only truly relatable character in the Potterverse is Ron, the everyman. He’s in there to be the human foil of brilliant Hermione and powerful but angry Harry. Ron’s the guy who is nothing special but has his own strengths and many weaknesses, as do we all.
But it’s not the story of Ron, is it? Thank goodness. It’s the story of Harry and Hermione and Dumbledore and Snape. Pretty much.
In each of them, we can find something that we connect with, something human and warm (even in Snape) and flawed and meaningful. They’re also interesting and unknowable and complex, and we can’t be sure what any of those characters will do or say at any moment. They aren’t like us. They all (even Snape) contain elements of who we wish we were: wise or brave or brilliant or ethical or strong or pure or funny. They are braver or brainier or more powerful than we may ever be. Together, they people a world we want to inhabit – with them.
Hermione being brainy
That’s relating.
So relating to – connecting with – characters is a wonderful part of reading (and watching TV and movies), but they don’t have to be just like us. We all have our teenage favourites; someone who showed us who we might be. Mine was Jo March. Millions of people much younger than me got to grow up with Hermione Granger and Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and her friends, Josie Alibrandi, or the necromancer Clariel or Sib and Lou in Fiona Wood’s Wildlife or Hazel Grace (The Fault in Our Stars – although there are suggestions that besides Hazel, all John Green’s characters are so relatable they are much the same … as him.)
But that’s not the only possible reading experience, and if in a sense we read to understand the world and the people in it, we also read about things and people we can’t comprehend at first – about five year-old Jack and his Ma in Room or Maud Lilly in Fingersmith or the revolutionaries in A Place of Greater Safety or Takeo the samurai or for that matter Hedda Gabler or Madame Bovary or Prince Andrei.

Feel so real

Which brings us to the question of ‘authenticity.’ There’s no such thing. (Of which more at a later date.) But the idea of authenticity and the idea of relatability in historical fiction really can’t co-exist.
If an author did manage to create a character that approached the world view, voice and life of, say, a fifteenth century princess, she would be so unlike any conception of princess a modern reader brings to the reading that there is no chance the princess would be understood, let alone relatable.
When we write historical fiction, and when we read it, we necessarily bring to the process all of our post-20th century knowledge, our modern vocabulary and syntax, our fundamentally different world view and manners and customs and philosophy and skills and reading history.
It couldn’t be further from the truth, or from the idea of an authentic experience.
It is what it is – just an element of the genre.
Apart from anything else, if we really captured the speech of Anne Boleyn or Richard III or an archer at Agincourt or a pirate of the Caribbean, readers wouldn’t have a clue what they were saying, let alone be able to relate to them.
Instead, we create, try as we might, characters in our own shape and shadow.

Writers are naughty like that

Writers of all genres create characters for all sorts of reasons, not only for readers to relate to. Sometimes, we create characters who lie, or are vain, or pompous, or stupid, or rotten, or weak, or tricksy, or criminal. We create unsympathetic characters or unreliable narrators on purpose. We create anti-heroes as well as heroes. They may not be relatable, but there will (almost always) be something undeniably human about them, so that their very unreliability or unappealing nature shines a light on what it means to be human. It’s not about relating – it’s about exploring.
Seeing the world through the eyes of Hilary Mantel’s interpretation of Thomas Cromwell, or Dr March (rather than Jo) in Geraldine Brooks’ March is fascinating and compelling, but it’s not designed to make the reader feel all cozy. It can be a difficult process to put yourself in their shoes. But if you do, what do you see? You get an insight into the Tudor world – into Henry and Anne and Thomas More – unlike any you’ve ever seen. Or you feel the weakness of a character idealised as a hero by his family, and glimpse the random brutality of the American Civil War.
So what matters here is the author’s intent. If the author hasn’t tried to create a relatable character, then it’s just not relatable or I didn’t like the main character isn’t a meaningful response to the book in your hand. It doesn’t really engage with the text or the characters at all.
It says more about the reader than it says about the book.
The answer? Simply read more and read more widely – read all sorts of things, surprise yourself, and shift outside your expectation of what a protagonist can and should be.
It’s the expectation we bring to reading that matters.
Let’s be willing to be astonished.
More reading

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The history in historical fiction

I recently chaired a debate between historical novelists and historians at the conference of the Historical Novel Society of Australasia‘What can historical novelists and historians learn from each other?

Our thoughtful and entertaining panellists were Jesse Blackadder, Gillian Polack, Rachel Le Rossignol, and Deborah Challinor.

It was great fun, but of course being in the chair meant I couldn’t answer any of my own questions.

But it’s my blog and I’ll rant if I want to.

So here begins a series of posts on thoughts about the intersections of history writing and historical fiction: arising in part from the conference debate, tracing the questions I posed (and also many that I didn’t get to ask), but also bubbling up from my own reading.  And some tips for writers of historical fiction on how to act on some of the issues raised.

Image of Balmain town hall

The HNSA conference in action: Balmain Town Hall. (Photo via HNSA facebook group)

So… this is where we began the other night:

Without history writing, without libraries and other collections, archaeologists, without the ancient recorders of events and daily life, what we novelists write would be fantasy. On the other hand, we know that fiction works as a gateway drug to history writing and research for both readers and writers. But how alike are these two forms – these two disciplines?

And what techniques, skills, tools and models might they share?

Of course the work of history is diverse, and practice and approaches change dramatically over time. But if historical imagination operates in both history writing and historical fiction, does it work differently – does it feel different to the writer as well as the reader? Does narration work differently? Does interpretation?

Does the history we present look different?

Those are some of the questions I’ll cover in the next few posts.

