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Monday musings on Australian literature: Modern sensibilities and Historical fiction

October 19, 2020
Book cover

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, The anchoress

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.)

Roslyn Russell, Maria Returns Barbados to Mansfield Park

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?

29 Comments leave one →
  1. October 19, 2020 23:40

    My opinions on this matter, and thankyou for the platform, are coloured by my firm belief that the time for whites of good intentions to comment on Black-White relations has passed. Black writers have the stage and it is time for us to listen, for a change.

    To change continents for a minute, I am forever plugging Go Set a Watchman as an antidote to To Kill a Mockingbird and the most telling line is when Scout goes to Calpurnia, the Black woman who brought her up from the age of two, the woman she loves most in the world, and Calpurnia, who has returned to her own community will not even acknowledge her. That is the point. We can’t know how our prejudice manifests to the people forced to live with or under it.

    Maybe I will accept that there is a place for A Kindness Cup or Black Crows to try and force the great majority of unbelieving whites to accept that we took over this country with organized mass murder, but I will not bother with with writers of the #NotMe variety.

    • October 20, 2020 08:31

      Thanks very much Bill, I’m aways glad to have you articulate your views. I hoped you wouldn’t think I’ve pounded this too much!

      I completely agree that we need to listen to indigenous writers, but I don’t believe we should kneecap all other writers. I think – though this is anecdotally-based – most Indigenous people want a conversation, which means a “better” story from white perspectives too, stories which add nuance to the picture white writers have presented in the past. I think Lynch makes her point without over-labouring it. I would love to see more Indigenous historical fiction, like Kim Scott’s!

  2. October 20, 2020 03:59

    I’ll read historical fiction with characters who are exceptional for their time up to the point where it starts feeling oversimplified and almost allegorical. Historical novelists, even more than other kinds of novelists, have to guard against the didactic.

    • October 20, 2020 08:35

      Yes, good point Jeanne. Rosanna here is definitely not simplified – we see her struggle a lot with her decisions, choices, behaviour. You are right about the didactic – it’s got to mostly show, not overtly tell, hasn’t it.

  3. October 20, 2020 07:07

    I appreciate your thoughts on this as it’s a question I’ve been grappling with for some time in my own writing endeavours. Specifically giving women characters ‘agency’ in a time when their life circumstances severely constrained them, and attitudes to indigenous Australians in the past. I admire authors who can write these in authentic ways as it’s not easy.

    • October 20, 2020 08:37

      Thanks Denise. No it’s not, and particularly when the woman is from an oppressed group – like being Irish in colonial Australia – as well as having her gender to contend with. I think you’d fnd this book interesting.

  4. October 20, 2020 07:31

    Fascinating topic. I agree that even in the past, there were folks who bucked prevailing attitudes. I think that it is beneficial for modern writers to highlight those folks. With that, when folks did challenge the conventions of the time, it was not exactly the way that a person of today would think and act. I also think that an author can highlight wrongs of the past using today’s ethics. With that, I that if an author endows a character of the past with views and ideals that do not fit the time, it strains credibility and hurts the story for me.

    • October 20, 2020 09:24

      Yes well said Brian. I particularly like your point about the fact that when they did buck prevailing attitudes it would have been done differently, sometimes slightly, sometimes very. It’s often a fine line isn’t it.

  5. October 20, 2020 09:38

    I’m fascinated by the modern sensibilities discussion. I’ve been horrified at people in recent times, wanting to ban books that fail to meet the modern sensibilities test of now. I will never advocate banning books. I would much rather see a (heated) discussion on the whys and wherefores, pros and cons of a book and the author, than see it banned. Discuss the flaws, discuss why this book upsets people, discuss the problem, let people read it for themselves so they can join the discussion.

    Gone With the Wind is a good example I think. Written with the ‘modern sensibilities’ of someone from Mitchell’s time, place and upbringing about an earlier time fraught with problematic ideas about human beings treat other human beings. We should talk about the thinking and sensibilities of both times, that allowed Mitchell to write that book. We should discuss the journey we’ve taken that has moved us on from that type of thinking and acting. It can also show us why that type of thinking and acting is still so prevalent in some groups today. GWTW is crying out for a rewrite from Marmee’s POV!
    Don’t burn the books; ignite the conversation!

