Writing The King’s Favorite

From a dedicated and, I guess, decent enough scholar to an unabashed and unapologetic novelist, my journey has culminated in a novel employing my previous scholarship and deep interest in one of the most fascinating, yet still generally under-appreciated, periods of English history—the Restoration.  The novel The King’s Favorite (published by an independent press in the summer of 2018) is a mystery thriller featuring fictional and factual characters—most notably Lady Castlemaine, Nell Gwynn, and Charles II.  The genesis of the novel goes back almost twenty years, when I was mixing my scholarly work with my dormant love of theater, which recommenced in 1986 when I agreed to portray Ernest in Wilde’s memorable comedy.  In addition, I wrote thirty-five plays from 1994 to 2011, one of them being “The King’s Favorite,” a play I didn’t intend to cast and present to an audience as I did the others.  The following year, at the 2000 SEASECS conference in Savannah, I read a paper on the construction of the drama, which concentrated primarily on four women–two fictional and the other two being Barbara Villiers and Nell Gwynn.  Returning home after the conference, I deposited the paper in the archives, assuming I would do nothing more with it.

Unknown woman, formerly known as Nell Gwyn.  Studio of Sir Peter Lely.  Oil on canvas, circa 1675.  National Portrait Gallery, UK.

Turning from playwriting to fiction, I was fortunate enough to have a number of novels accepted for publication by several independent presses, most with contemporary settings, although two were set in 1897 and another in 1860.  Only then did I buckle under the weight of guilt for ignoring the period that inspired half of my academically published work.  All right, then—my next novel would have the Restoration as a backdrop, but what kind of novel would it be?  A sweet yet tragic romance featuring the son of one of Charles II’s ministers and the Puritan daughter of one of the men executed in 1660 for signing off on the beheading of Charles I eleven years earlier?  Or how about a paranormal novel featuring James, the Duke of Monmouth, and the sale of his soul to an enticing devil in disguise named the Duchess of Dybbuk?  Why not a delicious and graphic shocker about Queen Catherine’s complete mental collapse and the subsequent murder of every woman her husband had ever slept with?  A blood and guts corker with vast amounts of actual blood and guts strewn in every nook and cranny of Whitehall?  But then I thought, “What about my old closet (and closeted) drama ‘The King’s Favorite,’ now collecting dust and cobwebs?”

King Charles II, attributed to Thomas Hawker.  Oil on canvas, circa 1680.  National Portrait Gallery, UK.

Being a frugal writer of scholarly books and articles, I hated wasting anything I found valuable from my research.  Therefore, I would send smaller pieces to the likes of Notes & Queries, The Scriblerian, and Restoration.  Because I carried over that frugality to my novel writing, I decided to use the play and the title for my novel about the period.  But I needed more by way of a plot to flesh out the work.  Accordingly, I chose to expand the plot by using a plot—against Charles II’s life.  But a fictional attempt on the king’s life wouldn’t be enough to involve all the central characters, I concluded.  I needed something else—something juicier than a mere assassination scheme.  “Think,” I said, “what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you see the word ‘Restoration’?”  Well, I hesitated not a whit in coming up with the answer–SEX.  With that ingredient thrown into the mix, I was ready to write.

Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland (ca 1641-1709) c. 1663-65.  By Sir Peter Lely.  Oil on canvas.  Royal Collection Trust, UK.

The book opens with the discovery of the king’s most recent favorite, the lovely Elizabeth Keller (fictional), lying dead in one of the bedrooms at Whitehall.  So we commence with the “who-done-it” and “why-was-it-done” right off the bat.  The book doesn’t lack for suspects—one being the notorious and irrepressible Lady Castlemaine, who has long been a subject of fascination to me.  Without sounding too démodé, she tops the list of historical women I’d like to have a private cup of tea with in the darkest corner of Whitehall.  As for Nell Gwynn, she heads the category of historical women with whom I’d most like to drink beer at a ball-game.  Placing the spotlight on Charles, Nell, and Barbara especially was a delight, and I included as much historical accuracy as possible, even quoting what they actually said or what others said they actually said.  The fictional women characters are in my most humble opinion also captivating and intriguing.  The reader might also find enjoyable the appearances of Rochester and Frances Stuart—as well as the fictional males with their dastardly colluding and conniving.  (My SEASECS friends—female and male–can wonder if I modeled any of the characters on them).

In addition to publishing work on Wycherley, Dryden, Pepys, Cibber, Garrick, and Sheridan, my love of and experiences in the theater demanded that I write into the novel a number of scenes set at the Kings Theatre.  Here I was forced to give Tom Killigrew the old heave-ho and replace him with a fictional character involved in the comings and goings of the plots.  But actual actors and actresses are mentioned and/or discussed (some substantially) by the characters, as are some forty other historical persons—from Peter Lely and the Duke of York to Queen Catherine and Louise de Kérouaille.

