Monday, November 12, 2012

Historical novels

W. D. Howells, too, disliked them. “[I]t is asking a good deal of people in these busy, practical times,” he said, “to go back with you for half a dozen or more generations, and to lose themselves among strange customs and among strange people in a strange land.” As not unusual for Howells, he may have got it exactly backward. Maybe people prefer historical novels precisely because they are a break with business and practicality.

Historical novels are treated like a “tramp in the parlor of letters,” said A. B. Guthrie Jr., himself a historical novelist who won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize in fiction for The Way West. Indeed, the popular appeal of historical novels has long been a scandal for serious writers. And so the attempt has been made and made and made again to endow them with what Lion Feuchtwanger (another historical novelist) called a “higher purpose” than seeking merely to “relate historical facts just as brightly and excitingly as possible.” (Though that might seem purpose enough to you and me.) So what, according to Feuchtwanger, is the higher purpose of historical novels? To “express [a writer’s] own concept of the world.”

You might wonder how such a purpose differentiates the historical novel from any other kind of literature, but the expression of higher banality seems habitual to those who would mount a serious defense of historical fiction. The champions of the lesbian novelist Sarah Waters—a writer who deserves better champions—suggest that her neo-Victorian novels express a queer historiography, “which destabilize[s] the idea that studies of differences and similarities across time must exist in tension and opposition to each other.” Thus Waters’s work “demonstrates that historical fiction may use the past to comment on issues of contemporary concern. . . .”[1] So many words to say so little that is surprising!

Historical novels are “the most consistently political” genre of fiction, Perry Anderson said in the London Review of Books last year. The basis of his claim, of course, is the 1937 study of The Historical Novel by the Marxist critic György Lukács, who argued that the sole aim of the historical novel is to show how class divisions operate in a period of the past—what Anderson calls the “tragic contest between declining and ascending forms of social life.” From this angle, the model of the historical novel was fashioned by Sir Walter Scott, because no one is better at dramatizing the forces of class.

But this reductive Marxism is as specious and unlikely as the claim by another Lukacs—the historian John Lukacs—who told an absorbing 1992 symposium conducted by American Heritage magazine that “Every novel is a historical novel.” Yes, and every brush is made with bristles; except for those that aren’t.

If the historical novel is about class tensions, though, and if every novel is a historical novel, then it follows that every new novel must be written about class tensions. Monism leads to imperative. If the solution to writing historical fiction has been found, it would be irresponsible not to chase after it. Michael Oakeshott dispatches the fallacy when he discusses historical novelists’ older sibling, the historian:

[D]on’t you believe it. Nobody has solved the problem of how history should be written, and for the same reason that nobody has solved the problem of how poetry should be written, or how chess should be played or how houses should be built—because there is no such problem. We have been told, so often as to be nearly persuaded, that history must be scientific, or it must be imaginative, or it must be impartial, or it must be impersonal. But why all this “must”? Why should there be only one kind of history? And we are particularly puzzled because, as far as we know, there are a great many different kinds of history, and we find it very difficult to say one kind is really so much better than any other that it is the only kind we can allow the name to.[2]The mistake lies in talking about the historical novel as if there were just one way to go, as if there were classical unities every historical novel must obey. (Lukács and Lukacs channel Aristotle!) The truth is that there are only historical novels—novels, plural—with as many different approaches to historiography, and to making up stories about the past, as there are historical novelists. Alessandro Manzoni saw further than twentieth-century theorists when he said the historical novel’s aim is to “give a faithful representation of history.” The historical novel, he concluded, is “the most refined and ingenuous effort” yet devised to “mix history and invention, whatever their form.”

