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.”?

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

Field notes

As many of you know, I like to log my research as I go: photos, thoughts, findings, questions, amazing historical discoveries, crazy moments when I think I’ve discovered something but haven’t – all the delights of the historical novelist’s process.

This is especially true when I’m on the road, which I am about to be.

So I’ve started a new blog on which I’ll post findings about several projects all at once, because I have so many stories going around in my head at present that I can’t possibly have a blog for each.

It’s called Field Notes and it’s over on tumblr.

I’ll still post general thoughts about writing and reading here as always, and cross-link when appropriate.

Confused? Oh, you just wait.

I’m about to fly to England, then Ireland, then back to England, then Flanders, then Paris, then home. And while I’m there I will be researching material and sites for:

  • 1917 (a book for young readers set in … you guessed it)
  • War Songs (a novel for adults, which I’m redrafting, also set in World War 1)
  • Fire Watcher  (a series of historical fantasy novels for young readers, set in London)
  • Sublime (a travel narrative)
  • Various other features and shorter pieces.

So stand by for photos and posts on everything from Irish pirate queens to war graves. And you never know, there might be a bit of future Isabella Hawkins work to do, and possibly a visit to Bletchley Park. It will be hectic.

By the way I have source books for most of my projects over on Pinterest if you’d like to snoop around and see where my imagination is heading.

Oh, how I love this bit! Except for the four hundred hour flight (well, that’s how it feels, right?).

But don’t forget – before I’m allowed to leave the country, I’m appearing at the Melbourne Writers Festival on Friday 29 August at 10am. Details here.

 

On structure (and memory)

As I write this, I’m sitting in a bookshop, being a live window display as part of National Bookshop Day. I’m at Eltham Bookshop, one of our many terrific neighbourhood bookstores that do so much to support local writers and readers.

I’m at a little desk set up in the window. Different authors are taking shifts as writer in residence (I took the baton from historian David Day), while people drop in and out, kids try to talk parents into buying the latest book in their favourite series (there is a major Enid Blyton negotiation going on at the counter as I write), and I’m A Believer plays in the background.

I am surrounded by books. Within reach are Penguin Classics from Dickens to Wharton, and the new Text Australian Classics, which include a childhood favourite by Ivan Southall. Bliss. But I have to restrain myself. After four years of PhD focus, my To Be Read fiction pile is currently taller than me.

At present I’m reading Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music. I’m a huge admirer of her nonfiction work in literary history and her previous novel Room, in which the voice of young Jack, who has grown up in one room with his Ma, is a tour de force. Frog Music is a different thing altogether, a return to her previous genre of historical fiction, in this case set in 19th century San Francisco.

 

Book Cover - Frog Music

 

It begins with the death of one of the main characters, cross-dressing frog catcher Jenny Bonnet (that’s not a spoiler – it happens on page two). The book then skips from past to present and back again, as Jenny’s friend Blanche tries to understand why Jenny was killed, and by whom, and we experience Blanche’s memories from the moment of their first accidental meeting.

Shifting through time and tense, through characters’ memories, is not an easy juggling act for author or reader as I know only too well. I tried to do something similar in Goddess, in one sense.

Since a few people have asked about the structure of Goddess, and how much I plan in advance when I write, let’s focus on that for a moment.

Goddess has a much more formal structure than any of my previous books, with other organising principles overlaid. It is structured in five acts and a prologue, just like the tragédies en musique in which La Maupin appeared. The scenes in each act alternate between first person monologues (the recitative) and third person ensemble chapters in present tense which give us different characters’ views of Julie and her world.

That’s not quite how the scenes in a tragédie en musique are arranged within the acts, I admit. The acts and scenes at the Paris Opera were shared between the main characters and the ensemble, and passages where the ballet corps took the stage for a divertissement. The recitative was sung using a very refined technique by the lead singers, who also sang airs (arias in the Italian opera tradition), and together in duets or as an ensemble. It was actually Julie’s friend Thévenard who was the master of the recitative, evolving it into a more dramatic form.

But there are some ways in which I tried to replicate the feel of a tragédie – the big show-stopping divertissement is always at the end of the second act, for example. In Goddess, that’s Julie’s debut at the opera. The other less visible structural aspects are the catalogue of sins on which the recitative confession focuses, and the episodic form of the picaresque.

Of course, the overall trajectory is someone’s real story. I tried to track as closely as I could to the reported events in Julie’s life, so I had to know where she was, who was with her (such as the cast that performed in specific shows), seasons of the year, other things going on in France at the time, what people were reading, singing, wearing.

Did I plan it? You bet. You should see my spreadsheet. It’s a monster. It had to be.

