Historical Fiction

by Joshua Mostafa

JM 1 1 bookshelf

This endeavour: there are three shelves on my bookcase dedicated to it. In my citation management app, there are several hundred articles on its various aspects. And so many notes, scattered among ring-bound notebooks, online backups, and annotations: digital, or pencilled in margins. I could not begin to count my trips to the library, beginning on the campus of an obscure town in the American Midwest, and continuing in Australia, increasing both in frequency and the weight of each bag of borrowed books; I think I must have unwittingly saved enough rarely-read volumes from the Fisher Library’s infamous ‘dust test’ to fill a reasonably sized ute.

All this study. I’ll have to admit that there is something a little odd about it. Two things, actually. First is the subject: thousands of years in the past. It’s too far removed from our modern experience to be of much interest to anyone. I certainly couldn’t use this information to seem erudite at a dinner party. Except perhaps at a dinner party of etymologists or archaeologists. No, not even there—they would find me out soon enough as an amateur, a dabbler. That’s the second odd thing about it: I’m not even a historian. I’m not even a particularly good student; I don’t have the attention sp

So what have I been doing? It’s a question I ask myself, gazing at those rows of hardback spines on my shelves, with a mixture of contentment—the satisfaction of the hoarder—and guilt, that I haven’t done, yet, what I set out to do, ten years ago. Yes, it’s research. But research for what?

Historical fiction. An awkward name for a strange genre: the contradiction of the two words reveals an inherent tension. History, an attempt to reconstruct the past, to establish authoritative truth from patchy and incomplete evidence, is a stern, empirical discipline that necessarily deals with the unknown, the uncertain and the unreliable: enemies with which it must contend, yet accept as the inevitable conditions of its labour. In a way, the past is also the raw material for fiction, but it’s a different kind of past, the author’s own memory. And its transformation into the finished work is a process not of purification but of bricolage: real-life experiences must be melted down and reforged in new configurations, to create stories of events that did not, by definition, actually occur. There are similarities, sure: common modes of rhetoric (diegesis) and production (synthesis), and a measure of quixotry to each. But their epistemic foundations could not be more different. They have antithetical attitudes to truth. One strives for objective fact, the other for subjective authenticity.

If the two went on a blind date, it would be a disaster. To indulge in a little crude stereotype: History, a prim woman from Oxfordshire, would look askance through her owlish spectacles at Fiction, a louche Dubliner in a velvet jacket, already on his third glass, leaning back in his seat as he regales her with an inexhaustible supply of anecdote, cheerful at first, but descending, through dinner, to a series of tearful and deplorably maudlin reminiscences—none of which, she suspects, contains a word of truth. Fiction, meanwhile, would find her stuffy, tedious and stuck-up; so cautious that she cannot recount an incident, however trivial, without listing exactly how she has heard about it, the reliability of each eyewitness and every slight discrepancy between their accounts, until any she has wrung out any drop of interest there might have been in what actually happened. The only time she shows a spark of passion is when she starts talking about competing theories of how to distinguish truth from falsehood; boring enough, and then she makes it worse by droning on about her ex-boyfriend, Philosophy, of whom she still seems to be in awe, though to Fiction he sounds like a pompous old fool, even more self-obsessed than she is. History is likewise annoyed when Fiction won’t shut up about his ex, Poetry, with whom he is still clearly infatuated, despite complaining of her erratic behaviour and addiction to absinthe; besides, if History were inclined to listen to hearsay, which of course she is not, she would know this Poetry as a woman as a woman of loose morals and a penchant for vulgar exhibitionism.

Yet I fancy—to persist with this conceit a moment longer—for all their mutual dislike, there would be a hint of envy in their attitude to each other. History, though proud of her work’s rigour, wishes that she had just a little of his pizazz; Fiction would love to tell some of the great stories that she is burying under all that pedantry.

