Following last week’s Monday Musings, and my recent review of Gay Lynch’s historical novel, Unsettled, I thought it might be worth teasing out the fraught issue of “modern sensibilities” in this genre.
By teasing out, I mean that this will not be a thorough analysis of the topic so much as my sharing a few ideas and thoughts for you to respond to with your own.
I was inspired, of course, by Bill (The Australian Legend) – who wouldn’t be! – when he commented on my review of Unsettled that “I’m glad that she included the Boandik people and that they had some input. I suspect though that Rosanna has modern sensibilities when it comes to Indigenous relations.”
I could research the journals and letters of women at the time to see what discernment there might have been among those women, but most likely women from oppressed groups like Rosanna’s are not well represented in the papers held in libraries and archives. For a start, many may not have been able to read, though Rosanna could. Those who could read would have, like Rosanna, struggled to afford paper. Writing journals and letters was probably rare for them.
Consequently, I’ve decided to tackle the wider issue, rather than try to prove this particular one.
Why do people write historical fiction? I quoted HNSA in last week’s post as saying that historical fiction presents “an authentic world which can enrich a reader’s understanding of real historical personages, eras and events”.
Lynch made it clear in her Acknowledgements, as I wrote in my post, that she wanted to “to materialise Lynch girls” who were absent in all meaningful ways from the record. She noted that their “lack of documentation and therefore their invisibility reflect their early settlement status on the frontier.” So, how to do this without documentation? And how are we to assess this?
Let’s start with what we want from historical fiction? What I want is light to be thrown on issues relevant to now. Sure, stories can be fun for their own sake, but I like my stories to have something more. I want to be challenged to think about how things were, and how they affect or reflect how things are. In other words, I want to get at the “truth” of history. The thing of course is that the “truth” of history does change with the times, whether we like it or not.
Right now, in Australia, historical “truth” includes issues like the invisibility and powerlessness of women, and the dispossession of Indigenous people. It hasn’t always been so. There was a time when historical “truth” focused on what many of us now view as the ANZAC myth. There was a time when the story of early settlement was only about the hardship faced by and the achievements of the white settlers. And, so on … history may be based on facts but how those facts are interpreted, which facts are interpreted, who is interpreting them and why, makes all the difference.
In a past post, I included the following from novelist Jose Saramago’s The Elephant’s Journey (2008):
It must be said that history is always selective, and discriminatory too, selecting from life only what society deems to be historical and scorning the rest, which is precisely where we might find the true explanation of facts, of things, of wretched reality itself. In truth, I say to you, it is better to be a novelist, a fiction writer, a liar.
The novelist, then, can explore “truths” that society may scorn (reject) as not being “historical” or, I would add, that is not readily available on the historical record. However, how do you convey historical “truths” in situations where they come with a lack of record, with minimal evidence or facts. If you are powerless and dispossessed you are unlikely to leave a verifiable mark. How, in this circumstance, do you convince your readers that your characters and/or story are authentic as well as true?
Authors, I’d argue, have to start by presenting the times and characters in ways that feel authentic; they have to get enough of the “facts” right that we are happy to go along with what might be less easy to verify. Then, they have to present an interpretation of the facts that makes sense according to what we believe or know to be true.
I have been interested in this issue for some time, and have shared on this blog the thoughts of various novelists expressed at events I’ve attended. I thought I’d reiterate some here.
Robyn Cadwallader, who has written two mediaeval historical novels, The anchoress (my review) and Book of colours (my review), spoke of her interest in ordinary women and how they “managed to find value in their lives within the constraints” of their times. She spoke of the challenges of making these women’s gains and achievement believable for those times, of not wanting to “damage” them “by presenting them differently from what they are”.
Rachel Seiffert, who has written historical fiction about the Third Reich, spoke about how her character in A boy in winter doesn’t know the Holocaust is proceeding. Her challenge was to show that he had to make choices not knowing the full story, which the readers do know.
(Seiffert’s point here is relevant to the idea that we should only read fiction written at the time it is about. As she says, people at the time do not “know” their whole time. They cannot therefore provide the perspective we gain in retrospect, and which historians and historical novelists offer us.)
Historian and historical fiction novelist (Maria returns: Barbados to Mansfield Park), Ros Russell, spoke about ethical responsibilities, saying that historians must not distort what they find. They must be true to their sources, but she always looks out for things that might say something different to the prevailing narrative.
In the end, the issue of “modern sensibility”, particularly where the author has rendered the period authentically, comes down to the reader. We have to decide whether that authenticity includes the novel’s characters sounding just like prevailing views of their era, or whether we accept that there were always people who “bucked” that prevailing view.
As you probably know, I’m with the latter group. So, if I’m happy with the overall authenticity, I’m prepared to give novelists the benefit of the doubt if their characters express views that seem to be “modern”. So-called “modern” ideas don’t pop out of nowhere, after all …
Now, over to you … where do you stand on this issue?