A fatal cheapness

Hilary Mantel has reconciled me to the idea of historical fiction, if not every expression of it, but I still find myself in sympathy with these cogent objections from Henry James. He was writing in 1901 to his friend Sarah Orne Jewett, who had sent him a copy of her latest work, a historical novel. 

The ‘historical novel’ is, for me, condemned, even in cases of labour as delicate as yours, to a fatal cheapness, for the simple reason that the difficulty of the job is inordinate and that a mere escamotage, in the interest of ease, and of the abysmal public naivety, becomes inevitable. You may multiply the little facts that may be got from pictures and documents, relics and prints, as much as you like – the real thing is almost impossible to do, and in its essence the whole effect is as naught: I mean the invention, the representation of the old CONSCIOUSNESS, the soul, the sense, the horizon, the vision of individuals in whose mind half the things that make ours, that make the modern world, were non-existent. You have to think with your modern apparatus a man, a woman or rather fifty – whose own thinking was intensely otherwise conditioned, you have to simplify back by an amazing tour de force – and even then it’s all humbug.

I think the fiction of our own age, historical and otherwise, suffers greatly from just this preoccupation with little facts. Few writers capture the consciousness or mind of our modern world, let alone a past one. Most are content with a proliferation of objects. These are what seem 'real' in our age, whereas to James they were less real than the inner world of which they survived as relics. That's why his writing remains unapproachably rich, and ours seems condemned to cheapness.

Historical Friction

Whenever I try to read historical fiction, the little man in my hair starts screaming “Wrong! Wrong! It’s all wrong! They wouldn’t have said that! They didn’t talk like that! That wouldn’t have happened!”

My sister-in-law, a historian, gave me Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker-winning Wolf Hall for Christmas. Reading this novel about Thomas Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII, I’m managing to keep the little man subdued while I enjoy, if not the language – which hardly tries for verisimilitude - at least the texture, the habits of thought, the smell and feel of Tudor London, which are admirably contrived. While their speech has to be read as rough translation (if only to placate the little man), you do feel as though you were bumping up against the real bodies of Cardinal Wolsey, King Henry, Anne Boleyn, their immense personalities. You feel the rich crackle and sizzle of the court, the ever-present threat of betrayal, arrest, horrible death. You also feel the certainties of church, prayer-book, rosary, relic; you feel them crumbling against the tidal push of protest coming from abroad. Sixteenth-century life and custom, rather than being simply documented, are woven dexterously into the fabric of the story. There is an immediacy about it which is more pleasing than accuracy. No doubt this is the point, pace little man, of historical fiction.

Are you from the past?

I am always uncomfortable with historical fiction, only slightly less so with historical film, but I've never really put my finger on why. Jonathan Dee, reviewing Tom McCarthy's Man Booker short-listed C, has done it for me:

"A novel is a document of consciousness, and since consciousness today is not precisely what is was when Woolf wrote, or Flaubert or Cervantes, the search for a form that reflects faithfully what it means to be alive in one's own time - for 'realism,' if you're willing to define it as broadly as that - must constantly refresh its own terms. In this light, the historical novel would seem to offer if not a false testimony exactly, then at best a kind of gloss on existing testimony. The effort to credibly reanimate a time, a way of being, that one never knew: even at its most technically successful, what is that effort drawing upon other than research - in other words, the historical novelist's experience of reading other people's writing?"

I concur.