Authenticity in historical fiction (V)

Continuing from my previous blog posts on the ways in which an historical novelist can achieve authenticity in their writing, today I am looking at the matter of “alterity”, “otherness”, the essence of what makes the past “a foreign country” and which, in a novel, can bring the reader that delightful frisson of unfamiliarity and strangeness…

(Because I have rather a lot to say on this topic, I’m going to split it into two, so the next post (22nd March) will be the final one in this sequence of posts about authenticity.)

In a previous post (16th November 2016, The problem with historical fiction (III)) I referred to one of the so-called “problems” of historical fiction, that it often fails to portray the strangeness of the past. This strangeness – I like the term “otherness” – refers to those aspects of life in the past, in particular mindsets and behaviours, that are unfamiliar or obscure to the modern reader. So it will include differences in attitudes and beliefs but also, for an historical novel set in the mediaeval period, such things as superstition, religious charms and relics, dreams, magic and spells, monsters and mediaeval art (illuminations, misericords, church paintings), strange ideas and seemingly fantastical happenings that today could be readily explained or dismissed – all of which seemed normal to people of the time. In other historical periods, the list might be a bit different, but would still include those things that make that period seem “other” to our own.

Yet, when I embarked upon writing Fortune’s Wheel, and then later, The Nature of Things, because my declared intention was to write “naturalistic” novels, novels that portrayed what I thought of as everyday life, strange and fantastical elements did not seem to have a place. I felt that such elements might somehow detract from the naturalism I wanted to achieve. For, although “magic and monsters” may have been part of the mediaeval person’s ordinary experience or belief, they are the opposite for us – we tend to consider them fanciful or fantastical, not commonplace. When writing an historical novel, one must be conscious of how certain aspects of the past might be perceived by a modern reader. A potential danger of introducing “magical” elements – however authentic they might be to the mediaeval mind – would be that the novel might appear less naturalistic historical fiction than fantasy.

A balance must be drawn between the authentic past and the sceptical present.

Fortune’s Wheel does not, however, eschew otherness entirely – the religious thinking of the time, often strange to us, and superstition are there. For The Nature of Things, however, I pushed the boundary of otherness a little further, while still trying to maintain a naturalistic tone. The characters in my novels are normal, everyday kind of fourteenth century people, who would be likely to hold at least some strange (to us) views of the world. Alongside their belief in God and the teachings of the Church, some people, maybe most, would have embraced a variety of superstitions, and believed in or feared monsters, and might consider potions and charms (if not actual witchcraft) a natural way of curing ailments or influencing behaviour. I do not want the supernatural to be a major influence in my novels, but I cannot deny that bringing a sense of otherness to them might well contribute to their authenticity.

I would like to explore these aspects of “otherness” a little further, by illustrating where I have found it in other historical novels, and where and how I have included it in my own work.

First, two examples of novels that I do feel embrace otherness…

company of liarsI greatly enjoy reading the novels of Karen Maitland, an expert at writing novels redolent with “mediaeval” atmosphere, dark and suffused with weirdness. In Company of Liars, set against the spread of the Black Death, the principal characters are mostly rather uncommon people, including a magician, a one-armed storyteller and a child witch, and the story has elements of the fantastic and the supernatural. For example, the storyteller, who has a swan’s wing where his missing arm should be, describes his childhood:

‘One day my mother found me in a corner of the byre, beating my little stump with a stick and sobbing. It was then that she…explained that my little buds would soon sprout feathers and grow into a beautiful white wing just like a swan’s.’ Company of Liars, p.158

It is by no means unrelievedly fantastical, but, while the otherness of Company of Liars certainly lends it a real sense of the “mediaeval”, the novel does not evoke (for me) the naturalistic everyday atmosphere that I wanted for my own novels.

the-lepers-companioins-coverThe Leper’s Companions by Julia Blackburn seems largely fantastical. It has the strange premise of a modern woman suddenly, and inexplicably, transported back to the fifteenth century to live as an unseen ghost among the villagers. Initially, the picture of mediaeval life painted by Blackburn appears normal enough, yet superstition and strange ideas soon pervade the novel to a degree that makes it appear more fantastical than naturalistic. It is perhaps difficult to draw the line between the simple otherness of the time and the introduction of magical elements into an otherwise normal setting.

On the following morning a cow died for no good reason and the shoemaker’s wife gave birth to a baby with the head of a monstrous fish. The Leper’s Companions, p.13

She ate the map entirely…it made her feel she now contained the knowledge of distant lands growing inside her like a new baby. The Leper’s Companions, p.62

Whatever Blackburn’s intention, it is disconcertingly strange and detracts sufficiently from the naturalistic to be a form that, again, I did not want to emulate.