A proposition

If history writing and historical fiction are about  “understanding what it means to be human” (Carl Degler, 1980), are they part of the same project? Practitioners of both forms seek out  stories from the past, engage with them creatively, sort and interrogate them, pull them into some kind of narrative shape and interpret them for readers.

That seems so obvious, but the ongoing conversation between historians and historical novelists has been rather testy at times.  There is misunderstanding on both sides (if indeed they are ‘sides’) about the commonalities, purposes and practice of both disciplines.

You will often see, for example, historians portrayed in fiction as rigid, data-obsessed researchers (the same might be said of many fictional portrayals of librarians – and academics). They are gatekeepers guarding facts, keeping novelists and readers in the dark about what really happened.

And yet writers of historical fiction depend on writers of history texts – creators of secondary sources – for the information they use to build their imagined worlds; worlds that are, according to Jerome de Groot, “manifestly false but historically detailed.”

What’s going on here? Let’s try to clear the air.

It ought to be clear to us all that the writing of history is a creative process, just like the writing of fiction. It has been since the days of Herodotus. Equally, we can all recognise the depth of research that goes into many works of fiction. So we have a great deal in common. But our approaches may be different – of which more in a later post.

There is, as Gillian Polack pointed out during the debate and in her own writing, an idea of history and historians based on nineteenth century concepts of not just the historian figure but also what the field of history is, does and means. The discipline – the work of interrogating and engaging with the meaning of history, even our understanding of what that word means – changed radically during the twentieth century, and continues to change. But many people haven’t noticed.

I agree with Gillian that historical novelists tend to see ‘history’ in its nineteenth century guise – that thing we all fell in love with in school or in early historical novels – and our responses to the corpus of history writing are seen through this lens. That means we also run the risk of seeing even primary sources and the research process itself from this limited viewpoint. Without an understanding of historiography, of approaches to the work of history, we run the risk of relying on outdated concepts and disproved theories.

Here’s a simple but striking example, discussed by Gillian in one of her articles: Historicising the Historical Novel: How Fiction Writers Talk About The Middle Ages. As a medievalist as well as a writer of fiction, she can see how many novelists view the Middle Ages through the lens of nineteenth century British and French medievalism – that gorgeous romanticised William Morris tapestry version that projected Victorian values onto a certain version of ‘the past’, and influenced many generations of historical novelists. It is, as Deborah Challinor memorably pointed out in the debate, the past without the pus – without a realistic view of life for real people.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I often sound off about the myth of authenticity: this idea that fiction can somehow capture the actual experience and voice of people in the past. It’s nonsense. Or rather, it’s not authenticity, but an expected form of the genre, perfected by Walter Scott and others.

What writers create and readers have come to expect is the medievalist view of the world (even of eras that are not medieval) – it has nothing to do with authenticity, and may indeed have little to do with actual history.

If that’s what you’re writing, all well and good. Recognise it for what it is – medievalist fiction. That’s a thing. But it doesn’t need to run the risk of being incorrect or based on out-of-date data.

What next?

So what can we learn and do?

Keep up to date with new thinking and writing about the theory of history. I find it fascinating: you might not.

At the very least, read current research about the era on which you write, explore new data and interpretations. (I’ll post later about research methods and historical thinking.)

Write with clear(er) eyes about our subjects. We can enrich our world-building and characterisation with recent findings, and our own work with primary sources will be enlivened and informed by the latest analysis by experts in the field – and in other fields. I follow archaeologists and anthropologists as well as historians, for example, and read updates and debates everywhere I can, from Twitter to  specialist history societies, from academic or professional journals (available free and online through your nearest state or national library) to popular media such as the BBC’s History magazine or Inside History.

History and fiction are a tag team, sometimes taking turns, sometimes working in tandem, to deepen our understanding and imagination – Tom Griffiths, ‘History and the Creative Imagination’,  History Australia, 6: 3, 2009.

Some reading suggestions

If you really want to get your teeth into some of these issues, try these:

Is History Fiction? Ann Curthoys and John Docker, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2006.

Re-thinking History, Keith Jenkins, Routledge Classics, London, 2003 (first published 1991)

The Historical Novel, Jerome de Groot, Routledge, London, 2009

The Fiction of Narrative (Essays), Hayden White, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2010.

You might be able to access the journal Rethinking History through your library.

And here’s a list of Gillian Polack’s publications.

To be continued…

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Sensational

I’ve been on a belated summer holiday, and finally got stuck into some reading.

And the first few books on my reading (or re-reading) pile were some nineteenth century Sensation novels including The Moonstone and The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins.

Sleepless nights ensued. I am so easily affected by page-turning, pot-boiling, gasp-a-chapter books like these (and that’s why I don’t watch too many thrillers on TV or I’d never sleep at all – I used to get insomnia just from watching The Bill). I’ve also read a whole stack of early detective stories (this is for an upcoming conference paper and article on female detectives in historical fiction), which were fascinating, but not quite so disturbing.

What’s a sensation novel?

So glad you asked.

Here’s a little snippet of the background section of the paper:

The sensation novels of the 1860s were not framed as historical fiction, but they were, like their Gothic predecessors, often set in an uncanny, out-of-time misty moment where the past – and the secrets of the past – influenced the present. The detective stories of the 1880s and 1890s were intentionally modern. Both genres combined elements of the Gothic novel with contemporary realism, presented new approaches to their female characters, and have been enormously influential in mystery, thriller and historical fiction ever since. […]

Early mysteries often unfold so slowly that the crime itself is not committed until well into the plot, and in some cases revenge rather than detection is the goal after discovery. ‘The mystery,’ Patrick Brantlinger suggests, ‘acts like a story which the narrator refuses or has forgotten how to tell’ (1982, p 18). The stories are often told through the eyes of someone other than the protagonist – Doctor Watson being the most famous. Sensation novels such as The Woman in White feature a constantly changing narrative voice, as legal advisors, butlers and housekeepers, apparently objective or clearly biased observers, even the sleuth herself, take on the role of unravelling or bearing witness to a complex web of clues and disasters.

