Archives for posts with tag: historical fiction

I’ve been thinking about this question of whether the source of an idea influences (or constrains) the form that it eventually takes, especially in relation to fiction that’s based on real events or real characters.

I was thinking about this because I’ve just finished reading Anna Funder’s novel All That I Am, which has been garnering very positive reviews and some major awards, and is currently on the shortlist for the Miles Franklin Award and is a hot tip to win (“See?” you can hear them saying already, “we do give it to women! So there!”). As with her previous book, the very successful non-fiction Stasiland, a book about East Germany, she has found a very interesting subject: the plight of left-wing Germans in exile, trying to fight the rise of Hitler and the movement towards war, and living in fear of harassment, arrest and assassination. There is something fascinating and terrifying about the situation of people who find themselves outside the rule of law, outside the normal safe rules that the rest of us live by, surrounded by this terrible sense of threat, while all around them, the world goes about its business as if nothing is happening. (There are many people in the world today living in exactly this situation, of course, and we still go about our business as if nothing is happening, because where we live, nothing is.)

Funder tells the story of Dora, a young woman activist, and tells her story from two viewpoints: Ruth, who has known Dora from childhood, and Ernst Toller, a playwright and revolutionary in exile, who was one of Dora’s lovers. The narrative has an elegiac tone, because both these people are looking back at Dora and reflecting on her life, and both journeys of memorialising are prompted by books.

We see Ernst Toller working on a memoir which will write Dora back into life. We see Ruth, in advanced age and living in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, remembering Dora because Toller’s book has suddenly appeared on her doorstep.

So at once, both sets of stories and memories are mediated by writing, and this has the effect of setting the narrative at one remove. From the very beginning of the story her fate is already sealed, not just because we, the readers, know how the Hitler business turned out, but because both memorialists already know that she is dead. In a narrative that is ostensibly about bringing someone back to life, it seems rather unnecessarily framed by her death.

Toller, Ruth and Dora are all real people, and Ruth was a woman the author knew personally. (She, too, has now died, so this book stands perhaps as a memorial to another remarkable woman, although the character is self-deprecating about her own contribution to history.) And while the book is well written, with plenty of well-researched detail, and I felt Funder had a real feeling for the milieu these  people lived in, there was something about the very bookish structure she’s chosen, and the way she keeps her main character at several removes, which suggests her way of thinking about this world and these characters is constrained by what she’s read.

There are many ways to tell a story, of course. Showing a character through the perspective of others, while never giving us direct access to their thoughts, is a perfectly legitimate way to show a character. Fitzgerald does it, to give just one example, in The Great Gatsby. But this technique is often used as a way of getting some distance on a character so that you can explore their contradictions. The mood here, from both perspectives, is largely elegiac; both of them loved and admired her in an unambiguous way, because she was brave and daring and beautiful, and then the Nazis killed her.

It’s unfair to criticise a writer for not writing the book you want them to write, but sometimes when writers let you know about the source for something they’ve written, you immediately see why they wanted to write it, and wish they’d just written that. (I felt the same thing about Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child: it’s based on a Russian fairytale which she reproduces at the back of the book, and the tale has all the weirdness and wildness and crazy energy that folk tales have, in just a few dazzling pages. Ivey’s novel, which also has an interesting milieu, and a strong sense of place, captures some of the longing, but drains the energy out of it – or at least it did for the first 150 pages, which is as far as I got before deciding I’d got the general idea.) One of Funder’s sources, scrupulously documented at the back of the book, is a thesis (?) which tells the story of Dora’s strange death by poisoning.  As soon as I read about this document I thought, now that’s where the story is. A death, an inquest, as the way into a fascinating milieu rife with activism, fear, treachery and betrayal. Fabulous! It’s the kind of non-fiction work popularised by English author Kate Summerscale (The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace) which hangs an exploration of a moment in social history on the framework of a sensational court case. (The same format could work just as well as fiction.) Now, I haven’t read that thesis, so maybe that book has already been written. And to be honest, to take that approach would simply do the same thing I’m complaining about from another angle: instead of having one set of characters looking back on Dora via documents, you’d have a different set of characters, prompted by a court case, looking back on Dora. But at least the business of a court case gives you something that’s at stake: will the perpetrators be revealed and punished?

