Follow-Up: Historical Fiction

Since I don’t currently own a copy of The Eagle and the Raven, I’ve been looking around at other historical novels which I have found compelling over the years. As historical fiction was one of my earliest passions (according to my mother, I took my copy of Jean Plaidy’s The Young Mary Queen of Scots to class with me in first grade) I have a number of sentimental favourites still in my collection. Yesterday I browsed through about half of Child of the Morning, the other Pauline Gedge novel that used to enthrall me. It certainly looks a lot better than The Linnet Bird, and one reason is that Gedge seems to have tried hard to make her people not just act but think like Ancient Egyptians (I think that was actually the draft title of the Bangles song…). Hatshepsut really considers herself the daughter of the god, and this belief drives her actions and shapes her character, including what in a different telling might have been a false pseudo-feminist assertion of her right to the power usually accorded only to men. The novel teeters on the brink of romantic cliches in the central love story (some might think it falls over that edge) and it does not strike me as terribly literary or at all innovative in its form, but OK, for the most part, I was willing to say yes to it (see previous post).

But the real touchstone in 20th-century examples has to be Dorothy Dunnett‘s Lymond chronicles, and I don’t know that I’ll be able to resist turning this inquiry into why some historical novels work and others don’t into an excuse to reread the whole set–something I have not done for too many years. I took my old copy of The Game of Kings down this morning and realized it is more than 25 years since I first read it (I know because it is inscribed to me on my birthday in 1979). I had not realized until recently that my enthusiasm for these novels is actually part of a much wider phenomenon. I have still never met anyone else who has read them. Here’s a testimony from Scottish novelist Linda Gillard (you’ll notice I have learned how to use the ‘insert link’ function):

The Chronicles are my literary Forth Bridge. I re-read the cycle perpetually and when I come to the end of Checkmate, the final volume in the series, I always feel a need to return to the beginning again. With every re-reading I admire Dunnett’s achievements more, marvel at how she dared to write books that could not be appreciated fully in one reading or even two. She didn’t care if you couldn’t immediately grasp a point of plot or motivation. She refused to simplify. She expected you to work hard and knew that many readers enjoy working hard

Just starting The Game of Kings has quickened my reader’s pulse, but also I realize that these novels are among those that I’m reluctant to approach in a critical or technical way. Still, that’s how many of my students feel about Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre and I always assure them that such an approach won’t spoil the fun.

Linda Holeman, The Linnet Bird

I managed to finish The Linnet Bird, but frankly it was a struggle. The author has clearly done a lot of homework on historical and cultural details, but then I don’t really want to feel while reading a novel that the author has done a lot of homework–this, of course, has been the frequent objection to Romola, though for me anyway, George Eliot’s homework is always worth our while to contemplate, as it is never at the level of ‘talking points about the English in India’, which is about where Holeman’s seems to stay. I have been working with Henry James’s essay “The Art of Fiction.” At one point, discussing a novel he has recently read that attempts to trace “the development of the moral consciousness of the child,” he sums up his judgment of the attempt as follows:

For myself (since it comes back in the last resort, as I say, to the preference of the individual), the picture of the child’s experience has the advantage that I can at successive steps … say Yes or No, as it may be, to what the artist puts before me. I have been a child … and it is a simple accident that with M. de Groncourt I should have for the most part to say No. With George Eliot, when she painted that country, I always said Yes.

I can sum up my reaction to Holeman’s novel in a similar way: for the most part, I said no to it. Besides the lack of historical sense that I commented on in a previous post (particularly in the characterization of Linny Gow herself), I found the predictably PC plot incredibly tiresome. The English in India are all stupid, shallow imperialists–except Linny herself, who has a remarkably 21st century perception of their stupidity and insensitivity, and does not struggle at all to reconcile that perception with her shock at witnessing suttee. And surprise: she falls in love (well, sort of–she discovers ‘desire,’ as she tells us) with a Pashtun horse whisperer and finds in his primitive camp in Kashmir the sense of community and acceptance she has never found in uptight, pretentious, British society, where she was never allowed to be fully herself….

I really wanted to like this novel, partly out of an odd sense of loyalty to a Canadian author, but on finishing it, my overpowering feeling was relief that I had waited to read it before picking up Holeman’s second novel, prominent on new release shelves everywhere. I think I’ll reread A Passage to India: maybe what Holeman did not do as homework was study her literary predecessors. I’m also curious to take another look at another historical novel by a Canadian author, Pauline Gedge’s The Eagle and the Raven, which years ago was such a favourite of mine that my copy fell completely apart. Would I say yes to this novel, after all this time, and if so, why? (Why, too, are other novels set in the 19th-century so much more persuasive, including Sarah Waters’s brilliant Fingersmith and Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White?)