There is a crime or scandal of some kind, and often several layers of secrets which threaten or act as motive – a stolen letter or jewel, a confusion of identities, someone incarcerated or kidnapped or thought missing but returned. The secret or scandal motif is particularly common in the sensation novel, a phenomenon that flourished briefly in the late nineteenth-century, and drove millions of readers crazy waiting for the next serialised episode or melodramatic chapter – for Australian readers, books like Bleak House were ‘despatched at intervals from England, arriving on faraway docks with the expectation that they would be seized by feverish readers, burning with curiosity about the fate of their favourite characters’ (Martin & Mirmohamadi 2011, p 37 ).

 

Still from TV series The Moonstone

Still from 1996 TV adaptation of ‘The Moonstone’

 

Why are they sensational?

If you’ve ever read one, you’d know – whether the 1860s originals or some of their descendants such as Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith? They can be, quite simply, excruciating – sometimes in the knowledge of a character’s depravity or deceit, while the heroine remains oblivious; sometimes because the suspense is so acute and masterful, engendering a miserable pleasure in the agony.

Sometimes it’s the full Gothic experience: entrapment, menace, isolation in a country house, dark secrets to be uncovered, the possibility of the supernatural or the uncanny (usually proven to be quite human and explicable), the irrational, the sublime, the subversive. There’s that sense that familiar boundaries – of humanity, of the law, of fiction, of the psyche – are being transgressed, that what is hidden and possibly unmentionable is about to be revealed. But not quite yet.

We fear for the innocence or the safety of the heroine – she will survive, we feel fairly sure, but at what cost? The mystery eludes us. The characters appal. In the later historical novels, particularly when the author is trying for a sense of heightened affect, you desperately want it to end so you feel the mystery has been solved, but also you don’t ever want it to be over, because once you know what happens in the end, something is lost.

The first time I read Fingersmith, for example, Waters lulled me into false sense of security – although aware it was a reimagining of The Woman in White, I had no idea such fiendish twists awaited me, and was happily revelling in its neo-Victorian ventriloquism. Until … gasp!

 

Still image from TV series of Fingersmith

Mrs Sucksby acting innocent in the 2005 TV adaptation of ‘Fingersmith’

 

I can’t say any more because spoilers. Also I have to get back to reading my book. It’s sensational!

 

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Historical novel conference: coming soon to Australia

If you write or read historical fiction, here’s the conference for you.

The Historical Novel Society’s Australasian branch is holding the first ever historical novel conference in Sydney in March.

It’s a great program, with writers such as Posie Graeme-Evans, Toni Jordan, Kate Forsyth, Colin Falconer, Deborah Challinor,  and Jesse Blackadder debating and discussing, and also running masterclasses such as research tips with Gillian Polack.

YA and children’s historical novelists include Pam Rushby, Sophie Masson, Felicity Pulman and Goldie Alexander. And me.

I attended the Society’s conference in London last year and it was wonderful to be in a room filled with people who love and understand your genre. So do come along if you can.

It’s on 20 – 22 March 2015, with the opening night debate (which I’m chairing) at the State Library of NSW and the day programs at the Balmain Town Hall.

 

 

Image of State Library NSW

 

All the details and program are on the HNSA website.

If you can’t make it, the hashtag is #HNSA2015.

 

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Re-reading childhood heroes

When I was little, we didn’t have many books. Not that we didn’t like them. We did. But we didn’t own many. We’d moved to a new suburb on the edge of town and for several years there wasn’t much there except houses and dirt roads and orchards and bush. Then when I was about seven, two amazing things happened: they connected us to the sewerage system (which made reading on the loo much more relaxing – no more worrying that the Pan Man was going arrive while you were sitting there), and, wonder of wonders, a new library was built.

And I discovered the magic shelf in Children’s Fiction: Authors by surname, S to Z.

It changed my life. And what I write now is directly related to what I read then. The books I found there (and on other shelves) were part of a golden age of historical fiction for children.

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been consciously re-reading some of the books I remembered from that shelf (and a few others).  I re-read several of these in recent years as part of research into approaches to historical fiction. But over the last few weeks I have consciously tried to immerse myself in them, one after the other – a feast, or an experiment, or a binge. Or perhaps all of the above.

Here’s what I’ve re-read:

Rosemary Sutcliff

  • The Lantern Bearers (1959)
  • Knight’s Fee (1960)
  • Dawn Wind (1961)
  • Sword at Sunset  – sort of (1963)

Geoffrey Trease

  • Bows Against the Barons (1934)
  • The Barons’ Hostage (1952)
  • Cue For Treason (1940)
  • The White Nights of St Petersburg (1967)
  • Danger in the Wings (1997)

Henry Treece

  • Hounds of the King (1955)
  • The Children’s Crusade (1958)
  • Horned Helmet (1963)

Ronald Welch

  • Knight Crusader (1954)
  • Nicholas Carey (1963)
  • Tank Commander (1972).

And favourites from the A – H shelf:

Leon Garfield

  • Devil-in-the-Fog (1966)
  • Smith (1967)

I also re-read The Silver Sword (1956), by Ian Serraillier, which I loved as a kid and found disappointing as an adult reader and Lawrence Durrell’s White Eagles Over Serbia (1957). These technically aren’t historical fiction, as they were written about events in the lifetime of the author (post-World War 2 Europe), but I read them as such when I was young.

