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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

26 July 2007

Fact and Fiction: The Parallax View

After my last post here -- about using real, historical characters in fictional narratives -- my husband Michael reminded me about a quasi-philosophical paradox that some time ago he'd found in an essay by the literary historian and historical novelist Umberto Eco. Eco says that while it might always be possible, given new historical evidence, to learn that Napoleon didn't really die on St. Helena, it's impossible that we'll ever learn that Superman wasn't Clark Kent.

Weird, isn't it, how certain fictions have a kind of cast-in-stone quality that fact does not?

All of which seemed deeply relevant to me last week, when I read the wonderful historical novel, March, by Geraldine Brooks -- which just happened to receive high praise on this very blog (thanks to Amanda, whose enthusiasm sent me to one of our many to-be-read bookshelves, finally to take March down from it, open it, and swallow it whole).

It’s a Civil War novel, and as bloody a one as I would want to read, with horrifying violence, not only in battle but in the more daily details of slavery and the profiteering and other brutalities that war attracts to it.

I've got to admit that the American Civil Way is a subject I've rather shied away from. But what enchanted me here, and what kept me reading, was the narrator, Captain March -- who (as anyone who has read Louisa May Alcott's Little Women will know) was Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy's father. And who, as everyone who read Little Women will remember, was too old to serve in that war but who, as a committed abolitionist, joined up as a Union chaplain.

Reading March so many years after I'd read Little Women, I felt as though I was seeing history through the eyes of someone whose reality was as indisputable as Eco’s Superman.

Because back when I was 9 and 10 and 11 (I reread Little Women more times than I can count) the Marches' New England parlor with its shabby hearthrug and old piano might have been a room in one of my friends' houses; I might have gone there to do my homework after school. Mr. and Mrs. March were ideal imagined parents -- like the ones you sometimes meet at childhood friends' houses, these were parents who were benign, admirable, a little more high-minded and less everyday than my own.

The Marches' new England was a kind of Hogwarts for the little Muggle reader I was -- and rightly so, because Louisa May Alcott packed all the energy of the intellectual bohemia she grew up in (the transcendentalist, abolitionist world of Emerson and Thoreau) into the idealized childhood world of her novel for girls.

Reading March was like finally getting the other side of the story, in the way that becoming an adult doesn't obviate one's childhood memories but rather creates a context for them. The paradox underlying Brooks' novel is that the anodyne, rather saintly and disembodied messages that Mr. March sends home to his "little women" are, of course, sanitized, moralized versions of the huge, raw, hideous political history of the war he lives through, and how it's overwhelmed him and destroyed his moral certainties. The parts he couldn't tell Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy (or their invisible admiring 9-year-old friend Pam), were the secrets that he revealed in Geraldine Brooks' novel.

The implicit time-travel of March is the novelistic magic of revisiting a beloved site of childhood imagination and getting to see and understand the hidden parts. For me, it's one of the most wonderful paradoxes of reading and writing fiction, a mixture and a muddle and a confusion and a learning all at once.

And it's one that in a small way is familiar to me as a historical romance writer, because one of the ways I like to play with the premises of the Regency romance is to present just a little bit more than the beloved, generally accepted version. As though I were telling the real story beneath the one of the world where we all want to go live. Pssst -- here's a romance heroine who's not so kind to her maid, or a British Home Office that's not above sending out a provocateur to discredit a popular democratic movement.

But the idea of using a fictional character to guide us through a difficult historical landscape -- and a fictional character who has the kind of mythic credibility of the Mr. March of my childhood -- is a strategy that fills me with particular admiration. An imaginary toad, if you will, in a real garden -- where "imaginary" and "real" are not so much opposites but elements of different dimensions. The moments when you can encompass them both in your field of vision seem to give off a shimmer, a depth of field. Parallax vision from paradoxical reality.

I can think of another example of this mode of story-telling -- Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea is told from the point of view of Rochester's mad wife in the attic -- but Rhys's book is more inward, at least in my memory.

Can you readers and writers out there think of others that are more in line with our concerns about historical fiction?

And are you as fascinated as I am, by how the made-up stuff plays hide and seek with the realities of history?

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11 Comments:

Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

In Valerie Martin's Mary Reilly we see the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde through the eyes of a maid in the house, and I think there's another book from the point of view of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's maid.

6:52 AM  
Anonymous Tracy Grant said...

Loved your post, Pam. So many interesting ideas! Sally Beaumann's "Rebecca's Tale" in effect retells Daphne DuMaurier's "Rebecca" from Rebecca's POV (it starts in the 50s with characters investigating what happened, but they find Rebecca's journal and part of the book is that). I often don't like books that jump off from existing classics, but "Rebecca's Tale" was very rich and engrossing in its own right. It doesn't operate on as wide an historical canvas as "March" but it does use Rebecca's story to re-examine ideas about women and men and love and sexuality.

I too love shedding light on the dark corners and explored alleys of the Regency world in my books. It's never occurred to me to use a character from a classic novel to tell my story (and I don't think that's anything I'd ever want to do), but I did have an interesting experience with regard to the facts of a fictional story being set in stone once it's published. I reread my book "Daughter of the Game" before its re-release as 'Secrets of a Lady" to check for typos, reword a couple of sentences that bothered me, etc... I got to one scene where something tragic happened and I found myself thinking "this is really sad, I don't want it to happen." And I realized that while I had total control over that world when I wrote the book, now that it was published it had a life of its own. The re-issue allowed me the fun of tweaking things and adding an epilogue, but the fundamental story that I had created was now beyond my control.

