What sort of person writes fiction about the past? It is helpful to be acquainted with violence, because the past is violent. It is necessary to know that the people who live there are not the same as people now. It is necessary to understand that the dead are real, and have power over the living. It is helpful to have encountered the dead firsthand, in the form of ghosts.
The writer’s relationship with a historical character is in some ways less intimate than with a fictional one: the historical character is elusive and far away, so there is more distance between them. But there is also more equality between them, and more longing; when he dies, real mourning is possible.
Historical fiction is a hybrid form, halfway between fiction and nonfiction. It is pioneer country, without fixed laws. To some, if it is fiction, anything is permitted. To others, wanton invention when facts are to be found, or, worse, contradiction of well-known facts, is a horror: a violation of an implicit contract with the reader, and a betrayal of the people written about. Ironically, it is when those stricter standards of truth are applied that historical fiction looks most like lying.
It is, in some ways, a humble form. There are limits to the writer’s authority. She cannot know her character completely. She has no power to alter his world or postpone his death. But in other ways it is not humble at all: she presumes to know the secrets of the dead and the mechanics of history.
The reputation of historical fiction is unstable. In the thirties, the Marxist literary critic György Lukács argued that early historical novels like those by Scott, Balzac, and Tolstoy showed that man’s nature was not fixed but transformed over time; thus, they showed that revolution was possible and, in doing so, made it more likely. But these days the historical novel is not quite respectable. It has difficulty distinguishing itself from its easy sister the historical romance. It is thought to involve irritating ways of talking, or excessive descriptions of clothes.
The past, in fiction, has more prestige than the future, but, as with the future, its prestige declines with its distance from the present. Novels about the past hundred years or so are all right, but once you go beyond the First World War, once you leave indoor plumbing and move into crinolines and wigs, your genre status deteriorates very quickly. A book jacket depicting Henry VIII, or a queen wearing pearls, is off-putting to a certain sort of reader. Why would a writer write about the distant past, that reader might wonder, if not to escape the realist discipline imposed by familiarity? If not to flee to a world blurry enough so that men can behave like Vikings and not seem ridiculous, and ladies can be ladies without being pathetic? And if a writer writes about historically significant people then she is forced into a respectful posture that depreciates her status still further, since it has become one of the hallmarks of literary fiction that its authors regard their characters with something between affectionate condescension and total contempt.
These, then, are some of the obstacles that the serious novelist must consider in deciding to leave the safe precincts of the present and venture into the past.
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