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Embodying The Past And The Present In Historical Novels, by Emma Darwin

The past really is a foreign country, and they really do do things differently there.  Yet it has also been said that the first person you meet when you travel abroad is yourself. We read and write historical fiction to experience our own time and our own selves from another angle, and sometimes a more revealing one, to find out the constants in human nature, as well as the variables.

When Rose Tremain wanted to write about 1980s Britain, she wrote Restoration, about the court of Charles II. When I wanted to conjure up the last, pre-digital generation of photojournalists for The Mathematics of Love I shared their story with the first stirrings of photography 150 years earlier. It’s because of this dual nature of historical fiction – the way it embodies now as well as then – that I want to suggest that the ultimate kind of novel is the historical novel.

As philosopher and novelist Richard Kearney puts it, in all narrative, from the most rigorous history writing to the most fantastical fairy tale, the storyteller works with bits and pieces of experience from their own world: things the listeners know, and things handed on by others from past and present. The storyteller spins the bits and pieces to tell a tale ‘as if it really happened’ and shed a new light on the real world. A novel, it’s been said, ‘is the memories we don’t have’.

Fiction twists together what is or might be in our world and makes a convincing whole: what might have been. Some literary critics dislike historical fiction because it doesn’t deal explicitly with the experience of now but by definition can’t be authentic to then either: no writer now setting a novel in the mid-eighteenth century is seriously trying to convince the reader that it’s a long-lost manuscript by Henry Fielding.

History writing twists provable fact and reasonable assumption into a convincing whole that seems probable and relevant to readers now, while being true to then. Some historians dislike historical fiction because  novelists must waltz to and fro over that boundary between fact and invention without the reader feeling the bump.

To me, what these historians and critics dislike are some of the greatest strengths of the historical novel: the kind of strength which comes from growing up on disputed ground. When you write history you work with the tension of  being strung between ‘not only then, but also now’. When you write a novel you work with the tension of being strung  between ‘not only what Is, but also what might have been’.

Historical fiction has to stretch backwards as well as sideways, reach across time as well as space, evoking particular experiences to bring us a story as if it were our own. A historical novel, in other words, is doing explicitly what other kinds of novel only do implicitly.

***Write with Emma Darwin near Hobart, Australia with Novel Writing Retreats Australia in September 2014

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The Mathematics of Love (P.S. (Paperback))A Secret Alchemy     Hannibal: Enemy of RomeA Christmas HomecomingOne Glorious Ambition: The Compassionate Crusade of Dorothea Dix, a NovelThe Sultan's WifeAuslander

Writing Historical Novels

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. I see history as an ancient tapestry with a lot of faded and blank spaces. The farther back in time you go, the less distinct the picture is. The task of the historical novelist is to fill in those faded and blank spaces to form a coherent picture. No two writers will create exactly the same picture.

    August 9, 2013
  2. To me historical fiction must find the balance between being authentic to the period, yet not so foreign that modern readers cannot identify with the story. Very difficult. But certainly possible to find the balance. The trick, to my mind, is the author must choose what to omit. Forcing the reader to use their imagination is a powerful technique for any genre. Historical fiction can benefit in particular, I think.

    August 10, 2013
  3. Emma, you did a tremendous job of framing your material and illustrating your points. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Well done.

    August 10, 2013
  4. Reblogged this on DH Hanni and commented:
    Hard to argue with the last paragraph in my opinion.

    August 12, 2013
  5. What a great perspective, Emma. It makes me think of all the things I’ve discovered about myself and human nature in general through writing novels set in WWI. War is a powerful lens through which to examine life, and to find the hero is everyday people.

    August 12, 2013

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