I was interested in exploring commonalities and differences in approaches, technique and content in historical fiction of the post-war (UK) golden age, and what and how we write now for middle years and young adults.

 

Cover - Bows Against the Barons

Different approaches

Many things have changed since these books were published, and even across the decades of these authors’ careers: writing styles, approaches to writing for different reading levels, politics and attitudes; and thanks to archaeology and archival research we know a great deal more about some of the historical periods in which they are set. When I first read these books, there wasn’t really anything we’d define as Young Adult – that generation of authors helped create YA and children’s fiction. We now have a greater technical understanding of how different age groups read, how literacy operates, and (hopefully) about cultural diversity and gender issues.

When these authors were at their peaks, they could assume a certain level of historical knowledge in their readers. A ten year-old might not know much about the Marcher Lords or Edward Longshanks, but they’d get the general gist and they’d certainly know about Roman, Saxon and Norman Britain, for example, or where Vikings came from.

Now, when I ask a class if they’ve ever heard of Napoleon Bonaparte or Cleopatra I get blank stares. That makes me sad, although those students know a whole lot of other stuff that I don’t know.

And of course, these were all UK authors aiming primarily at a UK readership, but even we on the edge of Melbourne knew this general history. We didn’t learn much about the history of our own country, and especially not about its indigenous past, so some things have changed for the better.

The point is, I now can’t assume any consistent historical knowledge. It’s something I need to be aware of when I’m writing – I have to make sure to include as much political and historical, sometimes also religious or geographical, context as possible, all without seeming to do so.

 

Cover - Dawn Wind

Issues in common

Almost everyone who writes historical fiction grapples with the question of how much detail to include in the story. Everyone – even the masters – struggle at times with filling in political back story or placing the action in the context of historical events. It often feels heavy-handed, especially when there are a lot of names of historical figures and battles or events and they all happen off-stage.

Things that drive me mad, such as having to mark the passing of months or even years, are handled with aplomb by Sutcliff and Trease. They are just upfront about it – rumours swirl, messengers arrive, years or months pass. They are especially good at noting changes of seasons – easier when your setting is agricultural.

I often spend some time deciding how to treat violence and especially brutality for middle years readers. These writers, although often writing about war, skim over the details.

Perhaps that’s why many of the climax points seem underwritten or oddly paced – a battle, a confrontation, a fight is over so quickly that it can easily be missed or its importance go unrecognised. They need perhaps more of the thriller technique in these scenes – more menace, more visceral action, and perhaps more reflection.

There’s no coyness about bloodshed in the Treece Viking books, though – indeed, how could there be? You can’t write about Viking warriors without a whole lot of heads being whacked and swords red with blood. Why would you?

Of great interest to me, given my 1917 project, was Ronald Welch’s treatment of the horrors of war in Tank Commander. He certainly doesn’t shy away from depicting the horror of trench warfare, of death, of the fear and panic soldiers experienced when trapped in a trench with shells exploding all around. Welch served in WW2, as did Treece (Trease did too, but as an Army Education Officer – a perfect role for him), which perhaps helps him achieve a level of verisimilitude in his portrayal of men living with the trauma of constant battle. He even describes the execution of a young soldier for cowardice, and there’s no disguising the death and the bloodshed. The moral implications are barely explored – on one hand, the protagonist, John Carey, has sympathy for the young private when he sees him cowering and muttering in the trench – on the other, he doesn’t question the sentence or regret its aftermath, but that is probably a fairly accurate portrayal.

People die in these books – friends, kin, even major characters.There is grief and loneliness, just as experienced by so many young readers who lost family members in the war.

 

Cover - Tank commander

Openings

You can tell a lot from the first line of a book:

The moon drifted clear of a long bank of cloud, and the cool slippery light hung for a moment on the crest of the high ground… – Dawn Wind

I asked, weren’t we taking the pistol, or anyhow the long, murderous-looking pike …  – Cue for Treason

Though Methuen usually lived at his Club whenever he was in London it was seldom that he was seen in the bar or the gaunt smoking-rooms.  – White Eagles Over Serbia

Beorn was only a boy when his father jumped off Ness Rock into the sea and was swept away like a piece of black driftwood.  – Horned Helmet

He was called Smith and was twelve years old. Which, in itself, was a marvel…  – Smith

Sutcliff is always painterly, setting the scene as if a curtain is rising.

You’ll often hear the advice from Elmore Leonard: “Never start a book with the weather.” But we’re not all Elmore Leonards. The world needs Rosemary Sutcliffs as well.

Trease kicks off with a bang, then backtracks in the first few pages so you know where you are and whose story it is that you’ve been sucked into – cheekily in Danger in the Wings which begins:

In those first heart-stopping moments – he always remembered afterwards – the course of his whole life must have been decided. It was when he saw the ghost.

A few pages later, we’re relieved and possibly disappointed to learn that it’s the ghost in Hamlet and that the life-changing moment has to do with the theatre.

This is the technique I tend to use, especially for middle years. My young adult books veer a little more to the scene-setting opening. So far.

 

Cover - Horned Helmet

Themes

A common theme in many of these books, for obvious reasons, is destruction and upheaval. Sutcliff’s post-Roman Britain, the setting for many of her novels, is a metaphor for the ruin of Europe and the UK after WW2 and especially the bombing raids. Her Britons are trying to rebuild, or are holding back the tide of violent invasion or starving in the rubble.

