The Troubles of History

I was twelve years old when I first visited my grandparents’ house alone. It was decided by my father that, considering my grandparents’ advancing age, having three grandsons thrust upon them at the same time was too much – and besides, what could an eight year old, a twelve year old, and a sixteen year old really want to do together, anyway? Better to have each grandson lead his own life, for once, away from the endless scrum of home.

All of this was perfectly fine by me. For the first time I had the small guest room in my grandparents’ coastal Connecticut bungalow entirely to myself, so that neither my talkative little brother or my sullen older one would interrupt my reading with idle chatter and threats to turn off the light already or I’ll mess you up. The early summer air was much cooler in seaside New England than it was in the Mid-Atlantic swamps back home. I stayed up late into the night, reading, appreciating silence, listening to the nearby Amtrak’s mournful horn.

I only read one book during that summer visit. My grandmother – a life-long Anglophile – was a collector of all things Tudor, and in the bedroom, casually discarded, I found a copy of The Autobiography of King Henry the Eighth, a novel by Margaret George. I say novel, though I wouldn’t have recognized it as such at the time. Like most twelve-year-olds, I was a fairly naïve reader, and took the title at face value.

And what a collection of memoirs they were: tragic, sentimental, and crammed full of sex, both real and breast-heavingly imagined. The titular monarch managed to speak with both the authority of kingship and the intimacy of a trusted friend. He bragged of his conquests and begged you to understand his side of the story. He confessed dark secrets. He knew the reader would forgive.

The Autobiography was a real tome: 968 pages, so Amazon tells me, but it felt like two thousand to a twelve year old. Looking back, it seems as if I spent the whole two weeks reading it. I spent my days in pursuits that were pleasant, if a bit quiet: eating turkey sandwiches over endless hands of Hearts, going to the Mystic Seaport, playing croquet – but it was those thrilling nights of Henry’s court I truly remember, even to this day, despite (or perhaps because) I never shared them with anyone. I hid the book under my bed, afraid that if someone knew I was reading it they’d take it away from me.

Why did I practice such secrecy? Partly it was a matter of sensible precaution. There were, after all, quite a few dirty bits in the book, many of which I’m fairly sure, with the benefit of hindsight, did not appear in the historical record. I highly doubt, for example, that Anne Boleyn arrived at a royal dance wearing a harlequin outfit that showed off her pubic hair.
Such are the attractions of fictionalized history.

But I was also guarding the book because I’d become intensely attached to the promise it represented: a portal to another world. L.P. Hartley begins his novel The Go-Between with the memorable lines “the past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” To this one might also add that it is a country you can never visit, except in books – which is one of the great and enduring appeals of historical fiction, and one I felt most intensely, cradling the book towards the bedside lamp.

But is this appeal really just a kind of adolescent fantasy? The chances of my re-reading the Autobiography of Henry the Eighth today seem slim, partly because I prefer to maintain my pleasant memory of hart-hunting and queen-bedding in as pristine a manner as possible, and partly because I’ve become something of a snob about the construction of historical narrative. I don’t think conjuring up the past is as simple as I once did, and I get frustrated when a contemporary novelist assumes a low degree of difficulty. It’s not as simple as adding a patina of dialect and some well-researched scenery, as if 1890’s California were just like our era, only with a few more clapboard houses and “y’alls.” The past is a foreign country – and, in an era of unprecedented globe-shrinkage, perhaps the most foreign one we can find. Henry the Eighth can’t be my confidant; we barely even speak the same language. Any novelist who tries to make me his father confessor is pulling the lamest kind of trick.

A novelist writing contemporary historical fiction has a rough time of it. They don’t have the luxury of the authors of the 13th and 14th century Chinese historical epics, like Wu Cheng’en’s Monkey or Shi Nai-an’s Water Margin, where folklore and fact blended together into a kind of unofficial historical record, with sun-warmed stones giving birth to monkey Bodhisattvas and magical outlaws discussing the necessity of being exceedingly well-hung. We demand accuracy! Nor do they have the luxury of novelty, like the early practitioners of the modern historical novel in English, such as Sir Walter Scott – there’s nothing novel about placing individuals within the tides of history and watching them spin around. We’re too busy being spun around by the tides of history ourselves.

