On Historical Fiction


by David Mitchell, acclaimed author of several novels, the latest of which is The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: A Novel (Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2011)

Around Christmas in 1994 in Nagasaki I got off at a wrong tram-stop and stumbled upon a greenish moat and cluster of warehouses from an earlier century.  This was my first encounter with Dejima, the Dutch East India Company’s furthest-flung trading ‘factory’ and its most exclusive bragging point: during the two and a half centuries of Japan’s isolation, this man-made island in Nagasaki harbour, no bigger than Trafalgar Square, was the sole point of contact with the West.  Dejima went to seed after the Japanese opened up other ports to international trade from the 1850s onwards, but a full-scale reconstruction is now underway.  (No mean feat of engineering, this – reclamation projects have pushed the shoreline hundreds of yards away.)  Back in 1994 I wasn’t a published writer, but the place crackled with fictional potential, and twelve years later I begun to reconstruct Dejima myself in a book now published as The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.  I didn’t set out to write an historical novel just for the heck of it – you’d have to be mad.  Rather, only within this genre could the book be written.  This being my first, I read a number of others to avoid reinventing wheels.  Small hope, but my reading led me to a new respect for a genre which too sometimes gets associated with blue-rinses and rags-to-riches family sagas set inLiverpool.  No disrespect to Liverpool, but historical fiction goes back somewhat further.

Identifying the origins of any genre is a murky endeavour, but a flash lawyer at the Court of Genre could find elements of historical fiction in early medieval texts like The Voyage of Saint Brendan.  This eighth century Latin account mixes ‘facts’ about Brendan of Clonfert, medieval ship-building and (Icelandic?) volcanoes with trippier elaborations like psalm-singing birds and an interview with Judas Iscariot.  The problem is trying to guess whether The Voyage’s educated author and copyists believed he was recording history, or creating parables framed in the past?  The ninth-century (and onwards) Anglo-Saxon Chronicles present similar ambiguities, mixing a no-nonsense history of Britain from pre-Roman times with some more floral assertions – that King Alfred, for example, was a direct descendant of Bældæg, son of the Norse god Woden.  Okay, better do what he says, then.

By the 1300s, many surviving bestsellers are set in the past, or at least in a past: Gawain and the Green Knight and chunks of Chaucer: his Knight’s Tale (Ancient Thebes and Athens), the Man of Law’s Tale (King Ælla’s Northumbria) and the Physician’s and Second Nun’s Tale (Ancient Rome.)  But these works’ status as historical fiction is not yet beyond reasonable doubt: were these classical and chivalric tales really ‘history’ to their contemporary readers in the same way that the Crimean War is history to us?  Or were they more like tales from an ahistoric story-world, akin to the hygienic medieval villages of Ladybird’s Best-Loved Fairy-Tales?  For my money, historical fiction emerges as a sentient genre during the reign of Elizabeth I, when Shakespeare and his proto-novelist contemporaries shoplifted from sources like Holinshed’s History of England, Scotland and Ireland for backdrop, names and plots and presented these stage-worlds as the real thing.  The dramatis personae boasted characters purporting to be the real thing, interacting with (and lending reality to) other characters who were understood to be fictional.

The taxonomic Eighteenth century severed the umbilical cord to European Romances, True Histories and bent travelogues, and delivered the earliest English novels (Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Richardson’s Pamela and Fielding’s Tom Jones).  Hot on their heels appear some early contenders for the title of ‘First Historical Novel’.  First up are the Gothic romances, exemplified by Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764) whose past is less a historical reconstruction than a surrealist dreamscape.  Ann Radcliffe’s more ‘explained’ Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) earned so wide a readership that the Gothic romance was spoofable for Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey just four years later.  Maria Edgworth’s Castle Rackrent (1800) follows four generations of Anglo-Irish aristocrats prior to 1782, and has a strong claim to being the first modern ‘family saga’ historical novel.  With Walter Scott’s best-selling Waverley novels (from 1814), the genre was awarded a manifesto of sorts: “By fixing, then, the date of my story Sixty Years before this present 1st November, 1805, I would have my readers understand, that they will meet in the following pages neither a romance of chivalry nor a tale of modern manners; that my hero will neither have iron on his shoulders, as of yore, nor on the heels of his boots, as is the present fashion of Bond Street; and that my damsels will neither be clothed ‘in purple and in pall’, like the Lady Alice of an old ballad, nor reduced to the primitive nakedness of a modern fashionable at a rout.”  Eschewing Olde Worlde balladry, Scott promised both historical accuracy and a rattling yarn.

Never mind that Scott’s historical accuracy could be as fanciful as the clan tartans created for George IV’s visit to Edinburgh: the kilts were worn and Scott’s version of Scottish history became quasi-canonical for decades.  Fifteen years after Scott’s death, another commercially-nosed novelist published Barnaby Rudge (also sixty years after the events it describes, the 1780 Gordon Riots).  Charles Dickens’ second stab at a historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities, has sold over 200 million copies to date, making it the best-selling novel – in any genre – of all time.  Once the twentieth-century floodgates open, one is reduced to naming favourites from a broad and long procession (including the 12 Booker Prize Winners to qualify as historical novels under Scott’s sixty year rule): Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels, Robert Graves’ I, Claudius; George McDonald Fraser’s Flashman series; Sarah Waters, Beryl Bainbridge; Rose Tremain’s Restoration, Pat Barker, Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, William Golding’s To the Ends of the Earth Trilogy.

