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.