Funder’s novel is more literary – Orpheus trying to bring back Eurydice – and more diffuse, using the techniques of memory to build up a picture out of moments and elements. And while there is a narrative – the two narrations move forward more or less chronologically, telling us of the events that lead to Dora’s death – the end is never really in doubt. It is a novel that tries to evoke what it was like for that group of people to live through those times.

And I suppose this is where my frustration with the novel comes in. By removing Dora into the past, we never get to really feel her frustrations, her doubts, her hopes, her experience of living through this moment. We see her doing things, and she tells us things, and we observe things, but we don’t really get it as it’s lived. It’s all filtered by people who already know the outcome. The multiple viewpoints allow us to see a lot of people and touch on a lot things, but I wished for a narrative with a bit more focus. It could have been the story of Dora and her work and its tragic end, complicated with her relationships with Toller and Wolf and others; or it could have been the story of Ruth and Hans and her gradual, terrible discovery of his betrayal. As it’s written, the novel does tell both these stories, but the narrative arrangement never really makes it work as a story. Ruth is a fascinating character, and her journey of discovery is a terrible one; if the young Ruth was telling this story as it was happening to her, as she was discovering it (her own story twinned with Dora’s), it would have been far more dynamic and a much more gripping read. A more conventional novel, perhaps. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

I know, I know, that’s not the book Anna Funder chose to write, and I don’t think it’s because she can’t. She writes beautifully. She just made different choices about how to tell this story. They’re not necessarily the wrong ones either – I enjoyed this book, and engaged with it, and found it fascinating, and learnt some things, and also wished I had her knack for uncovering amazing stories.

Which brings me back to my original question: is there something about finding great stories in historical sources that makes it difficult to break away from the form you found them in? That is, if you find your characters with your historian’s hat on, is it harder to make them your own? When you’re inventing them from the ground up there is complete ownership, whereas if they really lived and really existed – and especially if you actually knew them – is it harder to freely invent where you need to?


As soon as I read about this – P.D. James writes a murder mystery sequel to Pride & Prejudice featuring Lydia Wickham and a murder – I was sold. Immediately I was imagining something which was sprightly and fun and clever and featured Elizabeth and Darcy sleuthing it up. It was one of those ideas you wish you’d come up with yourself.

But now that I’m reading it, I find that my initial imaginings were quite wrong. This is not a postmodern experiment – not that, really, I should have expected such a thing from P.D. James. She is not, after all, Jasper Fforde. Instead, it raises questions for me about intertextuality, about historical novels (a subject I can’t seem to leave alone), and about the particular worldview and mood a mature author creates in their work.

I have read many, although not all, of Austen’s novels, and I have also read a few of P.D. James’ books. I haven’t read any of them recently, so my remarks here are not throughly researched. But one of the things I’ve found interestingly odd about reading James’s intervention in Austen’s world is the mood that it creates: it’s anxious, melancholy, full of foreboding and unhappiness. In her introduction James refers to the famous quote: “let other pens dwell on guilt and misery”, and makes it clear that she is, in fact, going to do precisely that: dwell on guilt and misery.  The question remains, of course, why?

The action of this narrative makes a space for an extended series of worries about the duties and responsibilities people have towards their families, particularly the duties important and titled men have to their estates and the people living on them, to their ancestors, to the family name, and the conflicts between all those duties and their emotional lives. All the characters, but particularly the men, are seen worrying away about their wives and the choices they’ve made, and at the centre of these worries is the question: did Darcy choose wisely when he married Elizabeth? James’s book worries away at this question, as if she was trying to unravel Austen’s neatly-wrapped plot. The effect is quite unsettling, and the book has an unsettled, unhappy atmosphere, which is appropriate, I suppose, for a novel about a murder. But the mood of it is very far indeed from the witty, crisp, dry tone, and atmosphere, of Austen’s own books. It’s rather like the mood of Hamlet has been superimposed onto Pemberley’s occupants (actually, very like, now that I come to think about it).