A couple of people have asked about the idea of the book starting as a death bed confession – just as in Frog Music, you know the “end” of the story from page one.

I haven’t done that before, and it was one of the first creative decisions I made when writing Goddess. It’s a big call, I know (setting aside the fact that a quick squiz online or in an encyclopaedia will reveal Julie’s life – and death – story). Is it the end, though? Is it the point of the story? Or is that in the telling? Or both?

Then there’s the memory – Julie’s memories, and other people’s. Many of the third person scenes have a shifting point of view, an internal structure that (I hope) plays with perception and explores the idea of the spectator. How did all those people see Julie? What did they make of this remarkable creature in their midst, striding around in her breeches and cloak? How do different people perceive and remember the same incident? How does she remember? Why was she such a celebrity and what did celebrity do to her – and her legacy? How do the memory and the monologue connect?

I hesitate to use the term “flashback”. It has become such a cliché. But I’ve just been binge-watching the Netflix series Orange Is The New Black, in which creator Jenji Kohan uses flashbacks in such an interesting way. We meet its huge cast of characters as women in prison, get to know them a little, and then one by one across different episodes their past lives are revealed, in some cases dramatically different to the persona we’ve got used to. Makes sense. They are different people in prison. The flashbacks may explain their crime, but may not – they reveal something about the choices each woman has made, the people they were, the turning points that somehow got them where they are now. What’s even more fascinating is that the actors involved have to create these characters from the beginning without knowing that back-story – in most cases they don’t even know why their character is in prison. They may never know.

orange_is_the_new_black

 

In Frog Music, on the other hand, we start off knowing the crime but not the people. We as readers will make our way together, with Blanche, through the aftermath and her memories of the time leading up to the murder. I know that a crime has been committed, but I have no idea what will happen next.

There’s a great moment in Orange Is the New Black when the main character Piper returns to the main prison camp and has to retrieve all her belongings – the other inmates assumed she was long gone. She grabs her copy of Ian McEwan’s Atonement out of someone’s hands, shouting “Everyone dies!”

Book cover - Atonement

The ultimate spoiler, for one of the most excruciating shifting memory structures in recent fiction. I remember reading the final passages of Atonement for the first time and shouting in fury, while at the same time I couldn’t help but admire it.

Now THAT’S a flashback.

 

 

 

 

 

First reviews: Goddess

Authors don’t talk about this much, but it’s an excruciating thing to have a book come out. You know it’s too late to fix anything, all of a sudden other people are reading it when before it was something that existed only inside your head, and you have no idea what anybody will think of it. So you metaphorically hold your breath and cross your fingers and wish on stars or sacrifice goats or whatever it takes.

Then the first reviews come in.

“I wholeheartedly recommend this book as the most exquisitely rendered historical novel I have read in years.”

Historical Novel Society

“An engaging and skilfully told tale of a singular character.”

– Kerryn Goldsworthy in Sydney Morning Herald/The Age

In the case of historical fiction, and especially Goddess as a portrayal of La Maupin, there’s the issue of being true to what people know of her and feel about her – she’s someone with whom many people feel a strong connection. So this means a great deal to me: Jim Burrows, who knows more about Julie d’Aubigny than just about anyone,  has posted his incredibly gracious review of Goddess on Amazon:

Her version of La Maupin isn’t mine, either in terms of character or story, but it is totally valid to what is known of our dear Julie. And how boring it would be if they were the same! As it is Kelly and La Maupin surprised me and entertained me, even though I knew all the details before I picked up the book. I know them because Kelly researched heavily and remained steadfastly true to everything that is known. I was surprised, because La Maupin’s character, voice and motivations were both authentic and a different twist than I would give the tale. I was entertained because the imagination and the skill with which Kelly tells the tale is wonderful.

Thank you Jim, and I look forward to reading your take on Julie one day soon.

 

Julie d’Aubigny: the true story

How much of the legend is true? How could such an amazing woman exist – and how is it that she’s not better known?

So many people ask me these questions, and I’ve spent years trying to find the answers.

I’ll write more soon on my research discoveries, and how I incorporated them into the character of Julie and into the book.

But in the meantime, here’s the real life story of Julie d’Aubigny – Mademoiselle de Maupin. Opera singer, swordswoman, star. Goddess.

 

What is historical fiction anyway?

Lots of people imagine that historical fiction is exclusively set in times where people wore armour or bonnets. In Ye Olden Days. And of course much of it is. Some readers and writers imagine that it also has to do with some attempt to recreate a contemporary voice in dialogue, so if there are lots of Prithees or Pray yous we know we are in the land of histfic. Other readers class books that were written about the author’s own lifetime as historical fiction, if that lifetime was a while ago – Dickens, say.

