Fiction, whether it is nobler to be Historical or Hysterical?
Good day my well regarded viewers, I hope this missive finds you all in excellent health, with all the four humours balanced and that you are not suffering from any excess of black bile? I have for now concluded the series on the First World War, we will return to it in due course but while I was composing that set of articles another thought crossed my mind in relation to our view of history.
What is History?
(the first historian)
That simple question could set us off on a thousand page splurge, and still not settle the discussion. In short I believe that history is the commonly or sometimes not so commonly agreed set of ‘stories’ about our collective and personal past. This collective recorded memory tends to be created by historians from their research, and the interpretation of evidence from individuals, records, material remains and scientific data. An American thinker on the influence of cities on our current culture, Lewis Mumford (who I think is pretty damned good!) suggested that it was the ability to accumulate and record life experiences and knowledge into an accessible reservoir that gave us the impetus to advance civilisation. While the famous astronomer Carl Sagan (who is also pretty damned good!) in his series stunning Cosmos refers constantly to the Library of Alexandria as our first impetus for science and famous discoveries. Those are just two outstanding men who talk about the impact of past stories, so for now let us accept their interpretation of what history is; certified or sanctified stories.
(reconstruction of the Library of Alexandria)
It is these stories that shape who we are, what we do and to a greater extent than you would think, how we act. In fact another word for stories could be education. For what is education but giving knowledge by way of stories and examples? When you think about it every action you take is relaying a story of your deeds or actions to another, be it a report or a phone conversation or even a bill. Each of those preserved memories carries their own burden of a perceived record of the past. Some are easily believable like a weather report or the sad and sorry state of your bank balance, others like the presentation of a Telco or Electricity supply salesman lack a stamp of credibility.
History is ...Stories?
(Excavation of Troy)
Thus by a simple process we come to stories and when those tales are further distant in the past or lack a certifiable basis we call them myths and legends. In the eyes of some, that label dismisses those ancient tales as no more credible than fables or, even dare I say it fiction. At this point I have to bring up one interesting fact of history, a supposed crackpot German who was obsessed by one ancient heroic tale from our past spent his entire life searching for clues. In the end he found it, his name was Heinrich Schliemann, as you have no doubt guessed the ancient heroic tale was the Iliad and the city he found was the lost Troy of Homer. Actually he found several levels of the city and is now considered to have labelled the wrong level, but that is nitpicking.
Old Stories...The Best Stories!
(A Victorian King Arthur)
In every age we have looked back to the past and frequently re-interpreted the actions of heroic ancestors. For example the Victorians fell for King Arthur even more than the Tudors. Thus we have volumes of fiction and speculation on Arthur and his knights, as well as the impetus for the gothic revival. Another example is way the eighteen and nineteenth century western societies tried to link themselves with ancient Greece and Republican Rome by building enormous classical facades on all important structures like museums and art galleries. These both are very physical representations of the effect of stories on our culture.
(Victorian style knight and lady)
Now if you’re concerned that this is going to be a technical and philosophical essay on history and literature don’t worry. We’ve finished the slightly heavy introduction and now on the meat of the matter Historical Fiction or as sometime you may have considered Hysterical Fiction. As you may have gathered from my previous posts I have a ‘thing about history’, I freely admit it. The way some history is ‘rewritten’ for ideological, racial or ‘commercial’ purposes really gets me riled. I find it extremely offensive and essentially no better than blatant lying and propaganda. Now to be honest, whether it’s due to growing crustiness or a weariness of seeing so much lazy stupidity my short fused intolerance has carried across to historical fiction.