I decided on a date for the events of the novel (later autumn of 1670) and since I realized I wouldn’t be able to find a time when all I wished to depict would be perfectly accurate, I pulled out my artistic license—saw that it was still valid—and “bent” a few months this way and that to make everything fit.  For example, I slightly delayed Barbara’s elevation to the title of Duchess of Cleveland.  As for the speeches and meetings I created, they were also shaped by our knowledge of the events of that year and the historical Charles, Barbara, and Nell.  I was furthermore determined in my fictional dialogue to advance the spirit of wit that we find so darn appealing in the period.

In short, it was a most enjoyable project—one that proved the non-adage, “You can take the boy out of the scholarly pasture (through retirement), but you can’t take that pasture out of the boy.”  The odors are just too enticing to close one’s nose to.

Janet Lunn and the Serious Work of Writing for Children

Janet Lunn, a writer of historical fiction for young people and a strong advocate for the importance of children’s literature, ruefully claimed that it was not an esteemed occupation. But her description of the arduous, two-year process that went into her books establishes that she did not distinguish between texts for children and adults. When asked why she wrote for children she said that “my head is full of stories, and when I write them, they always turn out to be for kids.” Her books contains those necessary tugs between authenticity and accessibility, the familiar and the strange, that create the special brew that we expect when we pick up any historical novel. She follows the classic method of describing major historic events in North American history in terms of small communities and individual lives.

Born in Texas, she spent most of her childhood in New England and moved to Canada to attend Queen’s University. She spent the rest of her life there, much of it in an eighteenth-century house in Hillier, Prince Edward County, Ontario, where some of her writing is set. According to the obituary in the Globe and Mail, most of her working life was dedicated to children’s texts, as a writer, a book reviewer, and the first children’s book editor for Clarke, Irwin and Co. She was a founder of the Writers’ Union of Canada, which she led from 1984-1985, the first children’s writer to do so.

She writes that British children’s author Rosemary Sutcliff created myth through attention to both historical detail and the specific characteristics of place, a description that applies equally to herself [1]. Her Hawthorn Bay trilogy, comprising The Hollow Tree (1997), Shadow in Hawthorn Bay (1988), and The Root Cellar (1981), follows the fortunes of a community initially torn apart by the American Revolutionary War, through the settlement of the Loyalists in southeastern Ontario, the arrival of Scottish immigrants, the American Civil War, into the present. The inclusion of A Rebel’s Daughter: The 1837 Rebellion Diary of Arabella Stevenson and the biography of Laura Secord, an iconic War of 1812 figure, creates a path through Canadian history’s formative events, from the American Revolution to within a few years of Confederation, comparable to Sutcliff’s novels about Roman and Saxon Britain.

The first two books, which are most relevant to The 18th-Century Common, are typical: she does not hide the conflicts of the past, create false heroes, or sugarcoat her characters. Maud’s House of Dreams: The Life of Lucy Maud Montgomery, describes the difficulties of the motherless girl’s childhood, her fraught relationship with her stepmother, an engagement that she realizes is a mistake, and her grandmother’s declining health: “She may have been in the early stages of senility or Alzheimer’s Disease…but all that Maud knew was that she was very difficult” (126).

The Hollow Tree is set in New England at the beginning of the Revolutionary War. The rupture in familial and social relationships caused by competing loyalties to the Crown and the nascent United States are depicted through the experiences of Phoebe Olcott, the daughter of a Patriot, who, after his death, goes to live with her Loyalist relatives, the Robinsons, in a small town in Vermont, where the Loyalists are in the minority. Deborah Williams, whose husband, John, is rumored to be fighting on the British side, and her four children are dragged from their house in the early hours of the morning, forced into their oxcart, and sent away with a few possessions; a prized family clock is stolen from the cart. When Deborah protests, “Where will we go? We’ll starve!” the ringleader replies, “Starve if you must…that ain’t no never mind of ourn” (22). Meanwhile, Phoebe learns that her beloved cousin, Gideon, is a spy for the British. The next morning, his body is found hanging from the “Liberty Tree”:  “On his shirt a note was pinned. It read ‘Death to all Traitors and Spies’” (32). Her cousin Anne attacks her: “You did this. You and your father and his rebel friends!” (33). Bereft, she visits the place where she, Gideon, and Anne used to meet. Reaching into a hollow tree where they had left messages to each other, she finds a packet “addressed to Brigadier-General Watson Powell, at Fort Ticonderoga.” The packet is wrapped in a paper directing that, should Gideon be captured, it should be delivered to the Mohawk leader, Elias Brant (35-36). The text is in code, but it contains an uncoded request for safe passage for three New York families, the Collivers, the Andersons, and the Morrisays.