An overall theme, as is often the case with historical fiction, is that of individuals caught up in the great events of their time. Many of these novels consciously engage with real historical figures, so that their fictional protagonists meet up with Elizabeth 1 or Vortigern or Edward Longshanks. In The White Nights of St Petersburg, young David is caught up in the Bolshevik Revolution. In The Lantern Bearers, Aquila is the last Roman soldier left in Britain. The several hostages in The Baron’s Hostage are kept prisoner by Simon de Montfort, while the boy Beorn goes a-Viking with Jarl Skallagrim in Horned Helmet.

They blend a real and imagined history, and focus on great events as experienced by ordinary (or at least not famous) people.

Garfield’s characters are entirely imagined, and they inhabit exotic landscapes familiar to any reader of Dickens or Stevenson – the gloomy underbelly of the city, the dark side of human nature.

So in these books, we can see at least two common approaches to historical fiction: portraying the past as a fascinating foreign country; or drawing parallels between the past and the now.

 

Cover - White eagles over Serbia

Structure and plot

These are mostly quests, and it’s noticeable how episodic the narrative is as we follow along the hero’s journey – more so, I think, than in recent novels. The structure is often a simple series of scenes that are not always narratively linked – or at least, they don’t build up across an arc. Early episodes don’t necessarily relate to later plot points or the inevitable climax. Sometimes earlier plotlines fizzle out. It’s as if adventure is enough. And it was, for the young me.

Perhaps this is conscious and related to theme, with the quest sometimes feeling aimless because the world is destroyed and there is no clear road ahead, or because the hero is a soldier living from battle to battle.

But not always. Cue for Treason is plotted like a mystery with a fair degree of foreshadowing, White Eagles Over Serbia is an action thriller, while Knight’s Fee is driven by character. Garfield writes tight, brilliantly plotted books with twists to make Dickens gasp. There are several strands – the overt plot, plus perhaps a romance, plus a character growing up or changing in some way.

In other cases, it seems that a series of exciting situations is enough. Or the progression of an historical event, such as The Children’s Crusade, is simply followed – with a bit of an escapade at the end to liven things up and get the children home in an ahistorical rescue.

 

Cover - Knight Crusader

World views

On re-reading, I was shocked at the racism and anti-Semitism in Knight Crusader and Nicholas Carey. Every “foreigner” and/or bad guy is “swarthy” (what an ugly word), every Italian and “Arab” untrustworthy, and everyone who is Jewish is avaricious. And probably swarthy as well. Needless to say, they all have minor roles. As a kid, I loved Welch’s series about the Carey/d’Aubigny (no relation to Julie) family, and my brother and I used to fight over who got to read them first. If I noticed this nasty tone, I’d forgotten. Probably I didn’t even notice it, sad to say.

Now, if you’re writing about a character who holds those views, as every Crusader did, you might need to write these attitudes into their world view. (In fact, one of the least convincing and historically inaccurate Crusader characters of recent years was Orlando Bloom’s Balian in Kingdom of Heaven, with his modern liberal – almost Orientalist – attitudes and lack of crusading zeal.) Many characters in all of these books voice their contemporary attitudes, especially about gender. Medieval parents disapprove of girls being uppity or wanting to avoid an arranged marriage. That’s as it should be if you’re reflecting the mores of the era.

But in Knight Crusader in particular these come through in the authorial voice. And don’t tell me that it’s because Welch was a man of his generation. You don’t read that kind of nonsense in Trease. Sometimes you come across ignorance about people with disabilities or indigenous people. But not outright nastiness. Mind you, I did also notice hints of homophobia in Sutcliff’s Knight’s Fee, in which the bad guy wears scent and has a high laugh.

 

Cover - Smith

Characters

It’s a long time since I’ve read a modern book for middle years or young adults with an adult protagonist, as there are in The Lantern Bearers and White Eagles Over Serbia. It’s much more common now to have the main character a little older than the anticipated readership. In fact, it’s de rigueur.

But it’s not always possible. If you’re writing about war, for example, as I’m doing at present, the protagonist has to be old enough to go to war. Not every book about WW1 can have a young lad running away and lying about his age to enlist.

What on earth makes us imagine that kids don’t want to read books about adults, nowadays? I imagine it’s due to the obsession with ‘relateable’ characters, on which I’ll post soon. But kids watch movies and TV shows about adults. They act as adult protagonists in games. Over about eight or nine years-old, I reckon young readers are perfectly willing to see the world through the eyes of someone older than them, so long as the rest of the narrative is of interest. If it’s a straight out adventure, why not? Plenty of kids are still reading The Lantern Bearers (more than 50 years after it won the Carnegie Medal in 1959).

Similarly, some of these books are written from the point of view of the protagonist as an adult looking back. They might end, as do Cue for Treason and The Baron’s Hostage, with the hero happily married to the heroine and perhaps writing down an account of their youthful adventures. You don’t see that often nowadays either. But it’s a bit like the epilogue to the Harry Potter books – it draws a boundary around the possible futures you might imagine for the characters. This is how it ends. Don’t bother trying to imagine anything else. Oddly unsatisfying, but perhaps that’s just me.

In The Children’s Crusade and The Silver Sword, in particular, the child characters behave in ways inconsistent with their supposed age. In fact, it’s sometimes hard to know how old people are meant to be, as if there is some kind of generic child behaviour and voice that is applied to everyone, whether they’re six or sixteen.

Most of the protagonists in these books are men or boys. These were authors writing in the tradition of the ripping yarn – of Biggles and Jack London – assuming that adventure tales or tales of war were for boys. Female characters, even in these books of Sutcliff’s, are sketched lightly. Even Regina in Dawn Wind – a haunting character – gets little chance to exercise much agency.

