Once upon a time I came across an interview or an article – I wish I could remember – in which a historical novelist gleefully told about placing in his latest novel’s prologue a handful of elements that could easily pass for anachronisms. He gleefully anticipated the mails, weblogs and reviews pointing out his “blunders”, and the joys of answering back that, in fact, a lack of written record for some thing before a certain date could not be taken as proof that the same thing did not exist… Continue reading
So the Times Literary Supplement was in Oxford for the HNS Conference, in the person of Michael Caines, who covered “us” with a nice set of musings about what goes on behind the curtain of historical fiction.
He quotes from an essay of Toby Litt’s, affectionately calling HF a “deeply bogus” oxymoron of genre, in that its trick is done by conjoining “what was with what might have been”. Continue reading
I told you about Bryher’s The Player’s Boy, didn’t I?
Well, to this lovely, melancholy novel my Paris Press edition adds a wonderful afterword, consisting of a letter that Bryher wrote to a friend to explain her fascination with Elizabethan literature and history. It’s a charming little piece about growing up, reading, cultivating one’s imagination, finding strength in literature and history, and being slightly eccentric… It’s well worth reading in its entirety.
My favourite part, though, has to be the final musing on the historian’s perspective: Continue reading
A little Saturday thought, from Milan Kundera’s The Curtain.
Something about history, and truth, and what – and how – is remembered or forgotten.
Something that goes very well with my own pet theory about the iridescence of history…
This is the most obvious thing in the world: man is separated from the past (even from the past only a few seconds old) by two forces that go instantly to work and cooperate: the force of forgetting (which erases) and the force of memory (which transforms).
It is the most obvious thing, but it is hard to accept, for when one thinks it all the way through, what becomes of all the testimonies that historiography relies on? What becomes of our certainties about the past, and what becomes of History itself, to which we refer every day in good faith, naively, spontaneously? Beyond the slender margin of the incontestable (there is no doubt that Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo), stretches an infinite realm: the realm of the approximate, the invented, the deformed, the simplistic, the exaggerated, the misconstrued, an infinite realm of nontruths that copulate, multiply like rats, and become immortal.
A realm that, I might add, makes for wonderful hunting grounds, when you happen to write historical fiction…
I’m sure we all think that our own genre is unlike all others…
I remember, years ago when I first took one of her courses, trying to convince Holly Lisle that I couldn’t, couldn’t, couldn’t plot quite like her other pupils because I wrote historicals… Continue reading
History will be kind to me because I intend to write it,
said Winston Churchill… and write it he did. Authors of historical fiction usually go about “writing history” with more modest ambitions – or do they? Just look at Walter Scott or Charles Dickens… And I know Dickens was no historical novelist, properly speaking, but there is no denying that A Tale of Two Cities did much to shape the common perception of the French Revolution…
So perhaps this is it: we do not so much write history as tell it – and in telling it, we can shape the way it will be understood and perceived.
When Kipling said that if history were told in the form of stories it would never be forgotten, perhaps he did not mean that stories should take over the job of telling history. Perhaps he was stressing the responsibility that goes with the job of telling history in the form of stories…
Just think of Sara Crewe telling dull Ermengarde about the French Revolution, and the severed head of the Princesse de Lamballe being carried over the crowd, stuck on a pike… “The princess was young and beautiful…” Sara tells a gaping Ermengarde – who won’t easily forget her history after that. A shame that Mme de Lamballe was 43 when she met her gruesome death – an age that no little girl would call “young”… So Ermengarde will always remember a picturesque fiction. It may not be very important, provided she remembers the French Revolution, but what Dickens’ rather biased portrayal of the same period?
And yes – stories are not history, and vice versa. It would be most unfair to blame a novelist for “making things up” or “making things more dramatic”, but Ermengarde’s Princesse still raises interesting questions about the fiction and the perception of history.
And History Will Be Kind, The Copperfield Review’s first anthology, provides an interesting exercise in “telling history”. A rich collection of historical short stories, poems and essays, it explores a range of historical periods, characters and events – from Empress Maud to Alexander the Great, from the Third Crusade to 1914 Mexico – and Kit Marlowe, of course. My own very young Kit Marlowe who, in Gentleman in Velvet, learns a hard lesson about consequences and prices to be paid.
On the whole, it is a little history of the world told through story, as well as an exploration of many ways in which “we” tell these stories…
You can find History Will Be Kind in e-book and paperback format here:
All else apart, and seeing the time of the year, wouldn’t it make a nice Christmas present for lovers of history and stories?
Just to show you the gorgeous cover of History Will Be Kind, the first anthology by Copperfield Press.
History Will Be Kind will be released on 17 November – and my story Gentleman in Velvet will be in it.
Oh, news! Great news.
The wonderful Copperfield Review, the award-winning literary journal for writers and readers of historical fiction, is celebrating its fifteenth birthday next October – and will do so, amongst other things, by publishing its first anthology.
Well, I’m enormously proud and happy to announce that my Elizabethan short story, Gentleman in Velvet, will be in the anthology. Fifteen stories were chosen from over three hundred submissions, so I’ll say it again: I’m very proud and honoured that my story was chosen…
Here is a very small preview of Gentleman in Velvet:
I’m in my father’s workshop when the servant brings the velvet. I’m being told off for fighting – for at eight I’m an unruly child. But the arrival of the fabric cuts short the homily, and we – myself and two apprentice boys – flock around the best-lighted, the master’s workbench as my father unfurls the two, three ells of velvet.
It ripples like water – a deep burgundy that turns crimson in the slanting light of afternoon, and black in the heart of its smooth folds. It gives off a clean, warm, rich smell amidst the foulness of pitch and tanned leather. It seems the greatest pity to cut it into a pair of slippers… When I reach out to touch it, it is a rap on the knuckles, and off with me upstairs, in disgrace, for mother and sisters to deal with until supper.
I can’t wait – and I’ll let you know along the way. Meanwhile, imagine me dancing little happy dances…
And it’s not unlikely I’ll adopt it as such.
Incidentally, it goes very well with Kipling’s two books of “history” stories, and his other occasional foray into historical fiction. There are not many – just enough to make me wish he had written more.
Also, this would make a nice answer to the unavoidable question of Why Historical Fiction…
Were you ever asked? And what did you say?