Thus begins Phoebe’s long and dangerous journey, which finally ends in Canada amongst the expatriate Loyalists. Along the way, she is befriended by Peter Sauk, a First Nations man, and his family; she exchanges her own clothing for his sister’s so that she can travel through the woods more easily. She is robbed by both rebel and British soldiers, and she concludes that the signature of war is that it causes good and decent people to do terrible things to each other. Nor does she absolve herself. When she first meets the Loyalists, who have left the town shortly after herself, Anne still holds her responsible for Gideon’s death. Thus she does not tell any of them of their mission. But when they are reunited and Anne wonders why Phoebe did not ask for her company on the mission, Phoebe realizes that “[i]n fact, … she had never considered Anne’s thoughts or feelings about anything” (196). The reconciliation of Patriot and Loyalist, and Phoebe’s marriage to Jem Morrisay, are the foundations for the new community in Upper Canada.

Shadow in Hawthorn Bay pulls together three of the dominant cultures in the settlement of Upper Canada: the First Nations, the Loyalists, and the Scottish immigrants. It takes place in 1815-1816, three years after the War of 1812. In her brief biography, Laura Secord: A Story of Courage, Lunn explains, “Neither the British nor the Americans won the war. The only people who really won were the Canadians. The boundary lines between British North America and the United States remained unchanged” (n.p.). One of the characters in Shadow in Hawthorn Bay, who arrived there as a child, describes it more personally: “Then, when we hadn’t more than just gotten ourselves settled into these backwoods—not quite thirty years later—didn’t those old Yankee neighbours come along and start another war! They thought they’d kick us out of here too. Well, I guess they got a surprise!” (105-106).

The protagonist, Mary Urquhart, from the Scottish Highlands, hears the call of her cousin Duncan Cameron through her “two sights,” and she sets out on a hazardous passage over the Atlantic to the settlement in what is now southeastern Ontario. When she arrives, she discovers that her relatives have just left, and Duncan is dead. She settles uncomfortably into the Loyalist community, which includes Phoebe and others from the previous book. They have no patience with her strange Highland ways and reject the idea of the second sight. When her prediction that there will be no summer comes true, some of them accuse her of causing those events and remove their children from the school where she teaches. They distrust her for being on good terms with the First Nations people, in whom she sees many of the characteristics of the Highlanders, especially their quiet speech and knowledge of the medicinal properties of local plants.

By incorporating Mary’s “two sights,” Lunn aligns with Walter Scott’s claim that the supernatural is appropriate when it represents the cultural norms of a novel’s setting. Lunn presents these visions as true for Mary and a cause of fear and skepticism in the community dominated by pragmatic English descendants. The story also presents the dark side of early settlement life: the whiskey-fueled rape of a young woman; the mother whose infants die of neglect while she retreats into alcoholism.

In the Quill and Quire review of The Hollow Tree, Sarah Ellis remarks that “In language and in her portrayal of attitudes, Lunn pays her material and her readers the respect of recreating a time that was genuinely different.” Lunn fulfills the purposes of  both historical and young adult fiction, focusing on a young protagonist as she learns about herself and a world that is both recognizable and different from our own.

Note

[1] Lunn, Janet. Myth, Story and History. Helen E. Stubbs Memorial Lecture. Vol. 7. Toronto: Toronto Public Library, 1996.

Books by Janet Lunn referred to in this piece:

The Hollow Tree. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.

Laura Secord: A Story of Courage. Illus. Maxwell Newhouse. Toronto: Tundra Books, 2012.

Maud’s House of Dreams: The Life of Lucy Maud Montgomery. Toronto: Doubleday of Canada, 2002.

A Rebel’s Daughter: The 1837 Rebellion Diary of Arabella Stevenson, Toronto, Upper Canada, 1837. Dear Canada Series. Toronto: Scholastic Canada Ltd., 2006.

The Root Cellar. Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys Ltd., 1981.

Shadow in Hawthorn Bay. Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys Ltd., 1986.

“Roguish Passions”: A Conversation About The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

Scholars Joe Drury and Danielle Bobker discuss how a recent novel — The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee — evokes an “engagingly louche” eighteenth century for young adult readers.

Joe Drury: I’m not a great reader of historical fiction nor of YA fiction, so I felt some trepidation accepting your invitation to co-write a review of The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue. But the title and the blurb were just too delicious to resist: the protagonist and narrator, Henry “Monty” Montague, Viscount of Disley (why “of” I’m not sure), is the troubled son of an earl recently expelled from Eton and is now setting off on his Grand Tour with his friend Percy and sister Felicity, eager to indulge his “roguish passions” for gambling, late-night drinking, and philandering with both women and men.