The question is whether a historical novel owes its best effects, its keenest pleasures, to being set in a historical past—whether its historical trappings are necessary or mere bubkes. Confining myself to novels in English, and to one novel per author (in alphabetical order), here are twenty-five historical novels which, if not the best of their genre, make good use of their historical settings, for instruction and delight. The list is not exhaustive, because my reading is not exhaustive:

• John Barth, The Sot-Weed Factor (1960). Barth is in eclipse, but deserves to be remembered for this novel: the story of a seventeenth-century poet who is commissioned to write an epic poem, The Marylandiad. Like many of the very best historical novels, it not only asks its readers to “lose themselves among strange customs,” but also in a strange language—a curious and authentic seventeenth-century English.

• Frederick Buechner, Godric (1980). The life of a twelfth-century saint, from Britain to Jerusalem and back, whose talk is spicy and impious at times, wholly realistic at all times.

• Peter Carey, True History of the Kelly Gang (2000). The first-person confession of the bushranger and outlaw who became a folk hero to Australians and was hanged by the British in 1880.

• Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). Perhaps the best example of a subvariety that I’ve called the historical novel of faith—the story of Jean Baptiste Lamy of Santa Fe and his vicar Joseph Machebeuf.

• J. G. Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapur (1973). Indian Muslims besiege a British imperial outpost during the “Great Rebellion” of 1857.

• Esther Forbes, A Mirror for Witches (1928). The chronicle, written in contemporary idiom, of a seventeenth-century girl accused of being a witch.

• George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman (1969). The multivolume autobiography of a Victorian “bully and poltroon, cad and turncoat, lecher and toady,” begins in the first Anglo-Afghan War.

• Thomas Gavin, King Kill (1977). The incredible hoax of the automated nineteenth-century chess player, which was exposed by Edgar Allan Poe.

• Linda Grant, When I Lived in Modern Times (2000). A British hairdresser transplants herself to Mandate Palestine, becomes involved with the Irgun.

• Robert Graves, Sergeant Lamb’s America (1940). Better known for his Claudius novels, Graves is at his best in this story of a Dublin man in the service of His Majesty’s Army in the American Revolution.

• MacDonald Harris, The Balloonist (1976). In 1897, a Swedish scientist tries to reach the North Pole via hot-air balloon.

• Charles Johnson, Middle Passage (1990). A powerful philosophical novel about the U.S. slave trade in the early nineteenth century.

• Thomas Keneally, Confederates (1979). In the American Heritage symposium, Garry Wills called it the best novel about the Civil War. I can’t disagree. Stonewall Jackson’s invasion of the North as experienced by Virginia soldiers in the ranks.

• Janet Lewis, The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941). In a sixteenth-century village in the Midi-Pyrénées region of France, a woman discovers that the man she passionately loves is an imposter.

• Bernard Malamud, The Fixer (1967). Blood libel in Czarist Russia—a retelling of the Beilis case.

• Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies (2012). Even better than her first Booker Prize-winning historical novel, Wolf Hall (2009)—the story of Anne Boleyn told from the slant of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister.

• Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove (1985). There are other contenders (Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident, A. B. Guthrie’s The Big Sky, Oakley Hall’s Warlock, Eugene Manlove Rhodes’s The Proud Sheriff, Wallace Stegner’s Big Rock Candy Mountain), but McMurtry’s may be the best novel ever written about the American West. One of my fondest memories is trying to read it, all 843 pages of it, in a single sitting.

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (2004). Three generations of Iowa preachers, from the Civil War to the 1950’s. An American classic.

• Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels (1974). The battle of Gettysburg is reconstructed from multiple perspectives—nearly all of them officers’.

• Jane Smiley, The Greenlanders (1988). The final years of Gardar, the Norwegian bishopric in Greenland, and the people who live there in the fourteenth century.

• Allen Tate, The Fathers (1938). The rise and fall of old Virginia from the last antebellum days to the first months of the War between the States.

• Jane Urquhart, The Underpainter (1997). A first-hand account of the birth of modern art narrated by an American painter who studied under Robert Henri and palled around with Rockwell Kent.

• Sarah Waters, Fingersmith (2002). An orphan girl serves a Victorian collector of erotica in a variety of capacities.

• John Williams, Augustus (1972). An epistolary historical novel about the nineteen-year-old who finds himself, upon the death of his great-uncle Julius, the new Caesar of the Roman Empire.