It wasn’t a label that defined Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, for example, or Ian McEwan’s Atonement. They were seen as literary fiction (not that one book can’t be seen as several things).
But it seems to me that more recently, perhaps since the change in millennium (and that’s a theory I’m making up as I go along) that anything set in the previous century is now seen as historical fiction, and that the boundary is creeping ever closer.

The Historical Novels Review defines it as fiction ‘which is set fifty or more years in the past, and one in which the author is writing from research rather than personal experience.’
And for the sake of classifications for awards or review pages, that’s a useful definition. Importantly, it’s the second part that brings the transition with it.

When I was teaching fiction last year, some of the undergrads wrote what they considered to be historical fiction – set in the 80s. I banned them from using the term for stories set in my lifetime. But it’s true – they were writing about a time they knew only from the music and the fashion, and we had a heated debate as to whether Billy Idol was genuinely punk, because they were judging by hairdo, not cultural impact or motivation. (“Punk!” I scoffed. “He was no more punk than Abba.” And they didn’t even believe me, because their classifications of music are much more sophisticated than those formed around the jukebox of the Duke of Windsor hotel late at night circa 1982. Apparently.)

Billy Idol

Then this week, I had the pleasure of listening to Eleanor Catton in conversation at The Wheeler Centre (what was life like without the Wheeler Centre? I don’t remember). Her The Luminaries won the Booker last year, as have several works of historical fiction recently, including Wolf Hall.

She’s a shy but entertaining speaker, and during the evening she came out with some terrific insights, particularly about the influence of children’s books on her life and writing – even today she reads many books written for children.

Theluminariescover

At one point she said, “I don’t think The Luminaries counts as historical fiction, because I made it all up. Hardly anything in the book really happened.”
Isn’t that interesting?

Is it only historical fiction if it contains historical events?
The Luminaries does: it is set on the Wild West coast of New Zealand’s South Island during the gold rush. It’s set is a real place (Hokitika) during a specific period of time when documented events took place. There was a gold rush, there were shipwrecks, the local prison was built with the forced labour of those it was intended to imprison. It is even written in a style that references the novels of the era – the research process must have been extensive.
The people are all made up and so are the events in the plot. But so are all of mine, with few exceptions.
In fact my most recent experience of writing about someone who really existed was completely different from any other process of writing fiction – in some ways much more difficult.

But it’s true – there is definitely a great deal of historical fiction that focuses on the lives of people who really lived, especially famous people (who are, after all, better documented and therefore most easily researched). Some of the great series in historical fiction set the tone for this, such as Robert Graves’ Claudius the Emperor series or the  Alexander novels of Mary Renault. The Tudors have a publishing industry dedicated to them – but don’t start me on that.

Maybe the focus on key players (or “forgotten” figures, such as Nicola Griffith’s majestic Hild) in history is linked in our minds with the Enlightenment view of history as progress, with the kings and queens and nobles – later presidents and prime ministers – and generals taking individual actions which affected history – with the cult of the individual as history-maker.

During the twentieth century, as social history in its many forms became more accepted, and growing levels of literacy enabled people to record and read about lives like their own, historical fiction became more egalitarian. Rosemary Sutcliff’s great books about post-Roman Britain, for example, were about innocent bystanders finding their way in a wrecked, war-torn world – just like the people of Britain during and after WW2.

Then there are time-slips (my favourite as a kid was Ronald Welch’s The Gauntlet), novels which switch between past and present (AS Byatt’s Possession is the best example), historical forms of crime and romance novels, fantasy novels inspired by history (even including Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones), alternate histories and parallel universes (His Dark Materials).

So the definition of historical fiction is changing and deepening, as it has been for some time, and is a broad enough church to encompass books that might also be seen as literary fiction (Wolf Hall, Regeneration, The Luminaries), work that may be set in living memory of the author or members of their family (Atonement, Sarah Waters’ Night Watch), might involve real and imagined characters, and could even, at a pinch, encompass Billy Idol.

Lately I’ve been … reading

Actually, I’ve been on holidays, which is why I’ve been rather quiet on here. But in my new post-PhD life, I’m actually getting to read some books – yes! Incredible as that seems, I am now able to read novels and books not about seventeenth century France.

So I am happily working my way through a very big backlog. I started with Jesse Blackadder’s Chasing the Light, a novel based on the lives of three real Norwegian women who were the first women to travel to Antarctica (in the 1930s). Apart from being a splendid evocation of the time and the frustrations of these adventurous but constrained women, Jesse’s descriptive writing about Antarctica is gob-smackingly beautiful.

