Daily Archives: June 16, 2009

‘Talking Books: Novel History’

I found a terrific site called ‘Backdoor Broadcasting Company’, which contains a number of free podcasts from seminars, many of which seem to have been held in London.

The ‘Talking Books: Novel History’ seminar was held at Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University College, London on 6th June 2009 and what a delight to hear something so current! What wonderful times we live in – I could barely be back here in Melbourne writing this now if I’d actually attended it!  The seminar was introduced by the historian Joanna Bourke who started with a quote from Sir Leslie Stephen that historical novels were either pure cram or pure fiction.  The question is, however, how can historical novelists and the historical profession more generally attempt to remain true to the core, brittle narratives and images emanating from a complex and perplexing past?  She introduced Hilary Mantel and Sarah Dunant, both of whom have recent historical fiction releases.  Hilary Mantel writes about real characters: Sarah Dunant’s characters are composites, but both approaches rely on archival research to flesh out their characters.  The best historical novelists, Bourke said,  like Mantel and Dunant can teach historians that there can be a different kind of fidelity to individuals in history, one that acknowledges the power of motives over the power of institutions, and the role of contingency as well as causality.

Hilary Mantel’s academic background is in law, not history.  Her historical fiction draws on authentic characters- her most recent book Wolf Hall centres on Thomas Cromwell; her Place of Greater Safety (which was released in  1992  but written much earlier) presents different revolutionary characters as a collage throughout the French Revolution:  Camille Desmoulins, Danton and Robespierre.  She dislikes, but grudgingly accepts the term ‘historical fiction’ because it raises expectations that its practitioners will have something in common.  She sees her writing more as contemporary thinking about past events; she writes about real people who happen to be dead.  Historical fiction, she says, is a way of re-creating what has slipped from the historical record and of seeing justice done by giving a voice to the voiceless, and representing the mis-represented.  Her work emphasizes the role of chance and contingency, where historians are more often wedded to causal links.  What she writes of could be true: she excludes impossibilities and refuses to rearrange history to suit the dramatic process.

Sarah Dunant, on the other hand, was trained as an historian at Oxford University some 30 years ago, where she was discouraged from making up what we didn’t know.  She was taught the grand narrative of big events, prior to the changes of historiography beginning with Christopher Hill that raised questions about women, the poor, the other.  This more recent historiography gives rise to the potential for a new sort of historical novel.  Her characters did not actually exist: they are composites, based on deep secondary research which has delved deeply into the primary sources.  As an historian, it is the fidelity of this research that gives her confidence to develop her characters, using her sources as a pointillist painter might in representing a larger painting.

The two historical novelists were followed by John Sutherland, the Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus at UCL, author of a number of works on fiction, the fiction industry and best-sellers.  In contrast to the earlier speakers, he questioned whether fiction could recover the past, and claimed that fiction dies if you overload it with too much material (something I tend to agree with).  Good historical fiction, he says, defines our relationship with the past- it tells us about where we are.

I’ve been grappling with the perils and pleasures of historical fiction for some time- some of the posts on this blog reflect this :  the 21st sensibility and unwise (and modified)  claims to better understanding debated with Kate Grenville’s The Secret River; the right to traduce a reputation of a true-life individual while disavowing a work as ‘historical’ in Richard Flanagan’s Wanting; the ‘flim-flam’ of biography in Louis Nowra’s Ice;  the hedgehogs and foxes suggested to Isaiah Berlin by Tolstoy’s War and Peace; the deceptive selectivity of Nicholas Baker’s Human Smoke;  the distinction between ‘voice’ and ‘ventriloquism’ in Rose Tremain’s Restoration.    I keep reading historical fiction because I enjoy it, but every time I’m drawn back to the questions of technique that keep arising and that I never can quite answer.