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Saturday 26 May 2012

The Charm of the Twentieth Century for The Historical Novlelist.

Recently while reviewing my novels for my Kindling project I have been reminded  me of a talk I gave once at the Historical Novel Society called Twentieth Century Blues. What follows is in part, the essence of that talk with some more recent considerations.

I've been thinking again about the problem of what counts an ‘historical novel’. The recent popularity of the scholarly Hilary Mantel and her Thomas Cromwell novels illustrates the continuing interest in novels so historical (and in this case so beautifully written) that they will save you the bother of reading any history. 

It occurs to me again that  perhaps the further you go back in history, the more grandees in your cast of characters, the more authentically ‘historical’ your novel is rated.

This issue is in the front of my mind because I have just finished a novel about writers which is partly set in France in World War 2 and partly in the present day. Is this an historical novel? I ask myself. 

We love to label books, to put them in pockets from which they can's escape. In a probably vain attempt to escape this stereotyping in the   list of novels I created for this blog, I divided my novels into categories - Psychological,  Social Dramas, Sagas, Historical and Children's.  They are all set in and around the twentieth century and up to the present day. But looking again at the list I remember they all involved deep and prolonged  historical research as a basis for the fictional truth of my narratives. In this they are all historical novels. It is perhaps  more difficult to achieve because lives of ordinary individuals are not documented as are the lives of the grandees of historical note.

My writer's task has been to excavate and transform into story the depth and complexity of the lives of ordinary working and middle class people who lived extraordinary and dramatic lives. In that they are a reflection of the lives of the broad swathe of readers and citizens at this pert of the twenty first century. 

However you define  these lives I  rather  think a lot of energy is wasted in discussing whether ‘history’ ended  in the 1920s, 1930s, 50s, 80s. (My novel Cruelty Games is set in the 1960s and 1980s and written in the 1990s...)

 It all depends on how one sees it. Here, of course,  I am being a Twenty First Century relativist. For good or ill, certainties of the past have been replaced by relative values. The individual, rather than the family, tribe or group has emerged as the signifier of the  Twentieth Century. And the ordinary individual in her or his social and political context makes for  great characterisation in fiction.

Now and then I am in the troubling company of people who think that  fiction set in the broad reaches of the Twentieth Century is somehow inferior to the more distant delights of The Middle Ages, The Age of Enlightenment, The Sea Under Sail, or the essentially male romance of the battlefield before the ungallant evolution of tank warfare.

As a writer I delight in delving into Twentieth Century history for inspiration for my novels. The Twentieth Century has witnessed not one, but a series of vivid, exciting, revolutionary changes in industrial and military technology, as well as in political, social and personal attitudes and values. Arguably, each decade following from 1895 has in itself rendered as much change in these matters as have the previous two or three centuries.

A recurring problem is that, for some people, the twentieth century is not an ‘other time than ours’, rather it is some fuzzy taken-for-granted ‘present’ which, it is assumed, we all unquestioningly share. For such people the grasp of their own century as history is shaky and they find it  much more comfortable – and pleasurable -  to get to grips with a ring-fenced period like the Restoration or the Celtic Dawn.
A more subtle point emerges that in  the matrix of snobbery, respect and contempt in the field of historical fiction, we find that it's OK if you are a ‘literary’ novelist to take the Twentieth Century as your ground. But if you use this century as your inspiration and you are a 'popular', widely-read novelist writing about , say - an ‘ordinary’ family in Manchester in the 1930s, your work may be dismissed as  a saga or ‘trivial’ 

People who have never penetrated your novel deeper than the cover, ejaculate words like ‘nostalgic’, ‘sentimental’, ‘romantic’ , and ‘trivial’ in a flush of non sequiturs which bring down any intelligent protest to their own trivial level. One's  many readers are relegated, to mindless consumers who gain little insight and no knowledge from their enjoyment of your work.

Here the ground settles around a tacit understanding that the novels set in the Twentieth Century, focusing on the complex, varied lives of working people, are less historically significant than some novel about a detective priest in Rome or a foot soldier in early Nineteenth Century Spain.

And, of course there are  people who also like their history picked clean of Twentieth-Century perceptions and nuance, muttering furiously about ‘revisionism’ and ‘anachronism’. I would argue that it is impossible to write novels in this arid fashion and conjure up a living, vibrant world for your readers to share.  A modern writer cannot avoid bringing modern sensibilities and sensitivities to the interpretation and expression of this truth through her or his fiction.

