THE FO­RUM

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints - FRANK CAMP­BELL HIS­TORY AS FICTION

IF the past is an­other coun­try, his­tor­i­cal nov­els are forged pass­ports. Re- cre­at­ing the past is sim­ply a con­ceit of the present. The more ap­par­ent verisimil­i­tude, the greater the de­cep­tion. Or so the ar­gu­ment runs. Per­cep­tive Amer­i­can critic Bran­der Matthews said in 1897 that ‘‘ the his­tor­i­cal novel is au­re­oled with a pseudo- sanc­tity in that it pur­ports to be more in­struc­tive than a mere story. It claims . . . it is teach­ing his­tory.’’

Matthews whis­tled up Ana­tole sup­port: ‘‘ We can­not re­pro­duce ac­cu­racy what no longer ex­ists.’’

‘‘ No man can step off his own shadow,’’ says Matthews, prais­ing Shake­speare, who didn’t try. The Bard used ex­otic Scots, Danes and Venetians to ex­em­plify hu­man na­ture, the his­tor­i­cal past and for­eign lo­cales be­ing mere con­veyances for the uni­ver­sal.

His­tor­i­cal fiction is said to tell us more about the present than the past. His­tor­i­cal nov­els are re­ally lec­tures about how the present sees the past. The thinly dis­guised ide­ol­ogy of Gone With The Wind ( 1936) stereo­types the an­te­bel­lum Amer­i­can south and still shapes per­cep­tions.

Not to men­tion the ro­man­tic me­dieval­ism cre­ated by the fa­ther of the his­tor­i­cal novel, Wal­ter Scott, the aroma of which per­sists to this day. Damned as a ‘‘ bas­tard form’’ of fiction, the his­tor­i­cal novel has been buried re­peat­edly by crit­ics, not least Robert Louis Steven­son, but al­ways crawls from the ceme­tery be­fore the cel­e­bra­tory wake is over.

How can we know the past? We might at this point hit the booze be­fore slump­ing par­a­lytic un­der the ta­ble of pure rel­a­tivism. Af­ter all, psy­chol­ogy 101 sug­gests that even sim­ple events are re­ported in­ac­cu­rately. Aren’t there as many re­al­i­ties as wit­nesses? If present mat­ters of fact are opaque, how can we pos­si­bly re- cre­ate the cul­ture of a Manch­ester po­lice sta­tion of 1973, or 19th- cen­tury naval life, let alone the world of Claudius or Spar­ta­cus?

Never mind the past, how can we re­ally know the present? How do we know that we ex­ist at all? Why not do the full Mau­rice Mer­leauPonty? I might ex­ist, but the ev­i­dence for you is un­con­vinc­ing. One more drink and we’ll all be phe­nomeno­log­i­cal post­mod­ernists, whose grip on re­al­ity de­pends en­tirely on the next cof­fee.

The trou­ble with rel­a­tivism is that it’s so ab­so­lute. Rel­a­tivism is only rel­a­tively true. Matthews and his ilk never take rel­a­tivism to its log­i­cal con­clu­sion, for that’s the path to mad­ness and, more im­por­tant, un­em­ploy­ment. A critic who de­nies the ex­is­tence of ev­ery­thing ex­cept a purely sub­jec­tive world has by def­i­ni­tion noth­ing to say.

Hav­ing driven my nonex­is­tent ad­ver­sary from France in with any the field, the ar­gu­ment is no fur­ther ad­vanced. Can we re- cre­ate the past? If so, which past? How far back? How much and what sort of re­al­ity or truth can be re­vealed?

There’s no doubt the scep­tics have a ton of am­mu­ni­tion. Most his­tor­i­cal fiction is hor­ri­bly bo­gus. Hol­ly­wood epics? They give pas­tiche a bad name. Ro­man­tic his­tor­i­cal fiction? Mostly bodice- rip­ping cos­tume fan­tasies. Mod­ern dross in ar­chaic dress.

