Banishing the scented hankie

How to break the rules of the historical novel

March 31, 2014
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Portrait of Venetia, Lady Digby, by Sir Anthony van Dyck ©WM Commons

The historical novel is a supremely elastic genre. It stretches to lowbrow, bodice-ripping efforts, pings back to highbrow—Tolstoy’s Hadji Murad, for example, or Eliot’s Romola—while maintaining a solid middlebrow, from I, Claudius to The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It can build nations, as Scott’s Waverley novels do, or speak to children, like Rosemary Sutcliffe’s Eagle of the Ninth, or it can tumble sideways, like Woolf’s modernist fantasia Orlando, which can be read as a parody or celebration of the genre.

And yet these very different works share a set of core conventions. What defines a historical novel? The Marxist literary theorist Georg Lukacs is useful here; so is Perry Anderson’s 2011 essay, “From Progress to Catastrophe.” These are some basic commandments:

1. The historical novel shall foreground the individual against a background of dramatic social change, which has transformed the world of the protagonists by the time the book is over.

2. Recognisable “historical figures” shall play their part, sometimes on the fringes of the novel—Napoleon in War and Peace, for example—and sometimes in the title role, as in Gore Vidal’s Julian.

3. The action shall take place at any time so long as it is before the author’s birth or infancy; it isn't historical if the author doesn't have to do any research.

4. The depiction of detail—clothes, eating implements, place-names and the like—shall be strictly accurate, thus creating “atmosphere.”

5. The depiction of character—morality, belief, motivation etc—shall not be strictly accurate, since what pleasure would be gained from a novel in which the female lead character was entirely unemancipated, or otherwise sympathetic characters occasionally revolted us with unthinking racism, or any other bad old precepts that we now, rightly, despise?

Perhaps I am being a little cynical with the next rule—this is clearly not a commandment but a fallacy that many historical novels unwittingly follow:

6. The historical novel shall endeavor to conceal the year it was written, striving to pass itself off as authentically of another age. This is true, certainly, of every "straight" historical novel; The French Lieutenant’s Woman is one of the few noble exceptions.

I chose to write a historical novel of my own, Viper Wine, because I wanted to answer the questions raised by two portraits by Van Dyck: one of Sir Kenelm Digby, the other of his beloved wife, Venetia Stanley. Why was Digby, the renowned courtier, painted in 1633 in the habit of a hermit, with a wilting sunflower, his eyes puffy from crying? Why was Venetia Stanley painted dead in her bed, aged only 32? But I was also drawn to the genre because I enjoyed the prospect of a little light iconoclasm. Despite its recent critical acclaim thanks to Sarah Waters, Hilary Mantel and Eleanor Catton, the historical novel—in reputation at least—still retains the whiff of the scented hankie.

I broke the sixth commandment first. I acknowledged the time of writing, as well as the time the action takes place. The age in which a historical novel is written, rather than set, is always flickering slightly, in the margin, on the edge of the reader’s consciousness. The sensitive reader of historical fiction always perceives the present through the past, much in the same way that, as you watch Sofia Coppola’s film Marie-Antoinette, you think of the credit-crunch about to strike, or when you watch Barry Lyndon by Kubrick, you are transported to an 18th century which feels authentic, yet unmistakably of the 1970s, both in its tone and colouring, and in its tale of social mobility.

This double—or multiple—consciousness is one of the great pleasures of historical fiction. Instead of trying to hide that I was writing in 2012 about the 1630s, I decided to embrace that fact. I threw in quotations from the present, and I gave the main character, Sir Kenelm Digby, knowledge of the future he couldn’t possibly have had. He was a practicing alchemist and alchemists believed that time is circular, so it felt like a conceit that worked for his character, as well as for the modus operandi of the novel. Sir Kenelm was one of the great over-achievers of the English renaissance. He was a scholar, a privateer, a natural philosopher, a cook and a keeper of recipes. He discoursed with Descartes, befriended Cromwell and was a Gentleman of Charles I’s bedchamber. He was the first to recommend bacon with eggs for breakfast; he was the last to believe that wounds could be cured by treating the weapon that caused them with the Powder of Sympathy. He has a cameo in a novel, The Island of the Day Before, by Umberto Eco; his name is used by Aldous Huxley in The Devils of Loudun to invoke the backwardness of the 17th century. He is one of those people whom one starts to believe might have been capable of anything; a time-torn inhabitant of many ages at once.

I took great pleasure in breaking the rule that historical detail must be strictly accurate. Yes, I wallowed in glorious research, spending weeks in the British Library, but I also introduced a modern element or two: amongst the 17th century banquet of manchet bread, suckets and gellied marrowbones, a rogue Wagon Wheel. In the glittering performance of the Inigo Jones masque of Luminalia, performed at the Banqueting House at Whitehall, I gave the role of Night to Barbra Streisand. I thought of Peter Blake’s collages, and Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio: the Renaissance with a punk soundtrack.

I messed with many of the conventions of the genre, but I respected the traditional idea, rejected by modernism, that history can be coherently interpreted; that an era can be characterized or summed up; that some clichés are, in effect, true. The novel is set during the 1630s, a long, stagnant decade when Charles I refused to call parliament, and instead of doing anything useful about it, his courtiers posed for Van Dyck dressed expensively as shepherds. The upheaval of the Civil War meant that these cavaliers, once so naive and high-minded, their “careless heads with roses bound” in Richard Lovelace’s famous phrase, never knew such innocence again: they lost their estates, their positions, and often their families. I accepted CV Wedgewood’s interpretation of the 1630s, while also using Christopher Hill’s reading of the profound change that caused the English Revolution, as laid out in The World Turned Upside Down. One of the beauties of fiction, rather than history, is that it can incorporate opposing theories—maximalism is fine.

The historical novel is thought to be conservative, but once you move beyond the rigid confines of popular genre fiction, the genre can be as slippery and subversive as any other. It can balance between parody and sincerity; it can bounce off the past and land in the future. The hardest thing for a novel to do, luckily, is to sit and be still.

“Viper Wine” by Hermione Eyre is published by Jonathan Cape, £14.99. More information here.