    Rant over 🙂

    • October 20, 2020 15:07

      I agree with you completely Brona. Much better to let the book raise discussion – excellent, in particular, for the classroom.

      I wonder if someone has written GWTW from Marmee’s point of view?

      Thanks for your rant!

  6. George permalink
    October 20, 2020 10:13

    Our neighborhood book club recently read The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, a retelling of The Iliad from the point of view of Briseida. I found myself thinking of a conversation the Goncourts quote:

    ‘Homer’, said Gautier, ‘is just a poem by Bitaubé for most Frenchment. It was Bitaubé who made him acceptable. But Homer isn’t like that at all. You’ve only to read him in Greek to see that. It’s really very barbaric, all about people who paint themselves.’

    Barker tried to have the barbaric with some modern knowledge and sensibility, and in my view failed. The examples I have seen fail more often than not. The most successful historical novels, in my view, let one see the past without hiding its cruelties, but also without having a voice–a narrator’s or a character’s–reminding us to be sure not to miss them.

    • October 20, 2020 15:19

      Thanks George. Yes. I think your point about seeing the past without hiding its cruelties is important.

      The voice is a challenge. If the author wants to highlight an issue – like sexism, racism, dispossession, animal cruelty, child abuse, whatever – they need to show it through their characters rather than tell it. There’s a fine line there. You *can* just show with no commentary and hope your readers get the point, or you can have a character who has a view that differs from prevailing attitudes – who thinks for example that women or Indigenous people have a bad deal – but they need to present that view in a way that sounds like it could come from someone from that time. I think Gay Lynch achieves this with Unsettled by having her “voice” about Indigenous dispossession being someone who is herself oppressed (Irish and a woman) and who, partly for that reason, has befriended a young Indigenous woman.

  7. October 20, 2020 10:25

    To your point about marginalised groups not being represented. In the course of starting my review about The Woman Who Sailed the World (which is not historical fiction, it’s part memoir and part biography) I went to the Wikipedia page about Jeanne Barret and noted that the entry was much longer than when I first saw it when I was making a kid-friendly wiki for kids to do their research. Amongst other things. there was a previous and contentious biography in 2010. I wanted to know when these changes to the page were made, so I went to ‘page history’ but went off -piste when I noted repeated references to ‘vandalism’ of the page. I was baffled, who would want to do this, and why?
    The mystery was solved when the changes specified deleting references to transgender. When Jeanne sailed away on her historic voyage, she was dressed as a man and stayed that way throughout the voyage even when everyone knew about her gender and that she was the lover of the naturalist on board, who had hired her as his ‘valet’. It would seem that the transgender community want to claim her, and the Wiki Nazis are repeatedly putting a stop to it.
    I don’t doubt that at some point there will be historical fiction about this woman, and they’ll be using the scanty evidence about her life to do it. But as to which ‘marginalised group;’ she will be rewritten to represent, remains to be seen.

    • October 20, 2020 15:35

      Thanks Lisa. That’s an interesting story! Is it because there is not good evidence that she was transgender? My feeling is that if the case is that there’s no good evidence one way or another, the article needs to say that some sources say she was while others say not. I notice that the article does say that some thought she was “transvestite” or “mahu”. The category applied is “female-to-male crossdressers”. Was she was more likely that, rather than transgender? Wikipedia is very careful about labelling without evidence I think. I’ll wait for your review to see what you or your book says.

  8. October 20, 2020 12:25

    What a thoughtful and interesting post, thank you. My thoughts on the topic are complex, and I’m struggling to articulate them. So, instead, I defer to Inga Clendinnen’s Quarterly Essay (#23, 2006) called ‘The History Question: Who owns the past?’ It’s a Must Read! She meticulously lays out an argument for the impossibility of ‘knowing’ what people from the past thought or felt, and that the imaginative empathy of a novelist may well create art, but does not – can not – illuminate history. I’m struggling to find a quote that neatly sums up her arguments, but on page 27-28 she says: Historical novelists spend time getting the material right, but then, misled by their confidence in their novelist’s gift of empathetic imagination, they sometimes project back into that carefully constructed material setting contemporary assumptions and current obsessions.