One of the other things that’s striking about this book – and why I was very wrong when I imagined what this book would be like – is how little the women have to do in it. Elizabeth’s life is spent planning balls, ordering meals and visiting sick people on the estate, a no-doubt realistic representation of what a married woman of her position would be doing. But since a great deal of the action involves the investigation of the crime and then the legal proceedings, it means that Elizabeth, whose intelligence dominates P&P, is peripheral to the narrative here. I could imagine a kind of narrative where women doing women’s work (swapping information, talking and visiting and noticing things) could quietly gather the intelligence that would help them solve the crime. (Isn’t that a well-established sub-genre in crime, beginning with Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple?)  This is not that narrative. And since Elizabeth’s mind is one of the things that is so attractive about P&P, if you come to this novel hoping for more of that, you may be disappointed.

It is also not a novel that is particularly concerned with narrative twists and turns and big reveals, although there are some, of course. The feeling is more meditative than that.

The other question that this book raises, and this is a problem for all historical fiction, is how much you should explain. Austen didn’t need to explain how the world worked to her readers. They knew about country houses and what was expected of servants. They understood the social rules and etiquette, because Austen was writing for her contemporaries. P.D. James is writing about a world that is removed from us by 200 years – and is also another author’s creation, just to complicate things further. So this novel begins, rather clunkingly, with a long summary of the key plot points of Pride & Prejudice, and then, when it does get into the narrative, is heavily embroidered with explanatory detail about things like the niceties of social conduct and explanations about the servants and how the house is run, so it feels like you’re getting a solid dose of social history with your narrative. James seems fascinated by country house living, and populates the mise en scene with named servants, almost as if she was trying to make the traditionally invisible  people in a country house visible. But unlike, say, Downton Abbey, this is not a novel about the strange intimacy and distance of life with servants, so the plethora of names is just distracting. But this has to be a real problem for any recreator of a historical world: how much do you need to explain? How much can you get away with not explaining? Does your action still make sense, and do your people still make sense, if your readers don’t fully understand the world in which they live? We accept not knowing all the details in the works of authors writing about their own worlds, but when writers are not writing about their own world, if they’re trying to recreate a historical  moment they didn’t live through, then you immediately run into problems – the related problems of TMI (too much information) and NEI (not enough information). For me, P.D. James errs here on the side of TMi: she knows so much about Austen’s world, and is so determined to give us a detailed and nuanced appreciation of the complexities of that world, that there are moments where the detail overwhelms the action.

And, perhaps unfairly, but unavoidably, as a reader you find yourself acutely aware of modern-sounding phrases, especially in the dialogue. For me, every time I encounter an expression that sounds contemporary in the mouth of one of these characters, it throws me out of the world of the book and reminds me that I’m reading something by someone who’s trying to sound like someone else – and apparently not succeeding, because I’m questioning it.  (I can’t quote you an example, but I found myself questioning a number of phrases.) If Austen had written the same phrases, you wouldn’t mind, of course. But there’s something about knowing that what you’re reading is a recreation that can make you hypercritical.

However, I don’t object to the idea of messing around with another author’s characters. Really compelling characters become part of our collective imagination, our dream life. The urge to know what happened next is, I think, akin to the desire to see them translated into other media (TV, film, dancing on ice). I like the idea of a major author turning her attention to the characters and the world of another major author, and although I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the reading experience, it was nonetheless an interesting meeting between two quite disparate sensibilities.

I do think, though, that the literary mash-up (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and the revival of hyper-successful characters in books by authors who are not the original authors (the other Austen sequels, the new James Bond novels) suggests a publishing industry taking a tip from the risk-averse studio heads in Hollywood, and looking for sure-fire hits by trading on the brand value of existing properties.

(I don’t think P.D. James set out to write a blockbuster, by the way. I think what she has created is an intriguing and ultimately serious act of love and homage. I think her publishers, however, saw “moneyspinner” before they got past the subject heading on her agent’s email and packaged it accordingly. Which is fine. God knows, both authors and readers need publishers to make a bit of money publishing something otherwise we’re all out of a job.)

On this theme, I was interested to read this, in a very good article on the latest film adaptation of John le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy:

When John le Carré dies, there will be no pseudo–le Carrés, rotating the clichés of Smileydom through their potboilers. Not only is le Carré more or less inimitable—less imitable, certainly, than Ian Fleming, whose style was essentially that of a school bully with a typewriter—but Smiley himself is too elusive a creature to be captured by any pen other than that of his creator.

The best books make us yearn to know more about the characters, but also make it impossible for that desire ever to be fulfilled.