The Performance of History

I have been attending a series of seminars on New Historical Fiction in the 21st Century, arranged by the Contemporary Cultures of Writing group within the Open University. There were some excellent presentations by academics and writers working within the field and although I have found them overall engaging and thought-provoking I have felt the need to articulate my different view of things here.

Although there was by no means a consensus in the ideas being presented by the 6 different speakers I did sense there was an unspoken assumption about Historical Fiction which led to a certain narrow iteration of it being discussed. The version of Historical Fiction being presented was largely the one which is an extension of the Modern Realist fiction project – most debates revolved around notions of accuracy and authenticity, as though the historical novel was a BBC Period Drama, rightly praised for its meticulous attention to detail. Although this is an effective strategy for creating verisimillitude and facilitating suspension of disbelief, it is only one in the writer’s tool-kit. Yet it has become normative, and risks perpetuating a kind of safe ‘National Trust’ fiction, Downton Abbey-Lit, if you will. Cosy comfort reading that allows us to step into the shoes of characters from other times for a little while. This style of Historical Fiction is incredibly popular and proves Le Guin’s point that ‘Fake realism is the escapism of our time’ (‘Wizardry is Artistry’, Interview, Guardian Review, 22/11/2014). Although there are some notable exceptions within the genre/marketing category that grip the reader because of their incredible detail and depth of research (Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell soon-to-be-trilogy stand out) there is a prevailing fallacy that history equals realism (what Jerome de Groot called the ‘authentic fallacy’). I wish to argue for a more imaginative treatment of the past. Perhaps if we see our endeavour (as writers of ‘historical fiction’) as the performance of history, then we would free ourselves from the constricting bodices of ‘realism’. This is the crux – how do we choose to portray it? There is never just one way – but many historical fiction novels seem to buy into one consensus reality, the conceit of ‘realism’.

If we consider that every moment immediately becomes the past as soon as it is experienced then we are continually living in a continuum which includes the past and future (everything we experience is future history, and could be material for future writers of historical fiction). If we entertain the notion of ‘the hallucination of the present’ – strip away the walls of time and acknowledge the simultaneity of consciousness – then things become more interesting.

I feel ‘Historical Fiction’ is a flawed category, useful for booksellers, but not for writers or readers. If we saw it in a more porous way, and just tried to write the best fiction we can – then we would circumvent the perils of Heritage Fiction, and begin to write what could be called Heretic Fiction. As the term novel suggests we should be attempting something new each time we sit down to write, not be the literary equivalents of re-enactors (Sealed Knot, etc), trapped in the loop of small pockets of history, fetishizing the material culture of a particular period. Ye Olde Englande forever – perpetuating a reassuringly stable status quo where everyone knew their place, had their role to play, the enemy was clearly identified, and things seem less complicated than the present.

If we look at certain writers who approach history in imaginative ways then we can perhaps start to fashion a new approach to historical literature. First and foremost, I advocate Ivor Gurney – a neglected First World War poet and composer, whose oeuvre expresses an astonishing simultaneity. He is not a ‘historical poet’, but one who uses history in interesting ways. Whilst serving (as a soldier, not an officer like many of the War Poets) in the Trenches he was reminded of his beloved Gloucestershire (resulting in his first collection, Severn and Somme). When he returned home, having narrowly survived a gas attack, he was reminded of the battle-torn terrain of the Front in his Cotswold landscape. Due to delayed neurasthenia he suffered a breakdown and was incarcerated for the rest of his life in a mental hospital. For Gurney, as with many schizophrenia sufferers (and fellow ‘sectioned’ poet John Clare) there was no separation. Gurney’s ‘madness’ was to not to see the walls of time, as most of us tramline our minds to do, only what they separated. His poetry – which expressed this palimpsest – was I feel only partly the result of his shellshock. He could see history side-by-side in his familiar stomping ground, e.g. Crickley Hill, where Neolithic, Bronze Age, Roman, Tudor, and recent archaeology exist in plain sight.

In the work of psychogeographers (WG Sebold; Will Self; Alan Moore; Iain Sinclair; Peter Ackroyd) we see this concatenation of chronologies and polyphonic playfulness. Victorian poet, Walter Savage Landor, wrote a series of ‘Imaginary Conversations’, in which he dramatized conversations between famous people throughough history. Caryl Churchill’s play, ‘Top Girls’, used this conceit to great effect in her play where powerful women from history have a dinner party. Science Fiction and Fantasy writers have been tinkering with history and shamelessly plundering it for a long time. Within the subgenres of Alternative History, Slipstream, Steampunk, Timetravel, and so forth, we saw often original and experimental approaches to the depiction of history, and yet these are seldom acknowledged by respectable academics for whom, along with broadsheet critics, the caste system still exists of ‘Literary = Good; Genre = Bad’. This is being challenged by new waves of Post-post-modernist fiction, and breakdowns in the high-brow/popular culture schism.

Beyond the ghettoisation of genre, fiction should function as fiction. A novel, if it is worth it’s salt, works as a novel, no more, no less. Any historical element is just one aspect of it, but shouldn’t be its governing principle. Human consciousness is not bound by time – as our daily peregrinations through memory, immediate sensation and projected awareness suggest – why should fiction?


2 thoughts on “The Performance of History

  1. Chantelle

    I wonder if there’s another point to be made about imposing the post-Enlightenment thought processes on historical fiction; the fact that characters are often written as foolish or naïve if they believe in anything outside of the physical world. In writing in a very factual, scientifically-influenced way we are ignoring the otherworldly forces that people in the past believed were as real as the physical world and, as such, imposing an alien mindset onto a time not our own.

    Food for thought, no?



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