History is bunk – Henry Ford
Any book that deals with events that happen in the past is delving into history, the past, the dead and gone. It doesn’t matter if I’m writing about the fall of the Berlin Wall or what I had for breakfast yesterday (a hot cross bun and a cup of black coffee if you’re interested); it’s all the same, it’s over and done with. I much prefer fiction because I’m not bound by facts that I can’t change. I’m also not very interested in the Past with a capital p. I’m interested in People with a capital p, some of whom happened to live in what, to me, is the past but what, to them, was very much the present. So I happily read books by Camus or Steinbeck or any of a hundred dead writers writing about times that are long gone. But I find that I’m not especially interested in the events, it’s the people that fascinate me.
Let’s consider an example, Camus’ 1947 novel The Plague. The novel is believed to be based on the cholera epidemic that killed a large percentage of Oran's population in 1849 following French colonisation, but the novel is actually set in the 1940s. This wasn’t the only instance. There were also outbreaks in 1556 and 1678, but cases after European colonisation, in 1921 (185), 1931 (76), and 1944 (95), were very far from the scale of the epidemic described in the novel. Is this important? Not to me. But to a historical novelist, yes, probably, if they want to get their facts straight. Camus isn’t especially interested in the disease but the disease provides a crucible in which he can study existentialism. It’s an historic novel but not particularly historical.
In a recent appearance on The Book Show the historical novelist David Starkey mentioned in passing that Dr. Johnson did not rank historical writing as he believed writers of it had no need to use their imaginations. I think that’s a rather narrow view of historical fiction and indeed a narrow view of historians. The philosopher, Owen Barfield, uses an expression “historical imagination” which he defines as:
[T]he habit of mind which endeavours to approach a past epoch by seeing the world through its eyes instead of seeing it through the eyes of the twentieth century.
I think this is a commendable stance to take but not such an easy one to carry out.
One of the driving forces of writers is to understand. I don’t think any line should be drawn as to what we try to understand. It’s like in Clare Dudman’s novel 98 Reasons for Being which talks about the attitudes of people towards the mentally ill. One of the characters says, “The mad cannot feel the cold.” How preposterous is that? And yet that is how some people thought. Stating it accurately is one thing but when I read it, I read it as a 21st century man not a 19th century man. I can read the words but I can’t grasp the mindset. I have similar problems with attitudes expressed towards African-Americans in the fifties or so-called witches in medieval times. Intellectually I get it . . . but I don’t’ get it.
"In assessing the contribution of [a past] epoch to the history of human consciousness," Barfield counsels in the same text, we must always “refrain from judging it by later standards – especially if the creation of those standards is part of the very contribution to be assessed."
I think that is a very difficult position for any author who is trying to get up into the mindset of the people who lived at the time. A middle ground is often the best one can hope for:
Most people can’t deal with a past that is too alien; instead they enlist it for present causes, domesticating it with legends that ‘project the present back, the past forward.’ The result is a kind of communion with the past that we think of a history, but is actually heritage.
This is not only a problem faced by historical novelists though. Crime writers have the same problem, both those who write factually and those whose work is fictional: how do I get inside the mind of my character? And do I truly want to get inside the mind of a serial killer? Or is it enough to suggest and leave the rest to my readers? And yet it can be done.
I have been a fan of Star Trek since its earliest beginnings. I don’t dress up as a Klingon and wander round saying, “Q'apla!” or anything but I enjoy watching the thing and I can get quite absorbed while watching. I have years of experience and I can spot a gaff a mile off. Here’s a simple one: Vulcan expressions tend to be deadpan, everyone knows that, and yet when I watched the film Of Gods and Men recently, which was made by the fans for the fans, did I not see some Vulcans smiling? Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Totally out of character. The poor acting and amateurish effects I could forgive but smiling Vulcans? Never. The same happened when they decided to produce a show set before the original Star Trek, Star Trek: Enterprise. There was nothing wrong in principle with the show other than the fact it rewrote history and that upset a lot of the fans; me, I was more forgiving.
Of course science fiction writers rewrite history all the time. There was a Doctor Who episode in 1965 which had the Doctor inside the Trojan horse. Sometime later in an episode of The Time Tunnel the leads also ended up in the same Trojan horse. So where was the Doctor? I remember a letter being sent into one of the TV papers asking and, to their credit, they gave a very straight-faced answer about how quantum mechanics works. Fans are interested in details and I’m always impressed when I see the pains that filmmakers take to get it right. Just consider the BBC’s many historical dramas.