Maybe it’s a result of the tremendous popularity of the romantic historical novel in English, but it sometimes feels as if the genre is too old-fashioned, too sentimental, too ridiculous to merit serious attention, except by twelve-year-olds. I can’t be the only one who feels, upon opening up a book that purports to carry me off to Ancient Rome, a similar sort of shame to the way you feel when someone takes your ten euros in exchange for a cheesy tour through fake catacombs: this isn’t the country I wanted to see.

And yet, critically well-respected historical fiction continues to be produced. One of the most respected novelists currently writing in English, Hilary Mantel, has made her reputation primarily, if not exclusively, through historical novels. The first two books of her Wolf Hall trilogy, Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies, both won the Man Booker Prize. They happen to be about Henry VIII, and so provide an instructive counterpoint to the previously mentioned fictionalized Autobiography. They are not trashy, for one thing. If anything, they are the opposite of romantic: terse, ironic, even a little ruthless.
Mantel succeeds at historical fiction because we never forget the strangeness of the country she presents us, as in this passage, which describes the comet year of 1531:

“The harvest is getting in. The nights are violet and the comet shines over the stubble fields. The huntsmen call in the dogs. After Holy Cross Day the deer will be safe. When [Cromwell] was a child this was the time for the boys who had been living wild on the heath all summer to come home and make their piece with their fathers, stealing in on a harvest supper night when the parish was in drink.”

Always there is the insistence – through references unknown, like Holy Cross Day, and the persistent strangeness of the slightly antiquated language: living wild on the heath, the parish was in drink – that this is not our world. The past always sits slightly beyond our comprehension.

And yet, Mantel wants it both ways. The description pushes us away, but her dialogue brings us in. Her characters do not speak in any kind of Tudor idiom, but in a contemporary fashion. Her Thomas Cromwell resembles the kind of fast-talking political operative you could easily find in a contemporary White House drama. Here is the first exchange between Henry VIII and Cromwell, who will become his most trusted advisor, as they discuss the king’s war plans.

… “Listen to me, master – [Henry says] – you said I should not fight because the taxes would break the country. What is the country for, but to support the print in his enterprise?”
“I believe I said – saving your Majesty – we didn’t have the gold to see you through a year’s campaign. All the bullion in the country would be swallowed by the war. I have read there was a time when people exchanged leather tokens, for want of metal coins. I said we would be back to those days.”
“You said I was not to lead my troops. You said if I was taken, the country couldn’t put up the ransom. So what do you want? You want a king who doesn’t fight? You want me to huddle indoors like a sick girl?”
“That would be ideal, for fiscal purposes.”

We do not know exactly how Henry VIII spoke to his private counselors, but it seems doubtful they did so through the slinging of pithy comebacks.

Mantel is a master of configuring distance. Her descriptions telescope us, make us aware of the vast difference between the early 16th century and now – but her dialogue makes us feel as if we are present for every conversation. Her technique is by no means realistic, but it is immensely satisfying. We are an expatriate in a foreign country. We understand the language, if not the scenery.

I love Mantel, but I can’t help feeling, after several of her books, that this contrast is a kind of trick, a side-stepping of the problem at hand. But it’s an interesting dichotomy, and worth exploring in greater depth than I have time for in this post.

Surely, though, there are other strategies, too — I’m thinking of other authors who adopt historical eras, like Pat Barker and Penelope Fitzgerald; how do they navigate the need for intimacy and the desire for strangeness? Maybe in the future I’ll do a post on Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower, which is certainly quite strange, as far as historical fiction goes, and yet nevertheless provides a great deal of narrative enjoyment…

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