10:22 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Yes, our stories are cast in stone but if you look at it from a different characters' perspective the stone can wobble a little -- the best example of this that I can recall off hand is Mary Balogh's THE PRECIOUS JEWEL where the hero was, in his youth, a victim of his stepmother's advances. Balogh then wrote a book with that very woman as the heroine (sorry the title escapes me) and the scene with the her stepson appears very different in her reality. Obviously I have never forgotten it.

In my own HIS LAST LOVER and the following novella "Child of Her Heart" I have the respective heroines recount their escape from a ruined chateau in France. When compared they're completely different even though the two, as child and governess, were together for the whole experience.

Fascinating post, Pam. It's been awhile since I thought about the varying realities our characters create for us and for themselves. It's something useful to keep in mind as I start this next project.

11:34 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Tom Stoppard's brilliant play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead shows us Hamlet from the POV of two minor characters. And the film version (with Tim Roth and Gary Oldman!) is wonderful. I love this sort of thing.

12:00 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I forgot about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Kalen. And the other suggestions also sound fascinating. Looking forward the epilogues to Secrets of a Lady, Tracy.

Speaking of which, epilogues also sometimes include interesting perspective shifts. I know there's a school of thought among romance writers that epilogues are in some way sort of declasse, but I've never understood why, especially since they can shed new and complex light on fictional reality.

12:53 PM  
Blogger RevMelinda said...

There's Gregory Maguire's "Wicked" which tells the story of the Wizard of Oz from the Wicked Witch's perspective. . .and spawned a marvellous musical of its own.

(Do you suppose that in 50 years someone will write the story of Harry Potter from Draco's POV, or perhaps Hagrid's?)

5:21 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

I'd love to see the Harry Potter story from Draco's perspective. He grew to be a really interesting character.

I read and write epilogues though a friend of mine insists that the reader should be able to figure out the HEA herself (or himself). For me, as a reader, it's a way to hold on to characters a little longer.

5:45 PM  
Blogger janegeorge said...

Marmy is my literary standard, heck, life standard, for motherhood. (No, I don't measure up, but What Would Marmy Do? is always an excellent question.

Sorry Mr. March, but Atticus Finch is my gold standard for fathers, hands down.

I, too, thought of Elphaba after reading this post. Then I asked myself, but what does OZ have to do with history? That's one to ponder on a hot, dry Kansas afternoon. I think Wicked is a modern political cautionary tale, and a lot of fun at the same time.

While I enjoy reading this kind of thing. In my own work I don't think I could get past a personal block that using someone else's character is, well, cheating. I've always wanted to read a (well-done)book about Jane Fairfax in Emma. But write it? No way.

9:35 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Jane Aiken Hodge wrote a very good book called Jane Fairfax, jane -- though I think it still gives Mr. Knightley too much credit. Janet Mullany and I both have ideas for Emma retellings. I guess Emma is the original book for hidden stories, isn't it?

As for Harry Potter, what did folks think of that epilogue? I thought it had a basic rightness to it, and it was fun to see Harry at peace (I don't think it's a spoiler to say he survives), but I thought some of the writing took a nosedive into cliche... "...probably the bravest man I ever knew."

3:43 AM  
Blogger janegeorge said...

Hmmm, I think I did read Hodge's Jane Fairfax many years ago. I read a slew of her books in succession. My memory tells me I found her take on the Regency more Mansfield Park than Emma. Of course, not even the cells in my body are the same as back then, so I can give it another look...

11:34 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Terrific post, Pam (and thanks for the mention!)

There was also -- and famously so because of a lawsuit instigated on behalf of Margaret Mitchell's estate -- the 2002 novel by Alice Randall, titled THE WIND BE GONE -- which was the GONE WITH THE WIND story (same characters) told from a slave's point of view.

I'm still waiting to finish MARCH; it's frustrating because I have so much research to do that I can't get the chance to devour the "pleasure" read that's at the top of my TBR (or to-be-finished) stack.

I love to explore the dark corners as well. When I use actual historical figures in my fiction I never forget that they were real people and therefore were never too good to be true, despite the saintliness often ascribed to them, if they were heroes. Horatio Nelson is a perfect example. He was the greatest naval strategist Britain had ever seen, yet he was a serial adulterer, something that the Empire sought to whitewash, even before he met Emma Hamilton. Interestingly, he was more devoted to Emma than he ever was to any other woman and it was their relationship that was enduring and monogamous. Nelson was also a raving egomaniac. He was a brilliant tactician, yes, but he knew it. And he definitely believed that what he did, he did better than anyone else in the world. And yet he was also an extremely fine leader and captain, and his men adored him for it.

It often frustrates me that reviewers, whether professional critics or the looney-toon "peer" reviewers on Amazon expect fictional characters not to have dark corners. God forbid a hero should not always be a nice guy, or a heroine could be as vain as she could be vulnerable. Especially since my historical fiction is based on actual biography and is extensively researched, I'm not inventing these dark corners to annoy readers who want to sympathize with a character 100% of the time on ever page -- these less-stellar qualities really existed, just as they exist in each of us.

I want to shake readers and reming them, that a generous and vulnerable woman can sometimes be a bitch. Get over it.

9:11 AM  

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