Buckle that swash

You pick up a book. There’s a ship on the cover, a wild storm, a sword, a pirate flag. You know what waits within: sea battles, treasure maps, kidnapping, mysterious strangers, an evil captain, treachery, friendship; a quest.

Young readers bring their own assumptions to an established genre, and the swashbuckling adventure novel (or movie) is a genre of its own. Every ten year old recognises the pirate flag.

Unfortunately, it’s not neccesarily true. The known facts about pirate life are quite different to Captain Blood or Treasure Island. Nobody ever walked the plank, or shouted, “Shiver me timbers”. Legends abound of the fearsome Blackbeard: in fact he was, in the words of Commodore Norrington in Pirates of the Caribbean, “without a doubt the worst pirate I’ve ever heard of.” Blackbeard was a loser.

What we think we know about pirates has more to do with Errol Flynn and Daniel Defoe than historical fact. So writers who care about history have to balance on that cutlass edge between presenting real life and undermining the joy of the genre. At the same time, the fun of writing within a tradition is to pay tribute to its key elements, then give them a twist. Or two.

Then there are the usual tensions of historical fiction: between accuracy and impressionism; authenticity and accessibility; fictionalised history versus historical fiction. Most of my knowledge of Vikings, as a kid, came from reading Henry Treece, Romans in Britain from Rosemary Sutcliff, underworld London from Leon Garfield. I still have difficulty viewing Napoleon’s march into Russia through eyes other than Tolstoy’s. Facts wrapped in fiction stick.

In the Swashbuckler trilogy the young narrator, Lily Swann, is kidnapped by pirates from her island near Malta and then becomes a member of the crew. Is that historically likely? Or is she a Spice Girl in breeches? It wasn’t common, but there were many documented cases of female pirates and sailors, and women who joined the navy dressed as men. Like them, Lily slips through the cracks, rather than banging on about girl power as do some modern protagonists.

Still, there are times when the great evil anachronism becomes essential. Lily’s voice couldn’t possibly be historically accurate. I chose to use a transparent (and therefore contemporary) voice, so young readers don’t trip up: so they can launch themselves into reading a ripping yarn without the weight of a shipload of facts or my attempts at ventriloquism.

There are rare moments when history lets down the narrative. Try searching for a cove on the Maltese coast, where a pirate princess could anchor out of sight of the ubiquitous 17th century watchtowers. Impossible. I agonised about it for months, and then simply made one up.

Historian Mark McKenna (author of Looking for Blackfellas’ Point) recently bemoaned the idea that, in Australia, “writers of fiction are now more commonly seen as the most trustworthy purveyors of the past” than professional historians. He questioned what he called the “core myth of historical fiction, and that’s the belief that being there is what makes historical understanding possible.”[1]

McKenna was responding to Kate Grenville’s suggestion that fiction might be more accurate than history. She said of her novel The Secret River: “I haven’t made it up; I just put a novelist’s flesh on the bones of the documents. This book is as close as we are going to get to what it was actually like.” [2]

Perhaps the truth lies somewhere between these two positions. Novelists interpret, revise, and sometimes reinvent history. So do historians, in different ways – intepretation and revision are tools of the trade. Writers of fiction convey with a keystroke the essence of weeks or months of research: complex international politics, major ethical questions, entire eras are suggested in a sentence (hopefully). The reader’s imagination supplies the rest. It’s what Peter Pierce recently called, “a fantasy precinct of the past, that History world”.[3]

But the “being there” feeling is only part of historical understanding, not a separate realm from fact. The coarse cloth, the ale and roasted goat, the feel of a sword in the hand, horses charging through the desert, bare feet thudding on deck – these are the bone and gristle of history under the novelist’s flesh, and these should be so real they can be smelled and tasted and remembered long after the book snaps shut.

[1] McKenna, Mark, ‘Writing the Past: History, literature and the public sphere in Australia’, lecture presented 1 December, 2005, Queensland College of Art.

[2] Sullivan, Jane, ‘Skeletons are out of the closet’, The Age, July 2005

[3] Pierce, Peter, The Age, 11 March 2006

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