In writing my historical novels, my objective has always been simply to bring the past to life with a sense of “naturalism” and a high degree of “authenticity”. For readers who enjoy learning about history through fiction, I think a sense of historical truth is important, although those who simply enjoy reading stories set in the past may not mind quite so much if a novel tends more towards the imaginative than the true. Book reviews of any number of historical novels show how widely readers’ needs and sensibilities can differ. For some, historical accuracy is vital, whereas, for others, a sense of authenticity may be enough, provided the story is sufficiently engaging.
In 2013, the writer Mary Tod carried out a survey of historical fiction readers asking, among other things, why people read historical fiction.1 The answers accorded with my own reasons for reading, and indeed writing, it; principally, to appreciate how people lived and coped then and to understand the experience of those marginalised by history. Respondents cited the feeling of immersion in time and place, authenticity and learning, as aspects of historical fiction that were most important to them.
In her monumental book on historical fiction, Historical Fiction II: A Guide to the Genre, Sarah Johnson says that readers ‘want to be seduced into believing that the historical world an author creates is real’.2
For those readers, and for me, authenticity is important, and there are many ways for the historical novelist to try and achieve it. Over the next few blogs, I am going to look at a few of them. Today, I consider choosing a particular narrative form for the novel, and using aspects of recorded history. Later I will look at portraying the social context of the time and describing physical details, such as clothes and food. Then I will consider the tricky matter of depicting the historical thought-world, including such aspects as religion and superstition. And finally there is “alterity” or “otherness”, the essence of what makes the past “a foreign country” and, in a novel, can bring to the reader that delightful frisson of unfamiliarity and strangeness…
In How Novels Work, John Mullan says: ‘Some stories account for their existence. The framing device is…the fictional explanation of how a narrative has been discovered or recorded…the frame (or explanation) surrounds the rest of the narrative.’3
In some historical novels, the very structure, the narrative form, can purport to bring authenticity to the story. Examples include Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Adam Thorpe’s novel, Hodd. As Jerome de Groot says, The Name of the Rose uses ‘the framing narrative of the lost manuscript’.4 The book purports to be a manuscript written by a fourteenth-century monk, discovered by a seventeenth-century scholar, translated into French by a nineteenth-century monk, and finally finding its way into Eco’s hands, who translated it into Italian before “losing” it. Eco tells us that he could find no evidence of a real manuscript and suspected it might all have been a hoax, but decided to publish his Italian version anyway. We should, I presume, read the “hoax” as Eco’s.
In Hodd, Adam Thorpe uses a similar premise, a ‘translation from a soiled Latin manuscript’.5 In this case, the narrator of the story is the fourteenth-century writer of the manuscript; the narration is the manuscript. But to avoid having to write the novel in Middle English, Thorpe introduces, in a preface, the translator of the manuscript, allegedly a soldier-scholar who discovered it during the First World War. Thorpe mentions his use of footnotes in Hodd: ‘They remind you that the story is a document, soiled and transposed.’6
‘If I had happened not to have met with the outlaw called Robert Hod, so many years ago that none are still living from that time but myself, I would be less tormented in my spirit, for…it was Hodde who put strange ideas and questionings into my head.’ (pp.5-6)
(All the different spellings of Hodd are by the way deliberate!) This paragraph is annotated with a footnote noting that ‘this manuscript’ never uses the modern spelling of the name ‘Hood or Hoode’. Footnotes are part of the “device”.
Even though such devices deliberately set out to beguile the reader into believing something is true that is not, they can undoubtedly bring a sense of authenticity to the novel.
This is all very interesting, although it is not something I have (yet) considered for my own novels.
My novels are not about the history of the politics and events of the period, but neither is history merely an ornamental backdrop – it does underpin the storylines and provide the contexts in which the characters’ stories are played out.
In Fortune’s Wheel, the story is underpinned by the history of what we call the Black Death of 1348-9. The story is centred around what happened after the plague had moved on, having devastated England, and indeed the best part of Asia and Europe. It left between a third and a half of all populations dead.
