This conversation originally appeared earlier this year on the History Girls, a most informative blog run by writers of historical fiction.
Talking history in a writer’s fiction… with the writer Brenda Clough, by Gillian Polack
Because so many readers enjoyed the conversations I have with other writers, this month I’ve asked US writer Brenda Clough in to chat. First up, an introduction, then on with the conversation. It’s not a lot of to-and-fro, because, on this subject and at this moment, neither of us chose soundbites. Brenda has some interesting things to say, too.
Brenda: I’ve been publishing science fiction and fantasy since the 1980s. And I got into historical fiction in a science-fictional way — with a time travel novel. You remember Lawrence ‘Titus’ Oates, right? British hero of Antarctic exploration. He’s famous for stepping out into a blizzard with the carelessly British understatement, “I am just going out and may be some time,” thus committing suicide to save his fellow explorers.
One of the big problems of time travel is what we may call the butterfly effect. If you step through your time portal to the late Cretaceous and step on a butterfly, will the present be the same when you get back? Or would that butterfly have been destined to nourish some important lizard, who would otherwise have become the progenitor of the human race? You open the door of your time machine and the year 2018 looks really weird, changed! And if this happens with a butterfly, what would happen if you hauled back a person?
So the easy solution to this problem is to go back with your time machine and choose a person to fish out of the past that absolutely will not have a butterfly effect. Someone who is in the historical record as not in the biosphere loop; whose body was entombed in the Antarctic ice ever since he died there in 1912. Bingo: Oates is the perfect candidate for a time travel experiment. He slams the door of his tent, walks out into the storm, and there you are, offering him a ride into the far future. But then, to write the novel (REVISE THE WORLD, from Book View Cafe), I needed to master the vocabulary and worldview of an Edwardian gentleman. I despise with a passion the kind of historical novel where the 14th century Benedictine novice in northern France is named Lindsay and sounds like she was born in Chicago in 2003, don’t you? Oates had to sound and think like a guy born in 1880.
So I learned how, and made him sound right. And it was fun! And then, because I had acquired a nifty new skill writing in tight historical voice, I turned to another pet notion of mine. It has long been on my mind that Wilkie Collins sadly dropped the ball. How could he have failed to realize after writing THE WOMAN IN WHITE that there were many many more stories to tell about his incomparable heroine Marian Halcombe? The lady was the Modesty Blaise of the 1860s, Wonder Woman in a crinoline!
Well, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. I wrote A MOST DANGEROUS WOMAN, starting in Serial Box. Deliciously, they’re going to publish it in the grand Victorian style, in episodes. I am borrowing as possible from the sensational novels that Collins and Dickens pioneered, not only cliffhangers but secret documents, anarchists, unwed mothers staggering through the snow, enraged menfolk with riding crops, and unpleasant incarcerations in Newgate Prison. And I fixed what a modern reader would feel are the problems with those period novels. Marian deals more realistically with the commonalities of women of the period: menstruation, pregnancy, birth control (or the lack thereof). She chafes at the things that would annoy you or me — the way she absolutely cannot hold a job, the way she has to act like a foolish female. She has to be a perfect Victorian lady who just happens to be able to kick ass through her petticoats and hoop skirt. I am a fan of the fast and fun ride in fiction, but it has to be historically accurate!
Gillian: It reads to me as if your journey into history has been influenced very strongly by the stories you can tell. Mine has been influenced by the stories others tell. That leads to profound differences in the way we see history, I suspect. Let’s explore this for a bit.
For me there’s not a right and a wrong way of talking about the past: there are only consequences. When a writer explains that they’ve entirely ‘got’ the Middle Ages and have understood the cultural differences dividing us from them, the immediate consequence is (I admit) that I mentally classify that work as a particular kind of fantasy. Not one with magic, but an alternate world history, with changed values but similar events. This is because that claim changes the story if the writer doesn’t know what they know ie if they think they know everything. The sources for that claim to hold don’t exist for the Middle Ages: it’s that simple.
I own a pronunciation dictionary published in the late nineteenth century. This sort of document combined with early recordings give us an inkling of what some people would have sounded like at that time, in that place. We’re getting closer to being able to interpret them that tightly. We simply don’t have that kind of source for the Middle Ages.
It’s like a recipe, and the less we know about a place and time, the more interpretation the writer has to do. The more of the ingredient ‘sources can’t help you here – work it out’ plays a role. The biggest problem for me, with the Middle Ages, is one that the best writers seldom fall into. Call it a misreading of the recipe. “There’s no secondary material on this. Scholars haven’t written about it. I can’t read Latin/Old French. Let me make it up. I can, you know.” And they do, which is a good thing… and can result in amazing works. They’re set in made-up worlds, though. Not historical worlds. (I talk about things like this in History and Fiction, if you want to explore it a bit more.)