By contrast, there are many novels with settings in the Middle Ages that do not seem to include much of what I might consider fantastical, but have, for example, no lack of the commonplace superstitions of the time.

scarlet-lionElizabeth Chadwick’s novels about real mediaeval historical figures seem essentially naturalistic; all her novels are noted for their historical accuracy and sense of period. If any of them have more fantastical elements (I have not read them all), I imagine that these elements would be incidental, rather than fundamental, to the story. Superstition, however, was perhaps too normal for the time to be overlooked. Here, the ship’s master’s reference to a superstition is not derided by the well-born lady, Isabelle – it is presumably as normal an idea to her as it is to him.

[The ship’s master] nodded with grim approval at their prayers, shouted something about being fortunate if you were born in the caul and returned to his crew.

‘What’s “born in the caul”?’ Richard wanted to know.

‘It means that you were born inside the bag that held you in the womb,’ Isabelle told him, ‘and that you’ll never drown.’ The Scarlet Lion, p.73

vein of deceitSusanna Gregory’s mediaeval mystery novels manage to achieve what seems like a very naturalistic portrayal of fourteenth-century life: all the characters seem perfectly of the time, with superstition, as well as religion, prominent in their everyday thinking. In A Vein of Deceit, there is nothing especially other, and yet mediaevalness is somehow on every page, making the slightly other seem utterly normal.

‘Tell him, sir,’ Risleye cried, outraged. ‘Tell Valence that garden mint should not be given to teething children, because it is a herb of Venus, and so stirs up bodily desires. That is bad for babies.’ A Vein of Deceit, p.32

The_Clerkenwell_TalesThe same could be said of The Clerkenwell Tales. Here, Peter Ackroyd’s leech – a doctor – has some quite strange ideas. They are essentially superstitious rather than fantastical, but really do lend a tone of otherness.

‘Comb your hair each morning with an ivory comb, since nothing recreates the memory more. Walnuts are hurtful to the memory. And so are onions. Avoid them. Do not stay in the house of a red-haired or red-faced person.’ The Clerkenwell Tales, p.10

The balance of naturalism and otherness achieved in these three novels is closer to what I also wanted to achieve in my own writing. Superstition, in particular, but also a belief in charms and spells and in the possibility of monsters, are elements of the “other” that I have found I can incorporate naturally into my stories, and I will illustrate some of them in my next and final blog post on authenticity in historical fiction.

(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/>)

2 thoughts on “Authenticity in historical fiction (V)

  1. Anna

    I would say that these ‘otherness’ things are still very common and widespread today. We have advanced technologies and science, but… Black cats? Still alive. Astrology? Do I need point to every woman’s magazine with a horoscope page in them?
    Herbs? For a medieval people all these weird potions were as obvious as Advil from a local pharmacist. If you like, go to any herbalist page now, and you will find that walnut shell potion will cure cancer, thyme – multiple Sclerosis and arthritis, and so on…. People were hoping for miracles then, and people are still hoping for a miracle now. The wrapping might be a bit different, but the human nature seems the same in general.

    Where I would find the difference – how they saw the world and how they felt about themselves in that world.

    We now are way more egocentric, I assume. We have left the family and village behind. We are by ourselves only.
    We are less sociable. We entertain ourselves by TV, radio, all modern communications. We do not need gran to tell us stories. We do not need latest village gossip, we watch ‘Friends’. We do not need to travel to the nearest market to hear that fiddler play again.

    I think, fatality was more accepted than today. Illnesses and death was part of daily life, not an exception.

    Religion is also an interesting subject. We usually assume that whole Medieval history is totally covered by Church. I’ m researching one mass suicide in 16th century, when 300 nobles, mostly women and children, submitted suicide, and they got blessings from the priest. Suicide being a grave matter, made me really dig into the mentality of a priest, accepting and encouraging these people into suicide. So again, nothing is so simple as it seems from the beginning. Political reasons and even simple common sense took over religious dogma even within Church.

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  2. Thank you very much, Anna, for your thoughtful and helpful comments. You’re quite right that there’s still quite a lot of “other” around today. I suppose my own view is that we “rational” people *shouldn’t* be believing in black cats, astrology and herbal cures, but I daresay many people still do. Your thoughts about the differences between us and them are very true, and your final point about the mass suicide you’re researching is both interesting and deeply horrifying. As you imply, all sorts of “strangeness” has happened, and still happens, in our multi-faceted world…

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