The Dance of Death (1493) by Michael Wolgemut, from the Nuremberg Chronicle of Hartmann Schedel, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
It is very hard to imagine how absolutely terrifying it must have been to live through. For the plague was said to be God’s punishment for man’s appalling sin, although people might have wondered if they really were so very sinful that God needed to punish them so harshly. Then when they saw how randomly the plague appeared to strike, rich and poor, young and old, innocents as well as sinners, imagine the terror of thinking – is it me next? They were used to random death, but I think this must have been a step beyond. Indeed some people thought it was the end of the world, and you can imagine why…
But it turned out not to be the end. So what happened in the aftermath of such calamity?
Considerable turmoil must have ensued, not only in society as a whole, but at a personal level. Women lost husbands, men lost wives, and both lost children. Young people were orphaned and had to learn to fend for themselves.
But there was change too at the level of society. Social change had already begun in rural manorial communities, with the feudal system of lords and peasants starting to break down. But the huge demographic shift that resulted from the simultaneous deaths of so many people during the plague accelerated the change. Workers realised that they were now a scarce resource and had some bargaining power, and said so, while their lords and masters tried hard to cling on to the status quo and keep the workers in their place. As the peasants rebelled against the old ways, priests railed against the upsetting of God’s pre-ordained social order, and preyed upon people’s fears of further divine retribution for their so-called sinful lives.
It is an interesting period of social history. And, for me, it provided the backdrop for a story of how ordinary people lived within the context of that history. Despite all the turmoil, normal life must have continued. Fields were ploughed and sown, crops were harvested, animals nurtured. People still fell in and out of love. Babies were born and children were cherished.
In my as yet unpublished novel, The Nature of Things, the social backdrop for the portrayal of ordinary people’s lives is much wider, for the novel covers the entire fourteenth century. So, for example, we have the poverty and famine of the early 1300s and King Edward I’s concerns about public disorder, which led to the introduction of his “trailbaston” commissions in 1305. Then there are the appalling, seemingly endless, years of wet weather that led to the most devastating of famines (1315-17). The plague of 1348-9 pops up again, this time not the aftermath but the event itself, and, somewhat later in the novel, the story is centred on the what we call the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.
The Peasants’ Revolt, Froissart, Chroniques de France et d’Angleterre, Book II (c.1460-1480), f.165v, British Library Royal MS, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
All of these devastating events provide the context for the stories of the many and varied characters of The Nature of Things, and the tagline that I use for Fortune’s Wheel – “Love, conflict, betrayal and death – everyday life in the fourteenth century” in a sense applies equally well to both novels.
For all of this “history”, I have of course read widely, gleaning information from the works, inevitably not always entirely consistent, of many, many historians, and using what I have discovered as the stage for my players. In the interests of “authenticity”, and because I had no reason to do otherwise, I have not changed any events that appear to be commonly agreed. In my novels, ensuring the history is “accurate” is not much of a problem. I do not need to tweak it to fit my storyline, but can make the story fit what is “commonly agreed”. Because, as I have said, the history is the backdrop, the context in which my everyday stories of country folk are set, rather than the story itself.
(Note: I have discussed this and other aspects of writing historical fiction in my PhD thesis, Authenticity and alterity: Evoking the fourteenth century in fiction, University of Southampton, Faculty of Humanities, 2015 <http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/383484/>)
1 M.K. Tod, ‘2013 Historical Fiction Survey’, A Writer of History, Inside Historical Fiction <awriterofhistory.com/2013-historical-fiction-survey/> [accessed March 17th 2014].
2 Sarah L. Johnson, Historical Fiction II: A Guide to the Genre (Westport: Libraries Unlimited Inc., 2005), p.5.
3 John Mullan, How Novels Work (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), p.31.
4 Jerome de Groot, The Historical Novel (Abingdon:Routledge, 2010), p.127.
5 and 6 Adam Thorpe, author’s website, Fiction, Hodd <www.adamthorpe.net/Fiction/Hodd.html> [accessed 18th March 2014].
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