    • October 20, 2020 15:52

      Thanks very much Michelle. I appreciate that you will have thought about all this a great deal!

      I have read and referred to that Quarterly Essay a couple of times on my blog. It’s a great piece of work, I agree, and my copy has much marginalia! Her point that you quote is completely valid. However, it’s not to say that historical novelists can’t empathetically imagine – but they have to be prepared to be questioned about their imagination. Cadwallader comments that her academic studies (she has a PhD) in mediaeval history provides her with a good background for imagining people of the time though she recognises that the can’t “know” for a fact. “The anchoress” is, if I remember correctly, a great example of showing not telling.

      It’s unfortunate, in my mind, that Grenville expressed her ideas with a little too much enthusiasm that got up Clendinnen’s nose. To my mind, it did them both a disservice, but I suppose it got a conversation going. I loved Grenville’s Searching for The secret river.

      • October 21, 2020 09:23

        I think we are in furious agreement! And I love Cadwallader’s novels too. The whole Clendinnen debate was unnecessarily personalised but it was an interesting debate nonetheless. I think Clendinnen’s main point, and one I agree with, is that the minds of past people were NOT just like ours (whatever ‘ours’ means, btw) and to assume so is to do them (and modern-day readers) a disservice.

        • October 21, 2020 18:28

          Excellent Michelle! Not that we have to agree on everything, but I do like that our understandings/perceptions are in agreement on this issue.

          Yes, I agree with that point that past minds aren’t like ours. Our minds have new experiences and histories impacting them which has to fundamentally change our understanding of things even if our feelings about them (ie that something is unjust or cruel) might be similar.

          It was a great debate and one that will stay in our consciousnesses for a long time, which is not a bad thing.

    • Sue permalink
      October 20, 2020 17:31

      Sounds an interesting Michelle – that would I think be a deconstructionist theory of historical literature, if I can cast my mind back to (very) long ago philosophy studies… I wish I could access that 2006 Quarterly Essay! I have to admit that’s the reason I rarely read historical fiction – Hilary Mantel excepted!

      • October 20, 2020 20:03

        So, Sue, why do you except Hilary Mantel? I once thought I didn’t read historical fiction either, but I have realised in recent years that I read more than I thought I did.

  9. Sue permalink
    October 21, 2020 18:24

    I read Mantel because she’s so utterly brilliant I can’t resist her Sue, despite my misgivings about historical fiction! (grin)

    • October 21, 2020 18:29

      This makes me laugh Sue! She is very good, I agree, but she’s not the only great writer tackling historical fiction (I think, anyhow)!

  10. October 22, 2020 07:56

    I’m intrigued by your comment that you “want to be challenged to think about how things were, and how they affect or reflect how things are.” Do you have some examples of novels that you think have done that really well?

    • October 22, 2020 09:15

      Good question, Karen. A good example is Kim Scott’s That deadman dance which imagines (with research behind it) Colonial settlement in WA. In doing so it provides an understanding of the Noongar, which should help reconciliation discussions.

      I often allude to this attitude of mine to historical fiction in my reviews. In my post on John Clanchy’s In whom we trust, I wrote about there being two responses to historical fiction – to see it as something in the past, something that we might learn from but that overall we can leave firmly in the past, OR to see its relevance to the present, to look at past actions or events, with the perspective of time, in order to reflect on now. This latter brings in those universals we like to talk about, those things about us that history (or time) doesn’t change. John Clanchy’s In whom I thought asks us to look at the institutional abuse of children and its long history, and to see the human factors that enabled it then right on through to now. I quoted Hilary Mantel : “all historical fiction is really contemporary fiction; you write out of your own time.” Clanchy’s main character is warm, flawed – not the abuser – but he has some moral decisions to make which force us to think about, and try to understand, similar decisions people are still making now.

      Does this make sense to you?

      • October 24, 2020 07:57

        Yes it absolutely does make sense and I love that quote from Mantel. Especially so since today I finished reading her final book in the Cromwell trilogy. Though the events she depicted happened 500 years ago, it has relevance today in the way politics has become so gladiatorial and precarious

        • October 24, 2020 08:42

          Thanks Karen. I’m glad I was able to explain what I meant, and I’m glad you asked the question! I’d love to read that book but it is so big!!


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