In her excellent collection of essays, On Histories And Stories, AS Byatt quotes an interview with various British novelists about why they were writing historical novels. According to Byatt, the interviewer, journalist Chris Peachment, expected ‘some answer about paradigms of contemporary reality, and got the same answer from all of them. They wanted to write in a more elaborate, more complex way, in longer sentences, and with more figurative language.’
These novelists felt that they could not write in the ways they wished if they wrote about ‘contemporary reality’. If the renaissance of historical fiction, in Britain and elsewhere, is any guide, there could be many who feel that way.
But recently the fashion for short, direct, frequently verbless sentences, and for writing in the present tense has moved into historical fiction, and the phrase ‘historical present’ has become widely known and used, largely as a result of Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker prize-winning Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. Others, such as Sarah Dunant, (Blood and Beauty), have followed suit.
Fashions spread; some fade quickly; others last much longer. It would be interesting to go back and re-interview those writers Chris Peachment approached, to see if they still felt that writing historical fiction offered them freedoms that writing contemporary fiction did not.
AS Byatt’s novels are a joy to read, and I number Possession and The Children’s Book amongst my greatest reading pleasures. To use one of her own words, Byatt is a superb ‘ventriloquist’; her variety of voices, syntax and styles is a delight. Byatt employs the term ventriloquism when she talks about recreating the vocabularies and habits of mind of the past, and moving between these voices and more modern ones.
All historical fiction is in some sense a love affair with the dead, and Byatt acknowledges the truth of this in relation to Possession, which is about a Victorian love affair and much else besides. The novel explores different ways of narrating the past, which include a portrait of literary detectives, campus in-fighting, the medieval verse Romance, and the epistolary novel.
Byatt draws attention to ‘the presence of literary texts as the voices of persistent ghosts or spirits’ and Possession contains a good deal of fictitious Victorian poetry, including a wonderful mythic poem about the fairy Melusina. The Children’s Book contains meticulously crafted fairy stories. But in my view, it is in the movement between all the disparate parts of her narratives, including, in the case of Possession, those parts set in contemporary England, that Byatt’s mastery lies.
The current fashion is to label sections of an historical novel with the date, and often the setting as well, and then to narrate each as though it were happening right now. What effect does this style of writing have on the narrative voice, or voices? The claim, largely unchallenged, is that it brings readers close to the characters, creates intimacy, allows readers to ‘connect’. Fifty or five hundred years are telescoped, foreshortened, and the narrator speaks to the reader as though she, or he, were right beside them, as though they both inhabited the same moments of time.
Toni Jordan’s Nine Days begins: ‘Some days one hint of light peeking through the curtains and bam! You spring out of bed like the devil’s after you, like you’ve been lying there all night just waiting for the day to begin so your legs can move.’ The year is 1939, but every attempt is made to ensure that the voice, and the rhythms and emotions carried by that voice, are as up-to-the-minute as possible.
The same is true of another Australian writer, Steven Carroll, in his The Lost Life and A World of Other People, two novels set just prior to, during and after the Second World War. The following quotation is from the second of these: ‘It’s the war. It’s the war doing that. It’s one of those phrases going round. And she doesn’t like it.’ And a little further down the page, ‘although she never imagined herself in a million years as a public servant she became one overnight. There are a dozen or so other women there and they actually have power.’
These thoughts belong to a character called Iris and the year is 1941, but readers are asked to accept that women at that time thought in staccato sentences and expressed themselves in ways that, to me, are indistinguishable from the present day.
Using dates or the names of characters as flags is necessary because the narrative voices, without obvious sign-posting, tend to run into each other and to sound the same. To my ear, the voice, in the first example, is simply Jordan’s; in the second Carroll’s. Is this what the authors intended? I would like to know.
Why should emotional connection, identifying with a fictional character or characters, become so important that it crowds out other aspects of storytelling, other styles? Is it because fiction writers have to compete with other media that put emotional connection at the forefront, such as television and Facebook? And, if this is at least part of the answer, why should it be so? Why can’t fiction writers go their own ways?
Dorothy Johnston is the author of eight published novels, including a trio of detective novels set in Canberra. Her website is dorothyjohnston.com.au