Why, then, the enduring popularity of historical fiction?  One reason is that it delivers a stereo narrative: from one speaker comes the treble of the novel’s own plot whilst the other speak plays the bass of history’s plot.  A second reason is genealogical: if History is the family tree of Now, a historical novel (such as Alex Haley’s Roots) may illuminate the contemporary world in ways that straight history may not.  The novel’s Ace of Spades is subjective experience, which is a merit or demerit depending on how the card is played and who you are – Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind can be either a sublime evocation or a toxic travesty.  A third reason for the genre’s popularity is simply that whilst the needs of the human heart and body stay much the same, the societies it must live in varies dramatically between centuries and cultures, and to watch people live – people whom we might have been had we been born then – under different regimes and rules is fascinating for its own sake.

And why write a historical novel?  Writers’ motives are as varied as criminals’, but I suspect that the historical novelist’s genetic code contains the geeky genes of the model-maker – there is pleasure to be had in the painstaking reconstruction of a lost world.  A second reason is banal but overlooked: a novel must be set both somewhere and ‘somewhen’, and the choice is restricted to the present, the future (after Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, though that’s another case for the Court of Genre) and the past.  A third motive is the challenge (and perverse pleasure) of tackling the pitfalls, foremost of which is research.  Filmmakers ruefully observe how every decade back in time a film is set, x million dollars gets added to production costs.  The same principle applies in novel-writing, but instead of dollars, read ‘months’.  The historical novelist must learn how the vast gamut of human needs was met in the ‘destination period’: how were rooms lit and heated?  How were meals prepared, clothes made, bodies bathed (or not), feet shod, distances covered, transgressions punished, illnesses explained, courtships conducted, contraception considered, divinities worshiped and corpses disposed of?  My allotted 1500 words could be swallowed by this list, and I would still be scratching the surface.  The more Moleskines you fill with the fruits of research, however, the more determinedly it must be hidden: lines like ‘Shall I bid Jenkins ready the Phaeton coach, or might Madam prefer the two-wheeled barouche landau?’ will kill.

And then you have to worry about language.  Unless you have an entire historical novel made out of reported speech (easier to digest Bubble-pack) the characters must open their mouths at some point, and when they do, how are they going to speak?  This is the ‘Lest versus In Case Dilemma’: the sentence-joint ‘in case’ – as in “Eat now in case we don’t have time later” –smells of Late Twentieth Century English, but a ‘correct’ translation into Smollett’s English – “Eat on the nonce, My Boy, lest no later opportunity presents itself” – smacks of phoniness and pastiche if written in 2010.  It smacks, in fact, of Blackadder, and only a masochist could stomach 500 pages.  To a degree, the historical novelist must create a sort of dialect – I call it “Bygonese” – which is inaccurate but plausible.  Like a coat of antique-effect varnish on a pine new dresser, it is both synthetic and the least-worst solution.  Commonly, shall is used more often than will; if-less conditional sentences are appear (as in “Had I but seen him, I would have shot him stone dead”); and contractions discouraged by old school headmistresses – like gonna – are avoided.  Then, once your Bygonese is perfected, anachronism is waiting to blight it.  For every obvious no-no (a feudal castle-builder complaining “Gravity is not on our side”) there are slipperier ones waiting to slip through: the editors and proofreaders of my late eighteenth century MS found a skip-load.  Some were excusable: the verb to con as in ‘swindle’ first appears in print in 1889, says the heaven-sent Etymological Online Dictionary.  Others were more embarrassing, like brinksmanship: duh, it’s a Cold War term.

Referring to the tyranny of tradition, Jessamyn West, an American Quaker novelist, wrote ‘Faithfulness to the past can be a kind of death above ground… Writing of the past is a resurrection; the past lives in your words and you are free.’  I don’t know about ‘free’ but I like West’s grave tone and her word ‘resurrection’: the historical novelist isn’t only rifling through the human narrative we call History for raw material.  Like it or not, he or she may also end up, actually rewriting the past.  History is not, after all, what really happened (no-one can know, it’s gone) but only what we believe happened.  I heard Mark Lawson on Front Row call this process ‘The Oliver Stone Phenomenon’, referring to the sizeable majority of Americans who believe Stone’s film JFK to be an accurate portrayal of a real conspiracy to kill the President (making one worry about Inglorious Basterds, where duty to historical fact is binned and Kick-Ass Jews perpetrate a Tarantino-esque revenge on Adolf Hitler.)  Perhaps this is the paradox that beats inside historical fiction’s rib-cage: the ‘historical’ half demands fidelity to the past, whilst the ‘fiction’ half requires infidelity – people must be dreamt up, their acts fabricated, and the lies of art must be told.

Or perhaps it’s just the fantastic costumes.

David Mitchell is the acclaimed author of the novels Black Swan Green, which was selected as one of the 10 Best Books of the Year by Time; Cloud Atlas, which was a Man Booker Prize finalist; Number9Dream, which was short-listed for the Man Booker as well as the James Tait Black Memorial Prize; and Ghostwritten, awarded the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for best book by a writer under thirty-five and short-listed for the Guardian First Book Award. He lives in Ireland.


Filed under Author Essays

2 responses to “On Historical Fiction

  1. Jimm Craig

    What is David Mitchell’s (the author) political stance? Is he a liberal or a conservative?

  2. Jimm Craig

    Please respond as soon as possible. Thank you & God Bless.

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