Danielle Bobker: These premises are pretty compelling, I agree. As is Monty himself, right from the start. He’s on the top of my list of the book’s virtues.  I did some googling and it turns out this is Mackenzi Lee’s second novel. Her first book, This Monstrous Thing, a steampunk retelling of Frankenstein, won her a lot of fans. Monty’s voice makes it easy to see why she’s been so successful with YA readers.

Joe: Yes, he’s engagingly louche, isn’t he? One part witty Restoration libertine and one part James Boswell of the journals. I was interested to see that Lee cites Boswell’s journals as an influence in a note at the end and, as a Boswell fanboy, I couldn’t help but enjoy the moment when his travelling effects showed up in the second half of the novel.

Danielle: At the same time, Monty’s campiness belongs very much to our own moment: I mean in his attitude as much as his language. For instance, when he watches his best friend stretch himself in bed in the opening pages: “Percy’s showy about so few things, but he’s a damned opera in the mornings.” Or, when the two of them are actually at an opera house half way through and Percy needs help but Monty is stunned: “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I’m fishing bare-handed in my stream of consciousness for some way to take charge of this situation and be what he needs, and I’m coming up empty.”

The style of Monty’s wanting is not that of any seventeenth- or eighteenth-century rake that I know. He’s more in the mold of the eminently likeable, and eminently marketable, Hollywood romcom rake: Hugh Grant as Daniel Cleaver in Bridget Jones’ Diary. Or whoever the genderqueer boycrush of the hour is (I wish I knew).

On second thought, Monty’s really more like a typical romcom heroine. He loves Percy right from the beginning and waits in agony for signs that the feeling is mutual.

Joe:  The fresh diction and familiar teen angst are great, I agree—and essential to Lee’s whole project of inviting young readers to imagine their way into the lives of the eighteenth-century elite. Interestingly there are good eighteenth-century literary precedents for this kind of approach. For instance, as many critics have pointed out, Ann Radcliffe’s novels are set in late-medieval continental Europe, but feature heroines with the values and sensibility of eighteenth-century English women. The historical dissonance between characters and the world through which they move is part of the fun in a Gentleman’s Guide too.

Danielle: Pointing to Radcliffe is especially apt—because when Monty, Percy, and Felicity find themselves in Venice, this travelogue / picaresque / coming of age story becomes a Gothic novel too.

Lately I find myself wondering about the ongoing appeal of the eighteenth century, both to academics and in the popular imagination. Seeing it through Lee’s eyes reminded me that at least one answer lies in the variety of interrelated escape fantasies that the period so readily supports. The fantasy of adventure, of novelty and discovery, definitely. But also the fantasy of total entitlement encapsulated in the figure of the irresistible young rake.

I like how Lee’s all-you-can-eat approach to eighteenth-century literary genres seems to amplify the energy and rashness of adolescence that the novel captures so well in other respects too. (Even if adolescence wasn’t really invented until the nineteenth century.)

And Lee gives us a nice point of reference for making sense of the novel’s generic wildness in Monty’s sister Felicity: Felicity initially appears to be to a female Quixote, but in fact she’s just put the covers of romance novels over the many other books, including medical treatises, that she really wants to read.

Joe: Yes, that bit was great. But there are other kinds of anachronism I found more jarring, only because they seemed unintended. The novel sometimes seems to be set in the early 1720s, or some point during the Regency in France. But other details—such as the reflections on the slave trade and the abolition movement—imply a much later setting. I found the descriptions of eighteenth-century fashion, carriages, and clothing delightfully vivid, but the portrayal of eighteenth-century institutions rather sketchier: Felicity appears to be on her way to some kind of late nineteenth-century European “finishing school,” while Monty is able to walk into the branch of a “French partner institution to the Bank of England” in Marseilles, though he does at least flirt with a male bank clerk to get his cash rather than use an ATM machine.

Danielle: And other things point back several centuries: the alchemy, for instance, which is especially focused around a mysterious ebony box that Monty steals from a duke’s chambers at Versailles, and the notion that people having epileptic seizures have been possessed by the devil.

Joe: Yes, although Lee would probably argue that many of those kinds of “pre-modern” or “superstitious” beliefs would have persisted into the supposedly enlightened eighteenth century. We have never been modern and all that.