But not Trease. He was one of the first to consciously write pairs of protagonists – one male, one female, and relatively equal (although not quite). The books are often from the male point of view, in some cases there is a hint of romance between the two – or more than a hint – and the young woman’s behaviour may be proscribed by the values of the period, but she is right there in the adventure. These young women are brave, tough, outspoken and engaged in the action.

I did note that there are many characters, possibly too many for a young reader to keep track of, in some of these books, especially when most of them are so lightly sketched it’s impossible to tell them apart. Even some of the protagonists seem to have only one feature – courage, perhaps, or ambition or restlessness – and don’t gather more attributes over the course of the novel.

But then there’s Dog (Dawn Wind), for me, one of Sutcliff’s most memorable characters in spite of having no lines beyond the odd warning bark – so memorable in fact, that to this day I long for a wolfhound, and my great canine love, Lily, looked like a miniature version of Dog.

 

Cover - Lantern bearers

 

Language and voice

There’s such a range of writing in these books, from Sutcliff’s glorious landscape paintings to Durrell’s detailed miniatures. To our eyes, both of these authors may not seem to write for a young readership: the language and sentence structure are pitched at a high reading level, and the protagonists are often adults. They are prototype young adult books, in which the reader can get lost in both language and story, which assume an educated and willing reader – of any age – and defy the idea that writing for children should be any less complex than writing of literary for adults. (In fact, in some ways, it can be more complex.)

That said, it’s possible to overdose on Sutcliff’s prose, or perhaps it was easy for her to get carried away with both description and historical detail, and after one too many moons and hillsides and dawns and glens and heavy oak doors, even my eyes started to glaze over. As a result, I have failed, yet again, to finish The Sword at Sunset (which, although a sequel to Lantern Bearers, isn’t really a kids’ book).

As I’ve noted before, Geoffrey Trease was the early master of the transparent voice in historical fiction, trying to ensure that the historical didn’t overwhelm the fiction – designed so that younger readers barely notice the voice and get straight into the narrative. Danger in the Wings has a more casual 20th century teen tone than other books, and therefore has dated a little, but in general the technique stands the test of time (as it does in Robert Graves’ I Claudius, published the same year as Bows Against the Barons).

A curious thing about Danger in the Wings, though: its language seems to be pitched at quite a young age group, and yet prostitution and VD are hinted at and much of the book is concerned with romance. That’s unusual among these books.

Sutcliff tries to create, in voice and in description, an atmosphere to allow the reader to feel her setting. Her characters say,  “It is in my mind that…” or “Let you ride awhile”, but it’s not an intrusive ye olde worlde affectation. She was scathing about what she called “gadzookery” in historical fiction.

The language in the Welch and Treece books is more workmanlike, and its role is to drive the reader along on the adventure. Which it does. But it’s never going to win a prize for beauty.

Two things you’d never get away with now, and nor should you try: the grown-up gather-round-little-kiddies-and-I’ll-tell-you-an-uplifting-story narrative voice and didactic tone of The Silver Sword.

I suppose there are still hit-you-over-the-head moralising books about, but with so much choice, I don’t see why any young readers would bother. Once you get into the story, you don’t notice as much, but the beginning and the ending are more Edwardian in tone than post-war.

Another hero of mine is Leon Garfield, who renders dialogue of eighteenth century London equal to the best of Robert Louis Stevenson – perhaps sharper. We rarely now see the likes of this:

They came to Vine Street. Said Mister Mansfield: ‘If you’ve nought better to do, will you come in and take a bite of late supper with me, Smith?’
‘Don’t mind if I do, Mister Mansfield.’
‘Care to stay the night, Smith?’
‘Don’t mind if I do, Mister Mansfield.’
‘Any family, Smith?’
‘Sisters. Two of ’em.’
‘Likely to worry?’
‘Not much.’
‘Then it’s settled?’
‘Just as you say, Mister Mansfield.’
‘Anything else I can do for you, Smith?’
Smith sighed ruefully. The only thing he really wanted, Mr Mansfield was unable to provide.
‘No thank-you, Mister Mansfield. You done all you can.’

Glorious. Now, the Stephen Kings of this world would have us live without that “ruefully”. But you see here how a master can blend sparse and descriptive language without it feeling overwrought. Most publishers would ask an author to avoid trying to render colloquial speech or dialect on the page.

But again, how perfect, how Dickensian, is the “Sisters. Two of ’em.”?

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Filed under historical fiction, kidlit, on writing, reading

It Happened in a Holden

Look out for this gorgeous little book, just published by Affirm. If you get nostalgic for childhood summers, or at the sight of a passing EH wagon, or perhaps have fond memories of youthful Torana drag races, this may be the book on your Christmas list this year.  I have a little piece in it (along with some photos of my beloved Aunty Myrtle and Uncle Phil and their old Holden).

 

Book cover of Holden book

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Filed under essays, publishing

Coming up: La Trobe University

Paddy O’Reilly and I will be in conversation about our new books (in her case, The Wonders), writing, and reading this coming Thursday 23 October at 12.30pm at the Coop Bookshop at La Trobe University (from which we have both just graduated with our doctorates, and where we shared an office and many months of writing together).

It’s market day on campus, the bookshop is laying out a bit of wine and a few nibbles, and there’s a strong possibility that Paddy and I will have an attack of hysterical giggling which is always fun to watch. Apparently.

But we will also read a bit form our latest books and talk about the processes and thoughts that led us to The Wonders and Goddess.

Do get along if you’re in the area.

Book cover - The Wonders

Image of book cover - Goddess, a book about Julie d'Aubigny

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Filed under appearances, Goddess

Historical fiction/fictionalised history

People often tell me that they don’t read historical fiction. Ask them if they’ve read Possession or Oscar and Lucinda, though, and they’ll say, “Oh yes, but that’s different.”