Then I finally caught up with Queen of the Night, Leanne Hall’s follow-up to This is Shyness, a YA novel I adored from a couple of years ago. Queen of the Night picks up the story of Wildgirl and Wolfboy and their next venture, after much misunderstanding, into Shyness – the suburb just a little bit like Collingwood, but where the sun never rises. Again, the world building is wonderful – familiar and yet not –  and the two main characters have even more spark, and sparks, than in their previous encounter. I’ve read several other YA and middle-grade adventure tales set in real or imagined exotic locations over the past few weeks, from graphic novels to steampunk to historical fiction, and I don’t think any of them are as complete a world as Shyness.

In a totally different vein, I went on to Eleanor Catton’s Booker-winning The Luminaries, set on the wild west coast of New Zealand’s South Island during the Hokitika gold rushes. I read it in New Zealand, but about as far away from the wild beaches of Hokitika as you can get. There’s an awful lot to say about The Luminaries and I can’t do it justice here,  but I will say that as someone who thinks a great deal about historical fiction and voice,  I particularly admired Catton’s attempt – successful, I think – to recreate the feel and sound of one of the great Victorian novels, without bogging down the modern reader. You know where you are on the very first page, and that familiar Dickensian omniscient voice is sustained throughout this big book, without ever feeling weighty.

Speaking of gold rushes, I’ve also got sucked into rewatching Deadwood on DVD, in all its fabulously foul-mouthed Shakespearean glory. It’s a beautiful thing.

But now I’m reading my own book again – proofreading, to be precise. Goddess, the novel based on the life of Julie d’Aubigny, is due out in the middle of the year, and I have the typeset pages on my desk as we speak. So now it’s back to work.

The voice

No. Not that Voice.

I’m reading Morris Gleitzman’s Once, told in the voice of a small Jewish boy, Felix, wandering wartime Poland in search of his parents. He’s unaware of  the scale and meaning of the Holocaust happening around him, and misreading all the signs – not just because he’s young but also because he is fundamentally good. Foreboding drips onto every page. It’s both gorgeous and dreadful to read.

Once

Felix’s voice is very direct, speaking straight to young readers (and people of any age) so that you immediately attach yourself to Felix and see the world through his eyes, even though you – knowing what you know – also can’t, at the same time.  Gleitzman has said that the series was triggered by the  story of the life (and death) of his hero, the Polish doctor and author Janusz Korczak, and extensive research into contemporary accounts of and by child victims and survivors of the Holocaust. Once must work quite differently for young readers who don’t have information about what is happening in Felix’s world, but those who do know are still somehow conveyed into the world view of that small Polish boy – even though for us, being without knowledge of the Holocaust is realistically impossible to comprehend now that we do have that knowledge, now that the world has been changed by it.

As a writing feat, that’s tricky to pull off. (Another sublime example is Jack in Emma Donoghue’s Room which, although not historical, requires the same balance of belief and disbelief at once. ) But it’s not just that which interests me. The ahistorical voice works particularly well for young readers. You’d think it’d be easy, but it isn’t. It’s not the same thing as writing in a modern voice, but is something else – based on a modern voice but with no (or few) jarring historical anachronisms. The modern voice – the author’s own transitory dialect – will date. The ahistorical voice will last a little longer.

The writing process requires deep research not just into historical events and details but also into contemporary speech patterns, vocabulary and world view so that they can be present without being visible. Hilary Mantell has explained how she does it: ‘I use modern English but shift it sideways a little, so that there are some unusual words, some Tudor rhythms, a suggestion of otherness… If the words of real people have come down to us, I try to work them in among my inventions so that you can’t see where they join.’  (1).

I reckon it was first mastered, especially for young readers, by people like Geoffrey Trease in those golden post-war decades, creating fiction that was different to what Trease called “costume drama”: that is, where there is a great deal of historical accuracy about details of food and dress and perhaps even words, but no contemporary empathy – no understanding of the essential world view of the characters. It’s one reason Wolf Hall is so fine, and some other Tudor novels filled with “prithee” and “pray you” not.

This is partly what I’m working on now, although I have a long way to go before my fiction lives up to my theory.

I’m on the side of V.A. Kolve who suggests: ‘We have little choice but to acknowledge our modernity, admit our interest in the past is always (and by no means illegitimately) born of present concern.’ (2)

And get on with it.

Can’t say anymore. Have to go find out what happens to young Felix.

(1) Mantel, Hillary, 'The Elusive Art of Making the Dead Speak', Wall Street Journal, April 27, 2012
(2) Kolve, VA (1998)'Ganymede/Son of Getron: Medieval monasticism and the drama of same-sex desire', Speculum, 73 (4), 1014-67.