Books

History as Fiction / Fiction as History: The Allure of the Historical Novel

Siobhan Lyons
From the cover of Mr. American, by George MacDonald Fraser (Avalon, June 1998)

Because history can be seen to be a malleable artifact, it’s a useful tool to employ when writing fiction. Because history is often chaotic, fiction can be the best way to approach it.

History never repeats, or so sang New Zealand band Split Enz. However, history seems to repeat itself over and over again in the form of the historical novel, or historical fiction, a genre that appears to be more stylistically diverse than other genres. The subgenres of historical fiction prove wide enough, the scope reaching romance, politics, mystery and comedy. Yet historical fiction alone is colourful enough in itself to provide a rich tapestry on which characters, both real and imaginary, are created.

Historical novels can also be aligned with fan fiction, in that previously existing characters re-emerge and are reinterpreted through the clever machinations of writers. This worked well for playwright turned Hollywood hack, Tom Stoppard, who resurrected minor characters from Shakespeare’s’ Hamlet for his comedy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1967).

Shakespeare is a plentiful source for historical fiction, of course, with Anthony Burgess and George McDonald Fraser incorporating elements of the author's work in their own.

Fraser, a repeat offender of the literary ‘borrowing’ act, used the notorious bully General Flashman from Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown's School Days (1857), to create his much-loved Flashman Papers. Flashman at the Charge (1973) is a particularly salacious, albeit characteristically amoral tale wherein the much hated/loved caddish Harry Flashman throws his Russian lover Valla out of his carriage to lighten the load when being pursued by Russians: ‘I tell you I’d heave a thousand Russian sluts into the snow for my country’s sake!’ Despite the blatant misogyny present in Flashman’s character, he nonetheless endures through the great collection of Flashman Papers.

In Fraser’s big historical novel Mr. American (1980), the mysterious protagonist Mark J. Franklin arrives at Liverpool, England in 1909, in the midst of Edwardian England, with him a copy of Shakespeare’s Works, two Remington pistols, and an old Mexican charro saddle. The novel combines many styles and genres that Fraser masters, all brilliantly interwoven with an undercurrent of satire, the kind Fraser is well known for. Franklin, furthermore, is painted with both harrowing authenticity and surreal imagination. As described on the inside dust-jacket:

‘Tall dark and dangerous, soft spoken and alone, with London at his feet and a dark shadow in his past, he was a mystery to all of them, rustics and royalty, squires and suffragettes, the women who loved him and the men who feared and hated him.’

The pivotal and often neglected value of the historical novel is the main character, who is often either at odds with the time period he/she is in, or completely in his or her element. Franklin, interestingly, is at once within his element and detached from it, a social rogue and stranger, but still a part of the Edwardian landscape. Among others he encounters Winston Churchill and General Flashman, now 88, and on the verge on World War I. The pace of the novel is somewhat slower than Fraser’s beloved Flashman series, nonetheless, the tale is intriguing of a nouveau riche expat who mingles with the high society, including the King of England.

Burgess achieves equal success in the historical department with both his big work Earthly Powers (1980) and his little known collection of short stories, The Devil's Mode (1989). Like Fraser, the figure of Shakespeare is again an explored theme, following on from his Nothing like the Sun (1964), which speculated about Shakespeare's love life.

In his opening story, “A Meeting in Valladolid”, Shakespeare encounters Cervantes while travelling in Spain. The effect is both comical and endearing:

‘This, pardon the delay in introduction, is Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. William Shakespeare.’

’Chequespirr?’ the name meant nothing.

‘I work,’ Will said, ‘in the masrah in Londres. I indeed have no shahiya for dam. I am a mualif who must yuti the people what they wish. Limatza? Because it is my mihna.’

Cervantes hardly seemed convinced.

The Devil’s Mode (1889), on the other hand, sees composer Claude Debussy meeting poet Mallarmé while visiting London. Burgess also manages to exert characteristic satire in his Murder to Music, which follows a Sherlock Holmes mystery. Another historical figure to make a cameo in The Devil’s Mode is Attila the Hun, who prepares to devastate the Roman Empire.