Because I’m a Medievalist, my examples for this are often from the Middle Ages. Our historical knowledge for Western Europe is changing apace. Archaeological work used to be considered a useful discipline but not central. We looked at politics and stories to find out about the Middle Ages. Right now, archaeology is critical. It’s driving changes in understanding daily life, for one thing, ranging from nutrition to how tightly wool was spun. This helps us (as fiction writers) interpret a truckload of written evidence. It means we can bring some parts of the Middle Ages alive like never before. This is what my novel (to be reissued with a brand new introduction, later this year) Langue[dot]doc 1305 did. It’s not most fiction writers know, but very like the one historians knew that precise moment I wrote it.
Why? (I’m full of questions today) I read an analysis of a stew that had once been in a pot (I love archaeology!) and compared it with what we know about cooking from other sources. I looked at reports of bone analysis and found out a lot about who died and where. I was doing that research for another project (The Middle Ages Unlocked, which Katrin Kania and I wrote at the request of writers) and I mainly worked on sources for the Languedoc for the novel, but my background knowledge changed the way I made decisions about plot and character: the novel became quite different to other time travel novels because of this. When we take understanding back into the secondary sources we read for fiction we’re capable (if we do the work) of using history quite differently in our fiction.
Historians a novelists alike have the problem of preventing cultural baggage determining the plot. Having a society without women, without minorities who did exist and with minorities who didn’t, without basic amenities (cleanliness!) without a sense of what that society was like. This comes down to what I call cultural baggage, but learned initially as historiography and ethnohistory. It’s only seeing others in the past through rose-coloured glasses or through hate-coloured glasses or not seeing them at all or only seeing them in predetermined ways.
That’s a new part to the question and a really good one to hand over to you on. There are two juicy subjects here, the first is what sources you used to build up those subjects so very thoroughly that they worked in your fiction, and the other is how you handle your baggage. for we all have that baggage and it’s a constant battle to remember what it is and how it affects your work. I say this for myself, with my heartfelt anguish.
Brenda: I rely a lot on written material. (Alas, it’s really difficult and expensive to physically get to Antarctica and I probably never will achieve it.) With Titus Oates I was fortunate in that every man on Scott’s expedition kept a journal — not only was it a Thing at that period. Everyone was encouraged to. The scientists kept scientific journals, everyone else just scribbled in notebooks. Also everyone wrote letters home, which were very often kept and published later. I have read just about everything every man on the Scott expedition ever wrote. What I look for is word usage, rhythms of speech — how they talked. Because I want the historical characters to sound like they’re of their time.
As to the things that -don’t- appear — profanity, for instance, was totally omitted, also everything involving sex. You wouldn’t put cuss words in to the letters home, because they were almost certainly going to be read (even read aloud) by your proud mother or fond sisters, or shown to visitors at the tea table. Oates was one of the most dazzling cussers on the Scott expedition — it’s in the other explorers’ journals. The very sailors on their ship were awestruck, British sailors who were probably foul-mouthed beyond anything we can imagine. Not a word of it got into his letters home to his mother. I had to make up his foul language from whole cloth (with much assistance from dictionaries of Edwardian profanity) because there’s nothing to quote.
The same things pertain in the period novels. Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens never used profanity, because their works were being printed in magazines, and being read aloud by the family fireside. Women (especially in Dickens) were sock puppets, so good and proper than you want to slug them one. Even Marian Halcombe, a proto-feminist heroine, has her role carefully truncated by the author. She’s a thrilling presence in the first half of THE WOMAN IN WHITE but in the second half she’s a clinging vine, laid low by typhus and the Victorian proprieties. The literary conventions of the day simply required you to have the hero in charge. The only active woman with agency was the villainness (as in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s LADY AUDLEY’S SECRET) and it was essential that she come to a bad end before the last page.
Which is why historical fiction is so fine. We can -fix- it. Have you read Geraldine Brooks’ MR. MARCH? It’s the story of Mr. March, father of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy of LITTLE WOMEN. In the original novel, as you probably recall, Marmee (Mrs. March) is full of platitudes, a truly dull character. In MR. MARCH she’s a creature of passion and drive, someone you could actually envision wanting to have dinner with. And I have handed back to Marian all the agency that Collins was obliged to strip away from her. Victorian England was weighted heavily in favor of money and marriage; if you a woman with neither like Marian you were toast. So I fixed it. A well-heeled husband of notable affection and appetite, and she’s free to do anything. And, I will point out, a husband you love gives you lots of motivation, when anything threatens him. I hate to contemplate how often I’ve put Mr. Theophilus Camlet into dire peril so that Marian can rescue him.
Gillian: I feel that we’re at the beginning of a conversation. I won’t try to sum it up or conclude it. Instead I’ll say “watch this space” and invite you back sometime.