• Marly Youmans, Catherwood (1996). In seventeenth-century New York (near “Albanie”), a young mother and her baby girl become lost in the woods for seven months—and survive.

The source for everything you need to know about historical novels is Margaret Donsbach’s astounding one-woman site, which categorizes over five thousand titles. To the making and reading of historical novels, as Donsbach convincingly shows, there is no possible end.

Update: Readers have suggested Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower (about Novalis, the German Romantic poet who lived from 1772 to 1801), Stephen Harrigan’s The Gates of the Alamo (about, well, the Alamo), Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire (the battle of Thermopylae as told by the only Greek survivor, and also Joseph Epstein’s favorite historical novel), Thomas Flanagan’s The Year of the French (about an Irish insurgency, aided by the French, in 1798), Gore Vidal’s Creation (about Persia in the fifth century before the Common Era), Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series of novels about the British Navy (although it is a private theory of mine that you either like George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series, as I do, or O’Brian’s naval novels), George Garrett’s The Death of the Fox (about Sir Walter Ralegh), and Ernest Haycox’s The Border Trumpet or Trouble Shooter (two Western novels).

[1] Mandy Koolen, “Historical Fiction and the Revaluing of Historical Continuity in Sarah Waters’s Tipping the Velvet,” Contemporary Literature 51 (2010): 371–72.

[2] Michael Oakeshott, “What Do We Look for in an Historian?” (1928), in What Is History? and Other Essays, ed. Luke O’Sullivan (Charlottesville, Va.: Imprint Academic, 2004), p. 135.


Levi Stahl said...

Since first encountering them two-plus years ago, I've been unable to escape from Dorothy Dunnett's historical novels of late medieval and Renaissance Europe. They're quite different from most of what you've cited here, built much more explicitly as romantic entertainment (Flashman, though anti-romantic, is probably the closest comparable on your list), but that's not that surprising because they're not really like any other books I know of at all: over fourteen novels and nearly nine thousand pages of tiny type, Dunnett creates a world so thickly peopled, so richly described, so compelling and convincing, that it simply doesn't go away after you close the books. Her novels are dense with allusion, both internal and external, with cryptic asides, with plot and character threads that stretch, often silently, through thousands of pages. They're demanding: Dunnett assumes an attentive, careful reader, and she doesn't pander to any other kind. When I read Tolstoy, I'm often astonished at the very idea that a single man could contain such multitudes; in a different, but not much less powerful way, I feel the same when reading Dunnett.

And now to go check out a couple of these that I've not read. Thanks for the tips.

R.T. said...

Alas, I am not wise enough to argue about brushes and bristles, but I do mostly agree with John Lukacs when he argues that "every novel is a historical novel." Novels tend to "freeze in time" all characters and incidents; so, in a paradoxical way, as novels become history they become historical novels. Perhaps that is a careless manipulation of words and ideas, but that is where my mind is these days.

In any case, Mark C. Barnes in _Novel History_ offered a simple but intriguing look at historical novels. It does not have the erudition of your arguments, but it nevertheless provokes plenty of thought about the genre (if that is a permitted label).

As always, when you provide reading lists, I appreciate your generous offering, and I am intrigued by the titles.

How, do you think, speculative (science and/or fantasy) fiction fit in with the historical novel arguments?

Becky said...

I agree with you R.T., a great many books could be considered historical fiction. I enjoy reading historical novels from all era's. My latest favorite "Quest for the Lost Name" by George Makris. What I like about this book is that it doesn't just center around history (it does), but I love the action/thrill of it. It grabs you from the very first line and keeps you going till the end.

Fred Rossoff said...

"Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series of novels about the British Navy (although it is a private theory of mine that you either like George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series, as I do, or O’Brian’s naval novels)"

HA! I like em both.

R.T. said...

NB: I hope you do not mind that I have been singing your praises at a different blog site:

BTW, best wishes to you from your comrade in arms on the redneck Riviera.