And I wonder about Felicity as a character as well. She seems to be symptomatic of an annoying school of thought that assumes that for a work of art to be feminist, it has to depict “powerful,” ultra-capable women doing kick-ass things like Wonder Woman or Angelina Jolie in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, whereas I’m always trying to convince my students that a work of art can be just as, if not more, effective as feminist critique by representing women who are completely deprived of power and the capacity to act because of their circumstances and the society in which they live. Think of Clarissa or Calista or, even a character from a comic novel like Marianne Dashwood. In these stories, patriarchy isn’t so easy to overcome as it is for lucky Felicity. I’ve nothing against kick-ass women (and there are plenty of great ones in eighteenth-century literature, of course), but I felt Lee missed an opportunity with Felicity to give her readers a richer, darker, less comfortable view of what it would have been like to be a woman in eighteenth-century Europe.

Danielle: I see what you mean about Felicity. She is a composite ideal of Lee’s liberal feminist femininity: intellectually autonomous; literary; career-minded; not particularly invested in male sexual approval yet also attractive—above all, highly competent. The character of Percy, a stoic and unassuming person of color, is burdened with blandness in the same way.

Joe: Yes, it is just as easy for Percy to move through this world, even though he is an epileptic of mixed race who is in love with a man. People notice that he is not white and he and Monty have the occasional discussion about the difficulties of the closet. But these difficulties never become more than just opportunities for the expression of a rather pious liberalism. Why not show us what it would have been like to be the victim of homophobia or racism in eighteenth-century Europe rather than just have people talk about it?

Danielle: Although Lee plays with lots of genres, her attachment to the moral promise of sentimental fiction is quite rigid, especially to its central promise to punish or reform vice and reward virtue. Maybe this is the kind of reassuring moral universe that Lee believes YA readers prefer? (My six-year old children certainly do.) But the title makes it sound like vice and virtue will be embraced equally—like in Casanova’s autobiography or Dangerous Liaisons. It’s false advertising.

Joe: Yes, totally. There is, alas, far more virtue than vice in this book.

Danielle: And, ironically, by presenting Felicity and Percy as morally flawless, Lee actually recapitulates Monty’s basic socioeconomic, racial, and patriarchal privilege: only the rich white guy has the right to be complicated.

Hearing from Felicity and Percy as narrators would have gone a long way to redressing this imbalance, I think. I don’t necessarily agree that their suffering more would have made them better vehicles of critique. But I do think that Lee could have shown that, like Monty, but for good reasons often much more than him, these characters also have to learn to navigate, skirt around, or, occasionally, go head to head with dominant power structures. Even Pamela Andrews has edges.

Joe: Fair enough, although just as he is the only one who is allowed to be complicated and flawed, I’d argue that Monty is also the only character who really suffers and the only one as a result who undergoes any kind of moral development. The ending reminded me a bit of Game of Thrones, where unsympathetic characters like Jaime and Theon only begin to acquire moral feeling and complexity once they’ve been disabled or mutilated in some way. But George R. R. Martin and co also show us what it feels like to be a dwarf or a bastard or a woman in Westeros. In this novel, it feels as if the woman and the black man are just there to be props for the white male protagonist’s liberal moral awakening. Why couldn’t Felicity actually behave like one of Haywood’s heroines instead of just pretending to read about them? My understanding is that YA fiction often goes to these darker places these days—I’ve seen The Hunger Games!—so I don’t think it’s necessarily a question of audience. And as you say, eighteenth-century literature often has a harder, Hobbesian edge so it’s not a question of period authenticity either.

Danielle: Yes, it’s disappointing that, rather than using the past as a pretext to explore ongoing ethical dilemmas, Lee simply encases her fixed contemporary moralism into this vaguely historical package. So, ultimately, I guess we suggest enjoying The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, then chasing it with something a little stronger.

Further reading recommended by Joe and Danielle:

Literature of libertinism

  • John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, Poems
  • Eliza Haywood, Love in Excess, Fantomina, The Masqueraders, Anti-Pamela, The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless
  • Casanova, Memoirs
  • James Boswell, The London Journal, The Grand Tour
  • John Cleland, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure
  • Choderlos de Laclos, Dangerous Liaisons
  • George Etherege, The Man of Mode
  • Aphra Behn, The Rover
  • William Wycherley, The Country Wife
  • The Libertine Reader: Eroticism and Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century France
  • When Flesh Becomes Word: An Anthology of Early Eighteenth-Century Libertine Literature

Other literature of the period

  • Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho, The Italian, The Romance of the Forest
  • Charlotte Lennox, The Female Quixote
  • Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility
  • Samuel Richardson, Pamela

Relevant academic studies

  • George Haggerty, Men in Love: Masculinity and Sexuality in the Eighteenth Century
  • Susan Lanser, The Sexuality of History
  • Alan Bray, The Friend
  • Randolph Trumbach, Sex and the Gender Revolution
  • Rictor Norton, Mother Clap’s Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England, 1700-1830
  • Karen Harvey, Reading Sex in the Eighteenth Century: Bodies and Gender in English Erotic Culture