The temptation is there, then, on both sides; though it’s not without danger for each. In popular history, the tools of the fiction writer are sometimes used to allow the reader to follow a certain historical figure as if it were a character in a novel, for a while at least. Inevitably, this technique risks the elision of uncertainties and lacunae inherent to the historical record, in a narrative that must—if it is to seize the imagination of the reader—give the impression of an assurance that the available evidence rarely justifies. Step too far in this direction, and the historian will be accused of crossing the line that separates history proper from historical fiction. The other way historians can engage with fiction—to cite literature written contemporaneously with the events they are recounting (I’m thinking of Thomas Piketty’s references to financial matters in Austen and Balzac, to illuminate the economic history told in Capital in the Twenty-First Century)—is much safer, because here the historian acts not as novelist, but as literary critic; of a New Historicist persuasion, perhaps.

Writers of historical fiction also face a highly specific problem. In a way, it is something like a balancing act, to walk the thin line of intersection between the subjective truth of the story and the objective truth of historical evidence. Having done plenty of research, it is tempting to show that off, to festoon every page with detail and historical allusion—and thus to bore the reader to tears. Even the greatest novelists are not immune from this temptation. It is what makes Romola, despite flashes of brilliance and a cast of fascinating characters, the most plodding volume in George Eliot’s oeuvre. The other danger is of sensationalising the history, of straying too far from the facts, or using them as superficial cladding for a storyline and characters that have obivously been transplanted from the modern day. Most of what’s published under the heading of historical fiction fails on one or the other of these counts. I remember trying to read one particularly inept novel that managed to do both: tedious exposition intermingled with clumsy anachronism. I managed about ten pages before it went in the bin.

The sheer volume of bad historical fiction makes finding an accomplished instance of the genre all the more remarkable. The diversity of approach is also striking. While the bad or mediocre ones tend to seem pretty similar to each other, every good piece of historical fiction I’ve read has taken a different approach from every other. To take two obvious examples: there is little in common between the emotional intensity and immediacy of Hilary Mantel’s novels, which inhabit the past with such assurance and adroitness that they seem to naturalise it, and the much more self-conscious and layered approach of A. S. Byatt’s Possession, in which we follow the journey of the historians themselves, via Byatt’s brilliance for convincing literary pastiche. While Mantel makes the history in her fiction invisible, Byatt foregrounds it: we could almost call Possession historiographical, rather than historical, fiction. Yet both are excellent. It seems that, more so than in other kinds of fiction, the genre needs constantly to reinvent itself to avoid falling into cliché.

Writing fiction is always a somewhat mysterious activity, even (or especially) for the writers themselves, and the marshalling of historical research together with the resources of the fiction writer—memory, imagination, intuition, empathy—more so. I have a kind of superstitious dread of probing the process too closely, of dissecting the golden goose. So it is in a practical rather than analytical spirit that I approach the question facing me: how best to make use of a decade’s worth of—admittedly intermittent—research, and begin to pivot from the amassing of information and the weighing of competing theories, to the antithetical activity of composing a fictional narrative.

I’ll go into some detail about the specific challenges involved in my own project in a later post. For now, I’m simultaneously inspired and intimidated by the series of posts by an earlier guest on this blog, Claire Scobie. Intimidated, because she writes about the process of historical fiction from the vantage point of having finished her novel, The Pagoda Tree, set in eighteenth-century India. I’m at the uncertain transition stage between research and beginning to write in earnest, having written no more about my chosen era (excluding research notes) than a couple of short stories: sketches, really, just getting my feet wet.

But the passage that gives me heart is where she recalls a moment of panic, when an academic tells her that the voices of her historical subjects is ‘irretrievable’. Then, she says, ‘it dawned on me, for a historian, these voices may have vanished. For a novelist, it was a question of becoming quiet enough to hear.’ With that in mind, I’m about to set the books and notes aside, allow the buzz of disputatious scholars and their warring theories to subside from my mind, get on a plane, and walk through wilderness on the other side of the world. I hope to hear some echo, to catch some glimpse of the ghosts of past millennia.

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