Professor Peter Seixas of the University of British Columbia, makes a similar argument to Barfield when it comes to historical writing but it’s his closing sentence that I want to draw your attention to:
[Empathy or historical perspective-taking] is the ability to see and understand the world from a perspective not our own. In that sense, it requires us to imagine ourselves in the position of another. However – and this is crucial – such imagining must be based firmly on historical evidence if it is to have any meaning.
The problem with “historical evidence” is that it is not always accurate. It is not always there. In some cases, as in the last days of Tolstoy, writer Jay Parini had access to diaries by all the major players written at the time plus recollections written by minor characters after, but quite close to, the events. Warwick Collins when he wrote The Sonnets was not so lucky. Once Shakespeare became famous there is more to pick and choose from but the period he decided to write about is one where we only have the sketchiest of reliable information. Do we have to conclude that Collins’s novel has less meaning that Parini’s? Both were well researched and as accurate as they could be as regards the details that could be verified but after that we have to depend on the writer to extrapolate (now there’s a good Star Trek word) from the facts and build a believable scenario, something that realistically could have happened.
The historian R G Collingwood believed that the events historians study have both an 'outside' or observable part, and an 'inside' which can only be "described in terms of thought". By the 'outside' of historical events, Collingwood meant the part of the historical event which could have been perceived using our senses; for example, we could have seen or read reports about the movement of troops during a World War II battle. By the 'inside' of historical events, Collingwood meant the thoughts of the people involved in the event which caused them or motivated them to act as they did before, during and after the event. When I spoke to Clare Dudman about her most recent book, A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees, she mentioned something similar when she referred to “hard facts” and “softer facts”.
Collingwood believed that to fully understand the past a historian needed to imagine it. Remember Collingwood wasn’t an historical novelist, he was an historian and so what he’s saying should be of particular interest to all those who think of the past as dry facts. He believed that researches needed to create an image of the past in their heads – isn’t that what ‘imagine’ means essentially? – and to get inside the heads of the people who created the documents they were referring to. The word he uses is an evocative one: re-enact.
I’ve mentioned Clare Dudman a couple of times. Mainly because she’s the only historical novelist I have any real dealings with. The publisher’s website says this about the amount of research that went into her latest book:
To research A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees Dudman travelled across the Patagonian desert in a bus, and then took ‘The Old Patagonian Express’ in the Andes. Along the way she interviewed the descendants of Welsh settlers who came here in 1865. Other research for this novel included intensive courses in Welsh and shamanism.
This didn’t surprise me because I’ve followed her blog for some time and I’m very well aware that she takes her research very seriously; she’s been off to China recently doing research. And yet when I read the book I was surprised how little evidence there was of research. This is not a criticism. Some buildings, I’ve used this illustration before, have all their workings on show, e.g. the Pompidou Centre in Paris, but most don’t. What I know when Clare describes something as simple as a landscape is that she has experienced that landscape, she has walked where her characters have walked – as literal a re-enactment as possible – and she has tried to feel what they might have felt.
The next stage Collingwood talk about is interpolation.
Because the authors of our sources do not tell us everything we need to know, we must interpolate between one statement and another within a document, or between what the author said explicitly in a statement and what was implied, and sometimes we must interpolate between statements made in different documents. Collingwood referred to this process of interpolation as 'constructing history'. Interpolating, or bridging the gaps in what our sources tell us, is an obvious use of the historical imagination.
This means if our character travelled from Glasgow to Edinburgh in the 1960s and owned a car he would have very likely have driven down the M8 for at least part of the journey. But since the motorway only began being constructed in 1965 I would need to check my facts before I committed them to paper. It’s all conjecture anyway. The car may have been in the shop that weekend and they got the train or the coach. It’s not desperately important how they got there but if an author wants to imagine a conversation on the way then a setting is required. And if he happened to mention the Renfrew Bypass which didn’t open until 1968 who would notice . . . or care that much?
The third thing that Collingwood talks about is interrogating the facts. People lie or, to give them the benefit of the doubt, they can be mistaken. Official documents can contain inaccuracies. Statements must be corroborated and the biases of the author of the document and the historian must be taken into account. Honesty is a difficult thing. We like to think we’re being honest but very often we have agendas we might not have been aware of ourselves until we began writing. There is also the issue of distance. Contemporary historical narratives – I’m thinking about journalism here – don’t have the time for a considered response. They lack the clarity that comes with the passage of time. There is also the danger that by leaving things too long we lose objectivity to nostalgia.