Descendants of Waverley: Romancing History in Contemporary Historical Fiction

Descendants of Waverly by Martha Bowden

When I began thinking about writing Descendants of Waverly: Romancing History in Contemporary Historical Fiction (Bucknell University Press 2016) more than a decade ago, I was working within a set of assumptions that could only exist in an insufficiently researched critical framework. For example, I accepted the commonly held views that historical novels were defined by date- and character-driven markers (a certain distance in the past; a fictional character participating in a historical event or a historical figure whose interiority the novel reveals), that Sir Walter Scott “invented” the historical novel, and that the right way to go about the book was to choose a number of contemporary historical novels that take place in the eighteenth century, my area of expertise, and show where and how they get the period right or wrong, at the same time tying the whole thing, somehow, into the Waverley Novels. Tidy systems are always the result of insufficient information.

A wise colleague pointed out that the third assumption would result in a mechanical and repetitive book. I was dubious about the second, because, after all, I had read A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe and a little research negated it altogether. I found that Scott did not claim to have invented the form. In his introduction to the works of Defoe, he notes Defoe’s brilliance at bringing alive a historical event, and only regrets that he did not write a novel about the Great Fire of London. In the General Preface to the Magnum Edition of the Waverley Novels, he claims that “I felt that something might be attempted for my own country, of the same kind with that which Miss Edgeworth so fortunately achieved for Ireland,” identifying the regional novel as an ancestor [1]. He also reveals what he learned when completing and revising Joseph Strutt’s historical novel, Queen-Hoo-Hall, in 1807-08, an attempt that failed: “I thought I was aware of the reason, and supposed that, by rendering his language too ancient, and displaying his antiquarian knowledge too liberally, the ingenious author had raised up an obstacle to his own success” (xvi).

Frontispiece and title page of Ivanhoe, Magnum Edition

The first assumption stuck with me for a while, until I read Andrew Beahrs’s article, which develops a theory of the genre that interrogates not the what (period and character) but the how (the author’s method). From this article, I developed the theoretical model of the tensions between authenticity and accessibility, and the familiar and strange, both of which are exemplified in Scott’s assessment of Queen-Hoo-Hall [2]. Scott did not invent the historical novel, but he did play an important part in both establishing the accepted version of it and in theorizing how it works. Next, I was startled by Scott’s description of his books as “historical romances,” and his proclivity for subtitling his novels “A Romance.” Another assumption was the standard history of the novel: an evolutionary development in which the romance mutated into the modern novel and thus disappeared. Clearly, that was not the case when it comes to historical fiction. Anne H. Stevens’s work helped me see how the historical novel gradually disentangled itself from Gothic fiction, which was also described as “romance” in the period. The idea of romance, which vivifies the historical record, adding emotions, motivations, conversations and all those details of an event that are never recorded, became the central idea in my book, the effect created by the tensions inherent in the form.

The liberation from the mechanical casebook approach allowed me to write a text that reworks the history of the novel as a genealogical rather than evolutionary growth. Writers of historical fiction today need not have read a Waverley Novel in order to be influenced by him, any more than we need to know who our great-great-grandparents are for our genes to be affected by them. The first section contains two chapters that develop this critical framework. In the second, I devote two chapters to the establishment of authenticity while retaining accessibility, the first on literary intertextuality and the second on the use of images, such as portraits, both historical and fictional. Readers of historical fiction are interested in the “truth” of the narrative, but they generally are concerned about the what and I am interested in the how, which is the function of romance.

The third section covers the metamorphosis of the form, with the first chapter discussing three subgenres: the embedded narrative, the historical detective novel, and young adult fiction. It ends with an analysis of Iain Pears’s Stone’s Fall, which fuses most of the genres that I discuss in this section. Just as we don’t have just one set of great-grandparents, so the historical novel, while retaining the tensions, the movement into the grey, unknown spaces, and the romance of its earliest forms, has developed a hybridity through the influence of new genres. John Frow’s article [3] gave me a way to describe what happens when C. J. Sansom combines a classic historical form with the equally classic detective novel. It is not necessary for the Shardlake series to reside in one and only one generic box. We can discuss it in the context of historical fiction or detective fiction, as a historical novel with detective fiction characteristics, or as a detective novel with a historical setting. The second chapter is dedicated to biographical romance, the most common of the contemporary developments. The third and final chapter engages with “the historical novel at play,” those fictions that combine historical situations with elements of the supernatural and narrative playfulness. I realize that there are other subgenres of historical fiction, but I had to stop somewhere, and these five forms are representative of the wider scope of the genre.