Yet it’s Burgess’ fondness for the works and styles of author Somerset Maugham that delivers the historical component from drudgery to a more surreal location. His short story, “Snow” operates as a counterpoint to Maugham’s “Rain” (Ms. Thompson), while Earthly Powers focuses on a Maugham-like character, Kenneth Toomey. The narrator, notoriously unreliable, writes of his own perceptions of history relatively early in the work:

”History is movement and movement is life. Who, except Hegel or Marx, would be so bold as to affirm that the movement of history is toward the better and may end with the establishment of the satisfactory and unchangeable? All we know is that men move, men change, and that the sufferings they undergo—and will themselves to undergo—are both wrong and right.”

That history is a fictitious and an altogether fickle component of life, upon which values are erroneously established, is not a new concept. Yet Burgess’s magnum opus operates to question history’s most notorious elements that have been created, the most dominant of which (besides the condemnation of homosexuality in the Roman Catholic Church), is perhaps the existence of god and the problem of evil. In the same paragraph as above, Toomey writes, ‘If God exists, he is indifferent to men, and if he is indifferent, then he may as well not exist.’

Much later in the work, Burgess writes of the inherent chaos of the universe:

‘The whole complex movement of the universe represents order. The creator loves order and hates chaos. Virtue is order. Sin is chaos. Virtue is creation and the maintenance of creation.’

The novel is harrowingly diverse in its coverage of history, from Fascism, Nazi Germany to Post Colonialism, and Burgess managed to cover each successive event with historical clarity and surreal manipulation simultaneously.

Because history can be seen to be a malleable artifact, it proves to be a most useful tool to employ when writing fiction. And because history is often chaotic, fiction can be seen as perhaps the only way to approach it. By fictionalizing it, to an extent, a writer admits to his/her own limitations in constructing the past via the present context.

Therefore, the historical novel can also operate like a philosophical novel, since philosophy, at least according to Aristotle, is steeped deep in critical reflection and self-examination. History also operates in the same manner, by only later acting as something to reflect upon, and critically analyse, analysing what Burgess notes is the constant movement of men and the universe.

Historical fiction is a fickle genre, and perhaps has more at stake than any other explored theme. Since historical documentation ideally relies and reflects on accuracy, the expectations differ considerably. Even with the presence of the word ‘novel’, scepticism still mounts as to how credible the events and characters are.

However, Fraser and Burgess not only expel the monotonous expectation of historical accuracy, but also in turn make their lively and sardonic displays of historical figures and events all the more appealing. Burgess, moreover, creatively employs an unreliable narrator to essentially re-write history.

While re-writing history in a creative manner is appealing, there is a line, however, between bending historical accuracy and having such a novel descend into complete implausibility. Fortunately, Burgess and Fraser navigate this dilemma (or, in Burgess' case, the incredulous circumstances serve to deliver the kind of humour that works in his favour).

Yet historical fiction need not rely on famous historical figures to be successful. In Matthew Asprey’s yet to be published historical novel Murphy and the Baker, the author unravels ‘30s Sydney as a means to illuminate a personal history. Like much of the author’s work there is a loyalty to detail, both for characters and environment. A chapter from Asprey’s novel was excerpted in the anthology Nth Degree, in 2010. The author describes the chapter, “After the Swill”, thusly:

‘After The Swill’ is a story of sly grog and communists in Balmain, a working-class stronghold of Sydney, Australia, in 1931. This is the first appearance in print of Handsome Max Sweeney, narrator of the novel.’

Asprey’s characters are authentic without resorting to clichés of a particular period in time. And while only one chapter has been published, it serves as a great insight into the historical depth of what is sure to be a great novel.

Yet it’s a curious debate on whether there is demand for the historical novel. While readers seem to revel in the deliberate manipulation of historical characters and events, many writers cease to tamper with facts and instead aim to chronicle histories that are not only personal, but are neglected and almost completely unknown.

As such the historical novelist, whether tweaking the tales of history or bringing them into a fresh, new light, has the ability to weave history in their favour for whatever purposes. The greater aspect of more personal histories, such as Asprey’s novel, is that there is something of an infinite supply of personal stories, providing a plethora of material on which to illuminate previously neglected parts of history.


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