Hys­ter­i­cal nov­els and Charl­ton He­ston aside, let’s ex­am­ine a good- qual­ity piece of his­tor­i­cal fiction set in the very re­cent past. Should be a dod­dle, right? A Manch­ester de­tec­tive is thrown back to 1973 from 2006 af­ter be­ing hit by a car. The ti­tle of the BBC drama is in­struc­tive: Life on Mars . The bru­tal, cor­rupt, misog­y­nis­tic cop shop of 1973 is ut­terly alien to our po­lit­i­cally cor­rect de­tec­tive chief in­spec­tor. He evan­ge­lises the hea­thens. As a denizen of ur­ban Bri­tain in 1973 I was im­pressed by the show’s at­mo­spheric fi­delity: fag smoke, gut- swelling beer, mono­chrome browns and greys, hair­styles, clothes, mu­sic and the pinched quasi- poverty cen­turies away from to­day’s hy­per­con­sump­tion. Lin­guis­tic clangers were few, al­though the di­ar­rhoea- brown Ford Cortina was a 1974 model. So, eight out 10 for ex­ter­nals, the easy stuff. How about the ide­o­log­i­cal clash, the en­light­ened cop in the dark ages? Well, we know the long strug­gle to civilise the po­lice is real enough. There are new leg­isla­tive con­trols, fresh ide­ol­ogy and foren­sic so­phis­ti­ca­tion. If you think to­day is rough, re­mem­ber Grafton jail, not to men­tion Port Arthur.

So, al­though Life on Mars does brag about the present, with lit­tle aware­ness of Bri­tain’s Or­wellian sur­veil­lance cul­ture, it makes a plau­si­ble case about 1973. A very lim­ited can­vas helps. And it was never hard to imag­ine what sort of de­tec­tive would be hurled back ( to 1981) in the sec­ond se­ries: yup, a fe­male psy­cho­log­i­cal pro­filer.

So, what hap­pens when am­bi­tions soar be­yond a vi­gnette such as Life on Mars ?

G. M. Fraser, who died in Jan­uary, had a stroke of ge­nius when he cre­ated his char­ac­ter Flash­man. The star of a dozen nov­els, the sadis­tic bully from Tom Brown’s School­days ( 1857, but set in Rugby School in the 1830s), is sent by Fraser ca­reer­ing across the em­pire as a mil­i­tary of­fi­cer. A self­de­scribed poltroon and for­ni­ca­tor, Flash­man in­vari­ably cocks up but wins in the end.

Fraser claimed to be a stick­ler for his­tor­i­cal ac­cu­racy, but there are many er­rors, not least of speech. No mat­ter, for surely it’s great satire, tak­ing the piss out of a boor­ish, randy, ram­pant Colonel Blimp. Alas, no. Flash­man is sten­to­rian slap­stick, more bawdy mu­sic hall than his­tor­i­cal novel. Not a patch on Ho­ra­tio Horn­blower or William Golding’s tril­ogy To The Ends of the Earth , about a mi­grant ship en route to Aus­tralia in 1812 ( re­cently on the ABC).

Fraser proves that ac­cu­rate his­tory may be a nec­es­sary con­di­tion of good his­tor­i­cal fiction, but is not a suf­fi­cient one. Flash­per­son is a racist, im­pe­ri­al­ist, sex­ist rake de­signed to de­li­ciously of­fend the late 20th- cen­tury reader. Just the sort of char­ac­ter to be dreamed up by a cyn­i­cal, hard­drink­ing Glaswe­gian jour­nal­ist such as Fraser. Once again, the his­tor­i­cal novel says more about the present than the past.

But all is not lost. At its best, fiction is a del­i­cate ar­range­ment of lies de­signed to spell truth. His­tor­i­cal fiction, the most elab­o­rate em­broi­dery of all, can il­lu­mine the past rather than tra­duce it but re­quires de­tach­ment from the present as much as im­mer­sion in the past. Jour­ney­men and pro­pa­gan­dists need not ap­ply.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Igor Sak­tor

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