The hardest thing for any historical novelist though has to be creating the voices of the characters, whether that be internal voices or dialogue. In the Author’s Note to Clare’s new book she says that she has only used the “bare bones” of the story and she has not attempted to “base ‘the flesh’ on any accounts” of the people themselves. I wondered why:
I wanted the book to be my invention, much more so than any of the other novels I've written. I wanted to take the circumstances of what happened and feel free to invent how my characters would react. There were very few accounts that I could find of the individuals involved in any case.
The accusation is that authors are ducking the tough issues in favour of writing about frocks.
The problem with any event is that it can be presented in different lights. They say that history is written by the victors and although that is often the case the stories of the victims often persist and a writer gets an opportunity to write the histories that never got a chance to be written. An historian is supposed to be impartial and dispassionate but a novelist is not an historian. I wondered if Clare thought that there’s a time for proselytising and novels, written primarily as a source of entertainment, are not it:
I think you can't help but proselytise to some extent in a novel because as a novelist you have to represent a character's point of view. The most interesting ones are likely to be quite strident in their viewpoints – so part of the entertainment must come from portraying this. It may not convert anyone, but it might make a reader think again about something that happened. That's certainly been my experience as a reader.
In the same article Mantel says, “The past is not dead ground, and to traverse it is not a sterile exercise. History is always changing behind us, and the past changes a little every time we retell it.” I’m personally very wary of a statement like that. To my mind the past should be set in stone and there is a danger that the quality of history can be diluted. Let’s take another example from fiction and pretend it’s fact, the highly entertaining reimagining of Sherlock Holmes which bears little resemblance to the character portrayed by Jeremy Brett in the superlative Granada Television adaptations. To anyone my age who had grown up with them, Jeremy Brett is Sherlock Holmes. Methinks that kids seeing Guy Ritchie’s version may find older adaptations dull at best and the books unreadable. I didn’t feel so strongly about Barry Levinson's Young Sherlock Holmes because he wasn’t reinventing the character merely wondering what might have happened had the two protagonists met earlier. Besides this was a work of fiction and anything’s allowed there.
In her book The Character of Truth: Historical Figures in Contemporary Fiction, author Naomi Jacobs has this to say:
The best of the fiction biographies are simply good novels; their effects do not depend upon the readers’ knowledge of the historical characters. Writers create these historical characters on the page exactly as they would create more purely fictional characters.
Too often historical novels are criticised primarily for the accuracy of their research and secondly for the quality of the writing. I think this is an important thing to keep in mind when reading fiction that is based on real events. Its quality should not be solely dependent on its accuracy. In her latest book Clare uses the word “surreal”, not one of my favourite words, but certainly not one a 19th century Welshman would have used since it hadn’t been invented yet. Does this make it a bad book? Nah, she made a slip.
Why is the past important? For many reasons. It’s the record of how we got here. It’s a record of our successes and perhaps even more importantly our mistakes. But is it enough just to remember the past or should we be looking for ways to assimilate it, to pass it on to our children? In a speech on YouTube, Professor Seixas, who I quoted earlier, had this to say about what he refers to as “historical consciousness”:
When we think about historical consciousness it's how we integrate notions of the past into our own everyday thinking, our everyday life as we live in the present for the future. But that notion of historical consciousness is in fact very challenging, precisely for this reason, because it points to a bridge between our own subjective being, our way of knowing, our thoughts, our subjectivity and the world out there and not only the world out there today but the world in the past, that huge inchoate, virtually infinite experience of humanity...
The past is there to be interpreted and reinterpreted. As time goes on and the bigger picture gets wider and wider it’s only to be expected that things which were major new stories in our pasts get overshadowed. Unfortunately all that leaves us are bullet points. And sometimes we need to stop and refocus. I think this is where historical novels have an important part to play because they are a way to rehydrate those dry facts and make them more palatable. Perhaps not the prettiest of metaphors but you know what I mean.
I think attitude has a lot to do with how much one enjoys historical fiction. If you sit there looking for faults you’ll find them and although there’s a kind of enjoyment to be found in nitpicking I’m not sure that’s why most of us read books. We want to be caught away, to be transported, to believe in what we’re reading. I think if any writer can do that they deserve credit.
On Monday I’m going to be reviewing Clare’s new novel A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees. Let me leave you with two videos in which she talks about her research in the UK and in Patagonia for that book.