Sunday, 8 November 2009

A further notch on historical fiction

Reaction to my last post seems to indicate that, for readers of historical fiction, authenticity of both voice and detail is as important as plot; a view which I heartily agree with.

So, can I move the debate on a notch?

If the authentic historical details box is ticked and the decent plot box is ticked, how important is it that the people in the novel are as representative of their era as the novelist can make them?

In other words, how important is it to the reader of historical fiction that the characters they are reading about are not simply twenty-first century people transplanted into a well-drawn historical setting?

When I started reading historical fiction in my teens, I think I automatically accepted that historical characters would think and feel like me – I mean, how else was I going to identify with them?

It wasn't until I started doing the research for Testament that I began to understand how very differently the people of the medieval period thought and felt about the world they lived in. This realisation didn't stop me enjoying hist fic which failed to acknowledge this – I remain a huge fan of Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael books, for instance - but, in general, my criteria for judging historical novels became far more exacting.

Historical fiction with a crime/murder theme is suddenly big in publishing terms – it's a genre on the up – and I read a fair amount of it but, I have to confess, a lot of it doesn't ring true because the way the protagonists think – particularly those who are investigating the crimes – doesn't stack up in terms of authentic world view.

So, what does everybody else think? Does coming across recognisably modern people with twenty-first century views about justice, social politics or religion put you off certain kinds of fiction, or will a good plot and external period detail get you through? Are there excellent examples you've come across (I was recently massively impressed by Shona MacLean's The Redemption of Alexander Seaton and here's somebody who agrees with me) or real howlers (I'll let you fill those in)?


Deborah Swift said...

I find this fascinating. For me, there has to be some understanding of the differences, both material and philosophical, between the world in the book and our world now, because these are the differences that make the novel interesting. On the other hand,all the male characters regarding the female chracters as lesser human beings, a view endemic in previous centuries, can put the female reader off for good. Sometimes it is good to have characters who are ahead of their time, as long as this is acknowledged. So i think it is a matter of the right choice of a particular attitude for a particular chracter. I think if the dialogue is credible for the period, the lifebreath of the people in the book, then even if the attitudes are perhaps more modern than they might have been realistically, the reader will believe in them. I have recently read "THe Wild Hunt" by Elizabeth Chadwick set in 1098and "Affinity" by Sarah Waters (Victorian) In both books the protagonist was arguably more modern than her period would allow, but in both cases the dialogue was so convincing that I found them both to feel 'of the period.'Thanks for opening up this discussion.

Karen said...

For me it's crucial that the characters I'm reading about are NOT simply twenty-first century people transplanted into a well-drawn historical setting - that's what's so fascinating about reading historical fiction...absorbing all the differences between then and now, not just language.

I'm currently reading a novel by Katherine McMahon called Confinement, set in a school during the 1970's and the 1800's and the differences (particularly in the way women were treated in each era) are what makes the story so fascinating.

D.M. McGowan said...

Fascinating subject. Yes, one needs to include the ideas of the time in one's characters. At the same time, however it is necessary to avoid antagonizing the reader. Robert B. Parker does a great job of this in his story about Jackie Robinson's early career (the title of which escapes me at the moment.).
It is also true there were men who thought of women as 'people' in the 19th century though they were in the minority. There were also whites in the south of 1859 who thought of their 'negros' as part of the family. Again, the vast majority ... but not all ...considered them livestock.

Alis said...

Hi Deborah - yes the 'ahead of their time' character is a common device in historical fiction isn't it? I think it works very well as, in addition to being more sympathetic to modern sensibilities, these characters are more likely to be rebels or free thinkers rather than followers of the herd and they're always more interesting to read about as well as easier to identify with.
I agree with you about Affinity, by the way, I thought it was a wonderful book on pretty much every level.

Alis said...

Hi Karen - I think that split time novels, when done well rather than just in the 'we're looking for the thing from the past which is going to save the world' trope can really shed light on how characters in the same situations in different centuries react and behave. It's a great way of illustrating that, whilst world-view changes and constrains characters' actions, human nature doesn't fundamentally change.
Congrats on getting your current novel out into the world, by the way - I'm keeping my fingers crossed!

Alis said...

Hi Dave, thanks for dropping by. I think you make a good point - a representative world view is not always the whole story. If one was to try and outline the worldview of most twenty-first century people in the industrialised west, there would be a lot of latitude in how people display behaviour within that worldview.
Now, although I'm aware that with the rise of individualism we're likely to be displaying way more individuality than any previous century, I'm sure there have always been people who are forced by circumstances to buck the trend as well as people who delight in being different, rebellious or just plain awkward. If there weren't people like that, the rate of human development would be much slower than it has proved to be!

David Isaak said...

I can enjoy both kinds. Those that push me into another worldview are more interesting and challenging. I think some of the best are those that have a character somewhat out of step with their time (many of us are), but not necessarily progressive or modern.

But some novels where there is a modern mind in an ancient body can be fun, but in a surreal or fantasy sense.

On the other hand, I do find a lot of the "Roman Empire detective" sort of mysteries novels to be deeply annoying.

What's funny about this is that we believe we understand how anyone in the past really thought, and how much it varied from person to person. We get indications from whatever written records survive, but it isn't clear that these are representative. Nor is it clear that we understand what the writers really meant. Nor do we know that the writers were telling the truth about what they thought.

To some extent, looking at these old writings might be like listening to a speeh by a politician and assuming they really believe what they are saying.

Alis said...

Hi David - I'm guessing we all like the kind of hist fic which has a character out of step with/progressive for their time as we can insert 'me' into their skin and live through them. Of course we wouldn't be as bigoted, prejudiced and ignorant as the majority of the characters in history - we'd be like this heroic, clear-thinking, free-spirited guy.

And you're right about ever thinking we can know how people thought - most of the stuff we have from the fourteenth century is by monks or lawyers - how representative would those two groups (even if you substitute 'ivory tower academic' for monk) be today?