Thursday, September 02, 2010

History of historical fiction here and there

In Britain they think Wolf Hall has made the historical novel respectable. Odd, in Canada it has been respectable long enough that Russell Smith, maybe our best younger writer, is sick to death of it.

Writing about the past is something I’ve been quite stern about in recent years, just because – in this country, anyway – that activity so dominates the literary landscape. The preoccupation with history has always seemed to me to reflect a disdain for the present, as if the present were trivial or corrupt in some way.

There's some history here, as I noted myself in a 2001 introduction to a fiction collection called Story of A Nation. It's not that long ago that the historical novel was very much an outlier in Canadian literature.
In 1993, when Douglas Glover brought out a novel of eighteenth-century loyalty and terrorism, The Life and Times of Captain N. ... a reviewer felt obliged to write: "I'm loath to say that Douglas Glover has written a historical novel, though he has. Wait! Don't stop reading!"
But then Jane Urquhart's Away exploded, and Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace, and Guy Vanderhaege's Englishman's Boy and Wayne Johnston's Colony of Unrequited Dreams, and Fred Stenson's The Trade, until it seemed that novels about the Canadian past were what all Canada's leading novelists were engaged in... perhaps inevitably producing Smith's reaction against the whole trend.

I don't share Smith's idea that historical novels reflect disdain for the present. A lot of them surely have a kind of autobiography in them (as does much non-fiction history, loath as we are to admit it). Where did here come from seems a legitimate fictional pre-occupation, and it's where quite a few of the novels above take flight.

The deeper problem is how damn hard they are to bring off, I think. Henry James said something about their "fatal cheapness," which he found rooted in the near-impossibility of bringing off "the representation of the old consciousness...of individuals in whose minds half the things that make ours, that make the modern world, were non-existent." Hard enough for a novelist to evoke the manners all around us; how to do it for the manners of vanished societies?

But the real problem with history in fiction is that history is always at bottom an argument about the past -- historians float interpretations of the past, and we look sceptically at them. Is that how it was? But a novel suspends disbelief. If it makes it feel true, it is true. The historical novel is inevitably dogmatic about the past it evokes. We lose all that ability to argue and doubt and revise our grasp of human existence that history offers. Which is, of course, the pleasure of the thing.

Wolf Hall, mind you, does offer a powerful new idea of Thomas Cromwell and where modernity and honour lay in the court of Henry VIII. Hell of a good novel. So's Smith's Girl Crazy.

Update, September 3: Jordan Kerr:
The suspended disbelief of historical novels can be placed on historical films as well. Inevitably, every time a historically themed movie comes out there is a huge outburst about its accuracy. But, as you put, maybe the innacuracy as in novels is part of the experience of consuming the past. The best examples that come to mind are Brave Heart, Titantic, and 10,000 BC.

Update, September 6. Dave McGowan comments:
I’ve just read your historical fiction post and …

I’m always a little upset when people rail against historical fiction. That includes the “romance” branch of historical fiction even though I have no use for it myself.

Yes, I’ve tried to read some of the “romance” variety, and even forced myself through a couple of examples. That was because it was well written and contained interesting views of historical events of which I already had some (perhaps very small) knowledge. In general, however I usually find it far too filled with “sugar” and fear it will lead to diabetes.

In general, however, historical fiction in all its costumes is, for me, the best entertainment available in either book or film.

As to the statement that historical fiction “reflects a distain for the present”… nothing could be further from the truth. Historical fiction gives an explanation, sometimes more than one, of how we arrived at the present. Often times this explanation is no more than a theory since the author must rely for his research from “historical” records. The writer of these records may have had, as most humans do, a serious bias for or against the very subject he was documenting.

And this leads to an important observation you have made. As you have written, “If it makes it feel true, it is true”. This is both strength for historical fiction and a weakness of some history. If an historical record doesn’t feel right it might not be. If people don’t generally act in that way, perhaps they didn’t … or perhaps, since pressures in the past were different than they are today, perhaps they did. On the other hand if the reader of a historical fiction is comfortable with the way the characters act in a given situation, perhaps the author has presented a plausible theory of what transpired.

I have a great deal of difficulty accepting Canadian history as it is presented in our schools and colleges. I find it much easier to accept as presented in Vanderhaege's Englishman's Boy. In the Cypress Hills massacre depicted in Englishman’s Boy there were three groups involved; the Assiniboine, the local traders and the wolfers. Depending on who wrote the “historical” account one of those groups was responsible for the massacre (most often the wolfers) and the other two were either innocent or marginal participants. In most fictionalized accounts they were all guilty of actions which contributing to achieving the resultant deaths.

I can believe the wolfers hated Indians and went out of their way to kill some. That was the general attitude at the time and wolfers had a very bad reputation even among whites. I can’t believe that the Assiniboine were innocent targets. I also think the traders were deeply involved in the hate and the killing. It was part of the times.
Update, September 7: Jordan Kerr responds:
Hi Dave,

Your comment, "I have a great deal of difficulty accepting Canadian history as it is presented in our schools and colleges," made me think of a recent survey of Ontario historical textbooks in the 20th century that I came across....

Perhaps it will be of interest.
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