Writing this book was a great pleasure because it allowed me to investigate one of my favorite forms of fiction while employing my scholarly interest in the development of the novel. I realized that I have been reading historical fiction for most of my life; the first playground reading recommendation that I remember was from a classmate who loved Elizabeth Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond. In the young adult fiction section I return to another early love, Rosemary Sutcliff, whose books I first discovered on those magical shelves of books at the back of my elementary and middle school classrooms. The Dawn Wind is the one I remember most clearly from those days; this book allowed me to discover more of her work. The good news is that, even after years of scholarly investigation, I still read historical fiction for pleasure.

The cover of the book shows three of my 1880 Wedgwood plates depicting scenes from Ivanhoe, photographed by Lauren Holt. I am very grateful to Bucknell University Press and Rowman & Littlefield for giving me this kind of latitude to get an image that is just right for the book, and for Lauren Holt’s professional expertise.

Notes

[1] “Scott on Defoe’s Life and Works, 1810, 1817,” in Defoe: The Critical Heritage, ed. Pat Rogers, 66-69, 1972; see also his references in to Defoe in “Essay on Romance.” Walter Scott, “General Preface,” The Waverley Novels, Volume I: Waverley. Magnum Edition, 48 vols, 3rd ed. Edinburgh and London, 1830, xiii.

[2] Andrew Beahrs, “Making History: Establishing Authority in Period Fiction.” Writer’s Chronicle, 38, no.1 (September 2005): 34-40.

[3] John Frow, “‘Reproducibles, Rubrics, and Everything You Need’: Genre Theory Today.” PMLA 122, no. 5 (October 2007): 1626-34.

Humanities Viewpoints: Hamilton

HumanitiesViewpointsLogoHumanities Viewpoints is a monthly podcast from the Wake Forest University Humanities Institute.  It features short conversations between host Aimee Mepham, Humanities Institute Assistant Director, and a WFU faculty member working in the humanities.  The conversations focus on a timely subject – a current event, holiday, cultural moment – and how this subject connects to the faculty member’s field, teaching, and expertise.  The podcast debuted in 2014, and WFU faculty members from Art History, English, German, History, Religious Studies, and Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies have participated.

The September episode, the first of the 2016-2017 academic year, features a conversation between Mepham and Jake Ruddiman, Associate Professor of History at Wake Forest University, on Hamilton, the man and the musical.  Ruddiman, a scholar of the American Revolution, received his PhD from Yale and joined the WFU faculty in 2010.  His first book, Becoming Men of Some Consequence, presents the experiences of young men fighting in the Revolutionary War.  His next projects explore the Revolution in the Southeast.

Hamilton:  An American Musical tells the story of founding father Alexander Hamilton.  It was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also starred in the title role.  It debuted Off-Broadway at the Public Theatre to critical acclaim and transferred to Broadway in August 2015.  Since then it was nominated for a record-setting 16 Tony Awards, winning 11, including Best Musical as well as awards for Best Book and Best Score for its creator, Miranda.  It was also the recipient of the 2016 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album and the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  It’s even made its way into Wake Forest University’s undergraduate admissions application as a short-answer question.

During the conversation, Ruddiman discusses the Hamilton phenomenon, including what Hamilton, the musical, gets right, what it leaves out, and what may have captivated Lin Manuel-Miranda’s imagination, inspiring the creation of his version of this “Founding Father without a father.”

One of the things Ruddiman commends the musical for is the ideas it presents about history itself.  He says, “Lin-Manuel Miranda gets something profoundly correct about history, and that history, the story, first is contingent . . . and the second thing is that history, as a record of the past, of events, is incomplete.  The line that I love and that other historians have loved is, ‘Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?’  That is a historiographical statement, a philosophical statement about history if there ever was one.”

Appropriating the Restoration: Fictional Place and Time in Rose Tremain’s Restoration: A Novel of Seventeenth-Century England

King Charles II by John Michael Wright. oil on canvas, circa 1660-1665 NPG 531 © National Portrait Gallery, London

King Charles II by John Michael Wright. oil on canvas, circa 1660-1665 NPG 531
© National Portrait Gallery, London

The historical proliferation of authors “borrowing” the works of other authors has led to numerous critical studies in appropriation, what Christy Desmet characterizes as “literary influence . . . grounded in metaphors of conflict.”  The concept may also be defined as taking possession of a text for one’s own, often cultural, purpose.  In doing so, the author creates a “dynamic intertext:  the works reflect the cultural charge that produced them, but the works may go on to affect the culture once they are re-produced.”[1]  But while authors have appropriated literary works for centuries, they have also appropriated historical settings and places well outside their own realities, creating new works in historical settings that reflect a new cultural purpose.  “Both the Elizabethan age and the Restoration,” explains Martha Rozett, “are frequent subjects of popular formula-fiction romances due to their distinctive, easily replicated atmospheres; both also have inspired a great deal of serious, traditional historical fiction and fictionalized biography as well.”[2]  However, comparisons between historical fiction and actual history, contends Alan Marshall, often reveal that the two have little in common, “yet both genres possibly still have much to learn from one another.  Indeed if popular and just occasionally academic history has become more novelistic in tone at times, then sometimes historical novels have become more academically serious.”