Perhaps one problem with taking the Twentieth Century as one’s period – and refusing to assume its fuzzy general reality - is just how much we now know of the subtlety and the complex individual human reaction to the great events in this time. To this end, it is absorbing to research the acres of letters, diaries, public accounts, political treatises, contemporary press, fugitive literature, film, video, the art, even the fiction and illicit literature of a particular decade of the twentieth century. 

In writing about the ordinary person in the Twentieth Century, we enjoy phenomenally more resources than those for any previous century. But then, from this massive resource it is inevitable that we conjure some fresh human insights which are not there at all in the source documents. In this way we make a new accessible truth which is not a lifeless, nostalgic re-enactment.  And – as with the best of fiction set in other centuries - this new truth is predicated on the modern perspective we bring to it.

To get to the point where you can ‘hear’ these earlier Twentieth-Century voices, and can walk in the footsteps of the speakers, needs a particular approach. The public histories, facts and information and technical resouces are easy to access. Using the British Library, the Internet and one’s local library, one soon comes on the research cycle where the salient facts begin to repeat themselves. 

Then is the time for more specific enquiry. Novelis Freda Lightfoot says'I walk around the place I intend to write about, take photographs, do sketch maps, note such things as what is in bloom if it is the Lakes, or the remnants of old buildings and rows of back-to-back houses if I'm in Manchester.  Most fun of all, I talk to a great many old people.  They always say there's 'nowt much they can tell me' and then talk.'

They look to personal experience and the words of the non-literary. Liz Gill says, 'I go for books written by local people about their lives.  Old maps and newspapers, local photo books, small print memoirs, old houses, essays written about industries on Tyneside, my own knowledge of family and industry, my family's history.'

I don’t quite know where I am on this spectrum. I relish the large-scale historical literature and scholarly document search as well as fugitive regional sources and images. And while I do have the historian’s caution about the absolute validity of such personal accounts as evidence  I have a respect for the voice of witnesses.

I enjoy the fact that as this history is so ‘near’ we do have the privilege of listening to the echo of actual voices. In Coventry Archive I listened to many hours of tape-recordings of reminiscence of individuals who had experienced the Coventry Blitz for Land of Your Possession

For The Long Journey Home (about the fall of Singapore in 1942), I talked at lucid, fascinating length with a lady of 98. As a young woman, she escaped the island on one of the last boats not to be shot out of the water. We drank tea made by her sixty-year-old daughter who had shared her experience as a toddler.

 I also read eighty letters written by a naval commander to his wife, as Singapore crumbled in the face of the Japanese invasion. These were lent to me by the elderly man who, as a boy, was the subject of the letters. His father who died in the waters off Singapore the day after surrender, was one of the quiet heroes of that tragedy.

It is like a game of ‘touch’. I touched the son’s hand and he touched his father and mother’s hands. There is a line of communication here that is more than scholarship.

In my  novel, Honesty’s Daughter, Benbow Hall (based on Whitworth Hall in County Durham, the home of Bobbt Shafto)  has a walled garden which is central to my novel. In researching this novel, as well as reading everything about the history and evolution of the walled garden and learning how to propagate roses, I talked at length to the man who has gardened that same enclosed space for 27 years. These close-in conversations helped me access the magic of that particular garden.  

As well as all this, I researched the history of the Hall itself, the development of armaments in the North at the turn of the century, the British in Colorado Springs in 1908, and conditions on the Somme   in 1918. But it was talking to the gardener that was the key to the reality in this novel.

You might say that all this is no different to the great Bernard Cornwell spending a day with the resident longbowman at Warwick Castle, and I would agree with you. Perhaps it is neither so romantic nor so overtly colourful, but it is essentially the same literary detective work: how to walk in the shoes, and therefore create true characters, of people who lived in other times and then say something fresh about their lives which might connect it to ours.

But it happens that the people I create are nearer to me as human beings than is Bernard’s longbowmen. They are the contemporaries of my mother and my grandmother and I feel that I have a genuine psychological connection with them. Here we have the procedure of reaching back, hand to hand, that game of ‘touch’ again. In the end it is not too difficult to hear the echoes of their voices.

This, you might say, should make the writing of a novel easy. But in some ways it makes it harder. Without a rigorous apprehension of the broader historical scene, and the placing the fugitive evidence alongside the more objective verifiable public evidence, one could slide away from this newly-minted truth into sloppy stereotype, from tight storytelling into mundane repetitive saga. This I avoid like the plague.

So we have it: in this as in all other parts of the wider fields of  ‘literary’, historical and other fiction, it is necessary to mark out the   fine from the dross, the true from the ersatz, the fresh from the wearily repetitive. 

And it is important to feel unapologetic about the fact that one is not embarking on a series of novels about the Celtic Dawn.

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