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Using Historical Details In Context To Help Readers Understand The Past, by Eva Stachniak

The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.
– L. P. Hartley, a British novelist

For a writer of historical fiction this is a sentence worth remembering. They – the people who become the characters of historical fiction – do things differently, and a writer has to express these differences in ways that are not only correct but also relevant and meaningful.

At the research stage the task seems simple enough. There are many excellent museums where it is possible to look at court gowns, furniture, china, shoes or instruments a doctor would have in his bag in any century.  Libraries and archives are full well-researched and well-illustrated books, covering various aspects of everyday life, from a French manor house to a Russian estate. The details of the past have also been preserved in paintings, sketches and memoirs, by those for whom they were everyday reality. There are so many such details that it is easy to get lost among them. It is still easier to pick a token few details, forgetting that a historical detail must serve a purpose; not merely illustrate the obvious fact that dresses or modes of transport were different in the past, but to illuminate this past, by showing it in a new context and making it more real in your readers’ minds.

I’ve been learning the craft of historical fiction from many writers, but one of my best teachers has been a late British novelist, Penelope Fitzgerald, the author of superb historical novels including The Blue Flower and The Beginning of Spring.  Fitzgerald is an unrivalled mistress of short forms, sly humour and keen psychological observations. But I have been a keen student of her use of historical details.

The Blue Flower, a novel set in 18th century Germany, begins with a description of a washday at the Hardenberg household where Fritz – who would be later known under his pen name Novalis – brings an unsuspecting student friend. The first chapter is four pages long and the actual description of the washing day takes merely one of them. Yes, there is a list of underclothes: “vests, bodices, drawers.” There are descriptions of servants with giant baskets, sorting garments and bed linen, “the great dingy snowfalls of sheets, pillowcases.” But something else stays in mind long after the scene ends. The fact, not lost on the guest brought for a visit on this very inconvenient day, that this family “washed only once a year.”

The Hardenbergs’ guest makes a quick calculation. He, himself, possesses eighty-nine shirts. His own mother has enough linen for four months and is therefore obliged to supervise washing not just once, but three times a year.  The Hardenberg family consists of parents, children and a whole contingent of servants. The giant washday he has witnessed is a sign that this family, although no longer very wealthy, is of “long standing.”

This is one of my favourite examples of Fitzgerald’s masterful touch. She has given the reader not just the precise historical details, but also the means to interpret them. For it is only once we know that the frequency of a washday in 18th century Germany reveals so much about a family’s status that we can fully appreciate the scene.


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The Winter Palace (a Novel of the Young Catherine the Great)Necessary LiesGarden of Venus     A Secret AlchemyClaude & Camille: A Novel of MonetThe Keeper of SecretsBlood of the Reich

Writing Historical Novels

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. KayM #

    Fascinating! Thank you for your insight.

    April 11, 2013

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