Tablecloths or tapestries…

Recently, somewhere or other in the blogosphere, I inadvertantly wandered in on a spat about historical fiction.

(Which was a bit odd because I don’t understand why people are so frequently confrontational and petulant in the blogosphere…but I digress.)

What I meant to say is there was this rather interesting or stroppy distinction between historical fiction and historical romance in which the latter was described as romance fiction which uses history as a tablecloth for a dinner of a love story.  I’m paraphrasing.  (Though perhaps in some cases a dog’s dinner might be more apposite.)

Anyway.  I thought it an interesting distinction or turn of phrase. 

But it did get me thinking about why we are so bound and determined to limit the genre of historical fiction to such an extent?

Why, currently, to a greater or lesser degree is historical fiction seen only as a plot and a few characters thrown into a setting of  history?  And any variation on that theme is ignored or dismissed or perhaps just not even recognised because we’ve become so narrow in our thinking?

Certainly, one might assume that’s the sum total if one were to read the current reviews of historical fiction on offer in and out of the blogosphere.

Yet it wasn’t always so.

I remember my first encounter with The Battle of Wagram by Gilles Lapouge.  A book which won for its author the Prix Goncourt.

I remember being thrilled that I was asked to review it because it was a book set in my period of expertise and I was delighted that I wouldn’t have to bone up after reading to ensure that I and the author had our facts straight.  For once.

Again, I digress.  My apologies.


 The story, as I recall, is about these two small Saxony regiments which over the course of the book and culminating at the Battle of Wagram itself (due to the rapidly shifting politics of the times), come to fight each other–regardless of the fact that they’re composed of countrymen, cousins and brothers who have no quarrel with each other.

So that’s the story.  It’s a true story and it illustrated a terrible facet of a terrible war, guaranteed to leave the most hardened reader quiet with the deepest empathy of regret.

But that’s not what the book’s about.

What it’s about is the vicarious nature of war.

How rather than Napoleon duking it out with Frederick of Prussia or Tsar Alexander, hundreds of thousands of men were thrown against each other in this cataclysm of savage destruction, killing each other–their brothers–in lieu of the leaders who had the quarrel in the first place.

And of course, its message could just have easily have been applied to World War I.  Or even World War II.

It’s a remarkable book.

Another remarkable book is The Death and Life of Miguel de Cervantes by Stephen Marlowe–a book which ostensibly tells the life of the famous Spanish author.  Only it does and it doesn’t.

Not that Marlowe plays especially fast and loose with the facts.  But because he revels in writing the reality behind the real: for example, the bench where the old men sit and talk in the village square is called “the bench of if-only…”

I read that line more than twenty years ago, and yet, still, it stays with me.   I know that bench.  Indeed, I have seen it in countless villages both in Spain and every other country I’ve visited.

Then there’s Bob Marshall-Andrews’s deliciously chaotic novel of 17th century Florence, The Palace of Wisdom.  The main character is a plump (fat) young librarian who smuggles books out of the city tucked within his cheeks, hidden within the copious folds of his galligaskins.  (Yes, you read that right.)

A hilarious romp through late Medici history you would have thought–it is very funny.  Except that what it’s about is censorship.  And bullying.

Recently I’ve been rereading my first novel, May 1812.  I haven’t looked at it in nearly two years, so it’s all a bit curious.

There’s a certain amount I don’t recall writing.

But what has surprised me most is how little actual page-space is given to the love story which is what most readers and reviewers tell me it’s about.

What I remember is discovering and researching the appalling nature of the assassination of Prime Minister Perceval and its fearful effect on the country, and being determined to weave that into a book in such a way that the reader felt they’d been there.

Also I was intrigued by the ‘home front’ aspect of the Napoleonic Wars.  Neither of which were covered in any of the fiction about the period.

But most of all, I was enraptured by the language of Shakespeare and Donne, by their uses of assonance and alliteration and juxtaposition.  By Shakespeare’s wordplay in his Sonnets, such as this from Sonnet 43:  “Then thou, whose shadow shadows doth make bright, How would they shadow’s form form happy show…”

And I wanted my novel to be that beautifully-written.  I wanted it crafted with wordplay, imagery and negative positives–with passages of language so exquisite that the reader would want to read and reread, then hold the book against their chest, and like poetry, savour the words, the facets and cadences, the music of it all.

I was quite enamoured by the flavour of 19th century novels too, and a feature of many them–the narrator.  I love the wry narrator in Trollope’s work.  Though, in the end, (for purposes of keeping the wordcount down) most of the narrator’s passages ended up on the editor’s floor.

So…what is May 1812 about?  Upon reflection, language…I think…all wrapped up in a slice-of-life novel about a fellow in the early 19th century–a decent fellow who’s a witness to the life of that political world.

So where was I?  Oh yes, historical fiction…What is it?


3 comments on “Tablecloths or tapestries…

  1. Historical fictioneers having a spat? I can’t believe it!

    They’re worse than academics.

  2. Ah – themes ‘n stuff.

    I reckon, you see, there’s biography (historical faction), romance (historical friction) and comedy (hysterical fiction), plus a few others I can’t think of vaguely punny descriptions for. They’re stories, when all’s said and done. And if readers and reviewers want to imagine the action in a particular light, or search for hidden meanings in the narrative, that’s up to them.

    For example, I might have described my novel as a scatological discourse examining interpersonal A/C2 relationships in the context of early 19th century social hierarchy. But then I’d be talking through my *rse.

    Because it’s just a story, written as well as I was able.

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