Neil Rathmell

100+ essays on literary topics

Historical fiction

Once upon a time, stories always happened a long time ago. The business of story-tellers, from Homer to Chaucer, was to bring old stories to life. Whether the characters in the stories had ever existed or the events related in them had ever happened was less important than being able to believe that they had or that they might have done.

This is no longer true. It was still true when Dickens was writing A Tale of Two Cities and Scott was writing Rob Roy. It was less true when Tolstoy was writing War and Peace and Victor Hugo was writing Les Misérables. By the time Hilary Mantel wrote Wolf Hall it had ceased to be true at all. In the years between Hugo and Mantel, historical fiction had been hybridised and made into a genre.

In Dickens and Scott, fact and fiction are indistinguishable one from the other. George Eliot, in novels such as Romola and Daniel Deronda, is rather more scrupulous with regard to historical accuracy, but she still treats characters who actually existed and characters who are wholly imaginary in the same way. They occupy the same page and enjoy equally all the privileges that a writer grants. The question now begins to arise as to whether the invented characters borrow their credibility from the real ones and the real characters their liveliness from the invented ones. Can we really believe in any of them, when we believe in them in different ways, in one case because they were real, in the other because they were not but might be?

Tolstoy and Hugo resolved the dilemma by making a sharper distinction between fact and fiction, putting them in separate chapters. Both interrupt their story-telling with historical asides. In later life, Tolstoy abandoned realistic fiction in favour of short moral tales, replacing psychological depth and historical context with the universality of stock characters. His last novel, Resurrection, is a return to realism in which the central character, Prince Nekhlyudov, is someone struggling to reconcile life as it is with life as it should be. Or, to put it another way, someone like Tolstoy himself who can’t make his mind up between fact and fiction.

Hugo’s answer was simply to put them side by side and let them fight it out. One of his late novels, Quatre-vingt-treize, tells in alternating chapters two stories, both taking place in France in 1793, one written as history, the other as melodrama. The stories do not interconnect in any way, but work in parallel. His point, perhaps, was the one that Tolstoy could never accept: fact and fiction do meet, but only at infinity.

The historical novel is a contradiction in terms. Like that other popular genre, the detective novel, it grew out of the experiments made by Victorian novelists to find new ways of writing novels, experiments with form and content whose underlying purpose was to explore the relationship between writer and reader. What does the detective novel do if not invite the reader to anticipate the writer’s next move? What is it other than an elaborate riddle, in which the writer asks questions the reader cannot answer? What is the historical novel if not an experiment in time travel, using historical facts to create an illusion of contemporaneity, to pull off the Mephistophelean trick and show us Helen of Troy in the flesh? The historical novel gave rise to the futuristic novel, the Utopian novel, the dystopian novel. H.G.Wells tried them all. Aldous Huxley and others followed. Even Bertrand Russell tried his hand at writing short stories.

If the Elizabethan era was one of adventure, the Victorian was one of experiment. Victorian novelists had to run to keep up with the scientists, using experimental method to explore the real world. That was how Modernism began. Writers and artists experimenting with new materials, creating new compounds, blowing things up. Cocteau re-writing Greek tragedies, Buñuel bringing vivisection to the cinema. The modern world was the real world, the world of verifiable facts. Fiction was on the back foot. The history of twentieth century literature is made up of writers trying to be more like scientists, sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, historians. If ‘facts alone are wanted in life’, as Dickens foretold in Hard Times, writers must find ways of providing them. Fact before fiction. Fiction in the service of fact.

The historical novel and the detective novel, as genres, are not the invention of publishers, they are a consequence of the scientific age we live in, but they and all other genres are very useful when it comes to selling books. Literary genres are a sign that the era of experiment is over and the era of commerce has begun. One of the most interesting historical novels of the twenty-first century was written by the French historian, Laurent Binet. Instead of writing alternating chapters of historical fact and historical fiction, as Hugo did in Quatre-vingt-treize, Binet in HHhH interrupts his historical narrative with an apology every time he strays beyond what can be verified by the sources or writes something in a way that might have the effect of engaging the reader’s sympathy for one character rather than another. It is a French post-modern way of doing what Hugo did, admitting not only that the dividing line between fact and fiction is very fine, but that ‘engagement’, which for Hugo was the only reason he had for writing, is anyway impossible to avoid, even for a historian.

The question for Binet, as for every serious writer of historical fiction since the Victorians invented it, is whether and to what extent a form which is itself a contradiction in terms can be a way of telling the truth.

Laurent Binet

Laurent Binet

The next post will be my Reader’s Diary for 4 June.

My next essay, on 11 June, will be The ballet of the play of the book.

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This entry was posted on May 28, 2014 by in Literature and tagged , , , , , .
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