Are they right? And if so, how?

I recently attended the London conference of the Historical Novel Society where, it must be said, almost all the authors who spoke identified themselves as writers of the genre.

But not all. Emma Darwin and Suzannah Dunn both said they didn’t define themselves as historical novelists, and Lindsey Davis, creator of the Roman detective Falco, said: “I don’t write historical fiction. I write literary fiction.”

 

Image of Alexandria cover

 

How interesting.

I’m trying to get my head around something here, so bear with me. Please.

Historical fiction is (arguably) a genre, and as such it has common tropes, familiar forms and styles; guidelines, perhaps, rather than rules. It’s a broad church, of course, and encompasses many eras as well as approaches to technique such as point of view. It contains many sub-genres and genre overlaps, too, such as historical romance, crime, thrillers, and fantasy, and has some particular obsessions (Romans, Vikings, Tudors … and Jane Austen). It can also include time travel or alternative history, and those many stories that move back and forth between eras. Some of it is classed as commercial fiction, while some is categorised as literary fiction. One of its less discussed features, on which I’ll write more soon, is that it is quite often overtly gendered – warriors for blokes, remarkable noblewomen battling the odds for female readers.

The Historical Novel Society defines it broadly as:

To be deemed historical (in our sense), a novel must have been written at least fifty years after the events described, or have been written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events (who therefore approaches them only by research).

Does it have a recognisable form? Its origins are debated, but in The Historical Novel, György Lukács (1962) identified Sir Walter Scott as the originator of the historical novel. It’s absolutely true that other people, including women such as Madame de Lafayette, wrote novels set in the past much earlier than Scott’s 1814 blockbuster Waverley. But I think it’s fair to say that, for better or worse, Scott was instrumental in setting down (at least for readers of English) expectations of what a historical novel might be, how it might sound, what it might include – setting, plotting, character; even that it might fool around a bit with historical accuracy. It created, above all, an expectation of voice, a concept of ‘authenticity’ that is, perversely, completely false and based largely on Scott’s own style. Lukács called it ‘historical realism’, and it’s that form that you read in Tolstoy, say, and the early historical novelists.

 

Image of Waverley

 

It has evolved into new and various forms. But when normal people – readers – talk about historical fiction, often what they mean is a costume drama with epic twists and Gothic plotlines, set against a rich and detailed backdrop. Think of those addictive Georgette Heyer or Jean Plaidy books and later Bernard Cornwell or Diana Gabaldon. It is often seen and marketed as commercial fiction, too – like Heyer’s.

(One hopes for accuracy in characters’ contemporary world views, too, and these can be found in many of the best historical novels. But it’s not, apparently, required. There are a great many New Age Georgian guys and feminist princesses reflecting modern ideas and not their own. I’ll come back to this.)

Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell novels, I think, are something else entirely, something closer to War and Peace. They are works of literary fiction which are immensely popular, perhaps because of the obsession with the Tudors generally and Anne Boleyn in particular, and also because they happen to be brilliant. Compare them to the Tudor books of Philippa Gregory, for example, which are more obviously written in the traditional historical fiction mode, and it’s clear that they are a different form. Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are works of twenty-first century realist fiction set in the past.

 

Inmage of mantel book covers

 

Let me be clear. I’m not making any value judgements or setting one form above the other/s. I am a proud reader and writer of genre fiction. I’m not interested in creating a binary of a canon versus commercial genre. I’m just trying to understand and refine our definitions, and perhaps our expectations.

People shy away from the label ‘literary fiction’, partly because it’s not easily defined and also, particularly in Australia, because it has been branded as elitist and inaccessible (though it isn’t, at least not essentially). Perceptions of it are bound up with certain 20th century styles of writing which began as modernist innovation and became canon – literary fiction isn’t limited to any one form or style, but sometimes perceptions of it are.

Which is a pity. We really ought to get around to reclaiming it one of these days.

Literary fiction is definitely not a genre – it is an even broader church, but let’s agree that it is often concerned with form and experimentation with form, with ideas – including ideas about fiction and writing and narrative. It’s an invitation to explore language and meaning, the way we use words and construct ideas with them; to question and satirise and experiment.

 

Image of Possession cover

 

So. Can we agree that literary fiction which happens to be set in the past is different in intent to historical fiction that fits easily into the expectations of the genre? When Peter Carey or Margaret Atwood set a story in the historical past, they are not called ‘historical novelists’. But Alias Grace and True History of the Kelly Gang are among the finest novels of recent years that are set in the past.

And then there is fiction that operates at the intersection of these two forms: the most obvious example is The Name of the Rose, which is one of the best-selling historical novels of the modern era, but operates on many different levels, including a complex metafictional and semiotic framework based on Eco’s years of study in the area. Think too of AS Byatt’s Possession. The Luminaries. The Passion. The Secret River. Atonement. The English Patient. Ragtime. Beloved. Love in the Time of Cholera.

I can see a Venn diagram in my mind. It’s too hard to draw, but in the overlap of the historical and literary circles are also titles which veer more towards the traditional. The recent success of Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites is a good example: literary in style, but happily recognisable to fans of the genre. Year of Wonders. Birdsong. Angels and Insects. The Song of Achilles. The Regeneration trilogy.

Sarah Waters’ entire publishing history works at this intersection, as does Nicola Griffiths’ Hild – transgressing not just genre but also publishing expectations about what’s permissible and popular in writing about gender and sexuality.

And there’s the rub.

Sometimes it works.

Sometimes it works against the success of a book.

People who love reading ‘traditional’ historical fiction may dislike literary novels set in the past if they don’t meet their expectations of the genre or sub-genre. Or vice versa.