(Viking ship ala Victorian romantics)
Now I quite enjoy reading that genre and if I recall aright my first seriously read novel was The Road to Miklagard by Henry Treece about a Viking raid gone awry that had survivors being enslaved and ending up in Byzantium (called Miklagard by the Norse). It was great, amazing fantastic, full of drama, a well paced story and interesting detail. After that I was hooked and as soon as possible went through all the Treece historical based novels, then followed Stephanie Plowman’s To Spare the Conquered about the Boadicea revolt and finally perhaps the greatest children’s historical fiction writer Rosemary Sutcliffe with her classic Eagle of the Ninth series. My wife Jocelyn has also reminded me of Cynthia Harnett and her Load of the Unicorn story about Caxton’s printing press in Tudor England. Apparently the author was so concerned about getting the details in her story right she actually paced out the distances between period buildings she used. Now I can understand that!
(Victorian style knighting)
At this point I have to mention Geoffrey Trease and his novels such as Popinjay Stair, apparently he was one of the first to drop the false Victorian style ye olde knight and ho varlet crap from his writing, while still retaining the common slang and terms of the time. I suppose I must have subsumed that at an early age, which is why the ‘my lord and lady’ stuff’ sets me off. I’m afraid the Hollywood Chivalry reeks of pretentious insincerity and plastic armour.
In my early teens I moved into more serous historical fiction and discovered Ronald Welch, Richard Farrington and RF Tapsell and of course CS Forester’s classic Hornblower series. These were and still are wonderful books well written, rich in detail and texture as well as a hefty dose of spice and adventure, lots of Buckle to Swash! The characters were human, engaging and believable. Best of all the authors hadn’t scrimped on the accurate historical detail to get the theme and modes as close as possible. They believed that their audience were intelligent people and didn’t like being condescended to with fanciful Victorianesque periodisms.
Now I come to write this the word classic keeps on cropping up and I find that both reassuring and disturbing. It appears that once a book earns the immortal catchphrase as a ‘classic’ it is usually then shuffled off to serve as a victim of ‘literary analysis’ by poor students, who there after are all too happy to bury it thanks to extreme aversion therapy.
I know that’s what it did to me perhaps ruining several years of possible writing. I can’t even hear the phrase Catch-22 without shuddering in remembered apprehension, as the rush of distant memories of HSC finals bursts the built up dams of mental scarring.
Anyway back to hysterical, opps I mean historical fiction, well no I think it’s about time to stop pussy footing around and plunge into an area I regard as loathsome and an abomination!
Modern Hysterical Fiction!!!
I belong to a medieval discussion list that includes a very diverse range of people from top range historical authors to university professors, serious researchers and re enactors, as well as those generally interested. So to use a usefully appropriate phrase it’s a broad church. However one aspect they act as one, the piss poor state of modern hysterical fiction. I will give you just one example, about a year or so ago one of the list members raised one intriguing recent novel. I am afraid I can’t remember the title just the howls of indignation and disbelief. The theme of the story ran something like this; Eleanor of Acquitaine the mother of Richard the Lionhearted of Third Crusade fame apparently had endowered a convent to produce a very special kind of nun. No expense was spared for their theologically rigorous training in Christian doctrine. In the end emerged ‘Benedictine Ninja Nun Assassins’ ready to slay any who stood in the way of their mistress’s plans. Move over Shaolin Masters, the Assassins of Almut and the Ninjas of feudal Japan!
Oh dear the internet ether did sizzle! One list member throwing out a lifeline queried whether it had been misidentified, wasn’t it actually fantasy? The reply almost shamefacedly sidled into view; Arrrh no, not as such, it’s labelled as historical fiction, sorry…
(Need I say anything?)
That is only one much abbreviated discussion on a minor book, when it came to Ken Follets Pillars of Earth the flood gates really opened for weeks. The point of this new theme is twofold. First since we absorb so much of our knowledge of the past from stories, and the vast majority of people read fiction rather than factual histories, it really is important for all of us to try and get it right, rather soak up the fiction as fact of the Benedictine Ninja Nun Assassins. Secondly I will be starting a weekly review of historical fiction and contrasting it with a piece of hysterical fiction in the same period check them out and see what you think I am I being fair or unfairly biased.
As the good doctor says keep taking the pills!