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History in the Making
In 1814, Walter Scott published his first novel. It was something new: a novel dealing with a moment of history, and one in which fictional characters encountered real, historical ones and were caught up in an actual historical drama. Almost all Scott’s novels followed the pattern set by Waverley, and inspired imitators all over Europe. Many of the books influenced by Scott were doubtless very bad. Others were good; some of them were, in fact, great. Manzoni said he would never have written I Promessi Sposi but for Scott. In France Balzac, Hugo and Dumas were in his debt. So was his fervent admirer Theodor Fontane in Germany and very evidently Tolstoy in Russia. Dickens, Thackeray, Eliot and even Trollope were all inspired by Scott’s example to attempt at least one historical novel. Stevenson was his heir in their native Scotland. Then, with the emergence of the self-conscious literary novel and the arrival of Modernism, historical fiction fell out of fashion and, despite some notable novels, into critical disrepute. Now, thanks to the success of Hilary Mantel, the historical novel is enjoying a resurgence of popularity – even though some of the reviewers who praise Mantel express surprise that a historical novel can be so good.Obviously many historical novels aren’t written well: there are some truly dreadful ones – bodice-rippers and swashbuckling sagas. This should surprise nobody. Most novels in any genre are poor or at best indifferent. There are many dreary literary novels, and many pretentiously silly ones. Much crime fiction is trash, and so too is a great deal of science fiction. Moreover, in any genre there are novels worth reading once, but not for a second time. None of these reservations invalidates a particular genre.
There are essentially two kinds of novel: those that are self-enclosed and those that are open to the winds of the world. Historical events and public events play no part in the selfenclosed novel; but in the open novel they are actors, impinging on the characters. The 1745 Jacobite Rising in Waverley, the Battle of Austerlitz and the 1812 campaign in War and Peace, the Second World War in Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy: all these affect, even determine, the lives of fictional characters. Our interest in what happens to them would be less if the Jacobite Rising, or Austerlitz, or the Battle for Crete in Officers and Gentlemen, had been the invention of the author. In the twentieth century, Shakespeare’s history plays took on a deeper significance because the violent world depicted seemed to mirror the power struggles of the dictators.
In the historical novel that aspires to offer more than just entertainment, we see how the freedom of men and women to think and act may be constrained by political imperatives; we may even realise that the liberty to live unaffected by public events is rare, even a bourgeois luxury. Of course, private life is more important to most of us than public life. A marriage or a love affair matters more than what happens in Parliament or the press. Yet for this to be the case requires a certain decency and decorum in public life. The historical novelist is attracted to polities where these deteriorate.
In many respects, the historical novelist is doing the same thing as the novelist of modern life: revealing characters in action. The difference is that he or she adds another dimension to the depiction of private life: the influence of exterior events. Just as the characters may have less freedom, so too does the novelist, as he or she is required to respect the facts of history – even if these are no more than generally agreed facts. Nevertheless, if facts are to be regarded as sacred, interpretation is free.
The further back in time you go, the more freedom you can grant yourself. Hilary Mantel is able to present the public life of Henry VIII’s reign through the eyes and sensibilities of Thomas Cromwell. She respects facts – her use of sources is impeccable – and yet her Cromwell is a half-imaginary character, as well as a thoroughly imagined one. It would be more difficult to write of a major twentieth-century figure as she does of Cromwell, simply because we know more about Churchill, Hitler, Stalin and their contemporaries. If you were to present a novel through Churchill’s eyes, the reader could reasonably ask how you discerned what he thought and felt.
How to make ‘real-historical’ figures convincing in a novel is a problem. Scott’s device in the novels set in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Scotland is to show us these historical characters through the eyes of his fictional ones. I followed this practice in writing A Question of Loyalties, a novel about France in the Second World War, in which Pétain, Laval and de Gaulle are presented to the reader through a fictional intermediary. In writing novels about the Roman empire, I felt I had more freedom to imagine and invent.
Several authors have written novels about Alexander the Great – among them Mary Renault, Klaus Mann and, recently, Annabel Lyon, in her excellent The Golden Mean. Of course we know quite a lot about Alexander, at least as a world conqueror, but in truth a novelist’s Alexander is what he or she chooses to make of him. Creating a credible Alexander is an exercise in sympathetic imagination. Yet Alexander invites one question common in historical fiction: what is the effect of power on the character?
Reviewing Hilary Mantel’s second Cromwell novel in the New Yorker, James Wood recalled a publisher’s joking advice about how to write a good Jewish novel: ‘write a good novel and change all the characters’ names to Jewish ones.’
In doing so, he was making a point that could also apply to historical fiction. A good historical novel is a good novel. It makes the same demands on the author as a good contemporary one. Likewise a bad historical novel is no different from a bad contemporary one. A novel succeeds if the characters, setting and theme have been thoroughly imagined, if the story is compelling and the book is well-written. It fails if none of this is the case – and that is true whether the novel is set in the past, even the distant past, or the present day. Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels are excellent in themselves, and admirable too if they persuade people to discard any prejudice against historical fiction. It will be wholly appropriate if her third volume appears in 2014, the bicentenary of Waverley. r j u n e 2 0 1 2 | Literary Review 1