On the other hand, readers, reviewers and book page editors may not pick up a title classified as historical fiction, but would if it was seen as literary. A panel at the HNS conference suggested historical fiction suffers from a certain snobbery, and especially if it’s historical fantasy.

‘Historical novels have often been sidelined or derided for not being serious enough, or taking liberties with facts,’ writes academic Jerome de Groot, ‘[…] as a mode that encourages a sense of the past as frippery and merely full of romance and intrigue.’

 

Image of Paying Guests cover

 

A recent feature on Sarah Waters’ new novel The Paying Guests, noted:

Don’t let the words “historical fiction” dissuade you. Waters’ writing transcends genre: her plots are sinuous and suspenseful; her language is saucy, sexy and direct; all of her characters, especially her lesbian protagonists, are complex and superbly drawn.

It seems ‘historical fiction’ is something that might turn off some readers, as if it doesn’t contain suspenseful plots, terrific language and characters. As if it’s just not good enough, or not everyone’s cup of tea. As if to be classified as such will alienate potential readers. (Of course, the same might be said of literary fiction.) As if millions and millions of people don’t read it and love it.

What are they getting at here? Waters’ great strength is her ventriloquism. She manages to capture, in voice, style and in character world view, the literature and the detail of the era in which her books are set. She manages to put it into words that sound both of the era in which the book is set and of our own time; thoughts and preoccupations that feel real and contemporary to us, even though they are not of our time – the spiritualism in Affinity, for example, or the bleak post-war desolation of The Night Watch. It never feels like costume drama (except in Tipping the Velvet).

You see? These definitions matter – to readers and to reviewers and commentators, if not to the writers.

The ventriloquism we hear in Byatt or Waters is not the only alternative approach to Scott’s version of historical voice – I’ve written about this before, so I won’t bang on.

It’s different to the voices and characterisations you’ll find in more traditional historical fiction and, importantly, Waters is willing to focus on characters who are complex, perhaps annoying and unreliable, not necessarily heroic, sometimes downright unlikeable (Maud, in Fingersmith – and yet somehow we fall in love with her … or was that just me?).

So perhaps it’s not that Waters “transcends genre”, nor that there’s anything wrong with the genre – it’s just that her work’s not the same kind of project as some other novels you might read that more clearly fit into the genre of historical fiction.

The same can be said of Mantel, of Catton, of Grenville, of Eco. Perhaps they are simply not trying to do the same thing as Cornwell or Gregory?

Perhaps it’s a spectrum, rather than a Venn diagram.

So what does that mean?

I don’t know that it’s realistic to broaden popular ideas of what historical fiction is. Let it be.

Perhaps instead we can try to define a new form (not a genre) that includes what Linda Hutcheon called ‘historiographic metafiction’ and/or embraces experiments with voice and style, with structure and form, even with history and the way people move through time.

We have enough examples of it from the last few decades. I can see it clearly enough to consciously write Goddess  in that framework, although it has few rules and very soft edges.

It doesn’t need to be defined or have boundaries placed around it – in fact that would defeat the purpose. But it could include writing that:

  • May run contrary to expectations of ‘historical authenticity’ in voice
  • Is willing to experiment with form, language, point of view, and structure
  • Consciously operates on the edges of historicity
  • Interrogates concepts of time, memory, story-telling, and history-making
  • May subvert the rules of historical fiction and/or any other genre
  • May be interested in questions of gender or subvert expectations of gender.

It might be realist or fantastical, test the boundaries of point of view (just how close can Mantel take third person?) and play with notions of historical voice (Winterson’s postmodern Sappho), layer structure and framework and metaphor and time. In fact, I wonder if perhaps subversion is one of its key features?

What else?

And what to call the literary form, if indeed it is a thing? The word ‘literary’ isn’t useful, loaded as it is. But what might it be?

Are the two forms genuinely distinct, or are they two sides of the same coin? Or is it dangerous, or unnecessary, to separate the two?

I dunno. Do you?

 

Image of Love in Time of Cholera

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Filed under historical fiction, rant, writers

New post on new posts

Oh I know.  I’m blogging all over the joint at the moment. I can’t keep track myself.

So here are a few of the most recent, from my current travels:

On literary pilgrimages (on my Sublime blog)

On the Irish pirate queen Grace O’Malley (on my Field Notes)

Going to Grasmere (on Sublime)

Going to Bletchley Park (on Field Notes)

(I like to post on tumblr as well as here, because it is a great place for finding resources, especially images, and sharing them – but it does get confusing.)

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Filed under history, Lately I've been..., Sublime

The pleasure of ruins

I’ve been in England and Ireland the past few weeks, researching lots of things at once.

But I keep getting distracted by the many ancient stories all around me, some of them told in stone, brick, weeds and rubble.

 

Image of ruined cloister

 

I’m reminded of the lovely book The Pleasure of Ruins by Rose Macauley (I like it so much I have two editions – one with photographs by Roloff Beny).

The intoxication, at once so heady and so devout, is not the romantic melancholy engendered by broken towers and mouldered stones; it is the soaring of the imagination into the high empyrean where huge episodes are tangled with myths and dreams; it is the stunning impact of world history on its amazed heirs.

Especially on the west coast of Ireland, the ruins of cottages and whole villages often tell the story of the Famine or the Rebellions and their aftermath, or the expulsion of small farmers, or mass emigration of people like my own ancestors, or simple poverty – or all of these.

 

Deserted cottage on The Burren

 

Then there are ruined castles and towers, churches and abandoned graveyards, wells and tombs and ancient monuments.

 

Image of Poulnabrone dolmen

 

So many stories can be read – or imagined – in ruins, in stone.

 

Image of Stonhenge

 

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