Certainly, scholars have long had a love/hate relationship with Restoration England’s excesses as well as with its political heavy-handedness.  Alexander Pope’s rather unflattering reference in Imitations of Horace to “Days of Ease, when now the weary Sword / Was sheath’d, and Luxury with Charles restor’d” plays on those excesses as well as on the fickle masses, as Dryden says, “Now Whig, now Tory.”  The restoration of Charles II, however, was a momentous occasion, celebrated certainly by a large majority for bringing order—a prerequisite for eighteenth-century political and cultural stability.  This “spirit of order” was essential to a cultural harmony following years of Civil War and its absence of a controlling monarchy—whether good or bad.  This harmony, however, argues Gerald Marshall, was bought at the price of personal identity, making the Restoration not unlike the Protectorate in some ways.[3]

Nevertheless, whatever its political and social flaws, the Restoration presented authors who had distance from it a picture of relief—a tyrant removed and his right-wing religious conservatism with it.  It was the sixties—albeit the 1660s—a time for tricksters, rakes, subversive women and sexual energy on the stage.  It was a time of fun for those with the means to partake of it.  The “good old days” are, of course, always better from a distance, but writers on through the twentieth century found the Restoration an apt setting for their fictions about prostitution, political intrigue, and tragic or comic historical events, especially for the cinema.

restorationcoverRose Tremain’s 1989 bestselling novel Restoration; A Novel of Seventeenth-Century England, made into an Oscar-winning film for Best Art-Direction/Set Decoration and Best Costume Design in 1995, embraces both the excess and the tragedy of Restoration England.  As Marshall concludes, Tremain’s Restoration

. . . is not Scott by any means; it is very readable for one thing, has engaging characters and is not that improbable in its story. . . .  Instead it is really a novel about ideas, which happens to be set in the past, and it can lead us to ponder and then go on to explore many of these ideas in a genuine historical context, which is perhaps what the really good historical novel should do.  (2)

Wedding Scene, Restoration, 1995; Sam Neill, Robert Downey, Jr., Polly Walker

Wedding Scene, Restoration, 1995; Sam Neill, Robert Downey, Jr., Polly Walker.

Restoration follows characters such as the rakish Robert Merivel and Quaker John Pearce through life-forming events as a paradoxical Charles II exudes an omniscient presence over them and the nation.  The King replaces God in his consuming power, sensitive to all things, and he demands order in his kingdom and a particular skill from his subjects, stressing that no man should rise above his own talents.  Tremain’s novel capitalizes on the plague and the fire to move the story as well, but she relies particularly on the opulence of the court and on stories about Charles II’s personality for particular scenes.  When the King arranges a loveless marriage between Merivel and Celia, one of the King’s mistresses, in order to have her close by, he also presides over the lavish arrangements.  “For the King,” Merivel tells us, “moves like God in our world, like Faith itself.”[1]  Merivel relates, “How shall I describe my wedding?  It was like a tolerably good play, a play of which, long after the thing was over, certain lines, certain scenes, certain arrangements of people and costume and light return vividly to your mind, while the rest remains dark” (25).

Theatre images like this one abound in the novel.  Once he becomes a ward of the King, Merivel becomes an actor in an elaborate scheme, abandoning his love for and skill in medicine for the pleasures at court, also ignoring the King’s warning that no man should rise above his own talents.  Merivel fails at learning to play the oboe, at painting, etc.; but the King accepts Merivel’s exploits, at least for a while, because, as he says, “You are utterly of our times.”  When the King gives Merivel and Celia his house at Bidnold, Merivel delights in this newfound wealth—wealth that will prove to have many strings attached:

Now, I had thirty rooms in which to spread myself.  In one almost circular room in the West Tower, I let out an involuntary yelp of delirium, so perfect did the space seem—for what, I didn’t know or care. . . .  I had come at last to . . . ‘the divine banquet of the brain’.  And the banquet was mine!  I sat down and took off my wig and scratched my hogshair and wept for joy.  (27)

Finally, Tremain’s novel appropriates time and place for a story that depends on the political climate, the social hierarchy, the scene at court and the many eccentricities prevalent in Restoration London.

So why “romanticize” the Restoration, a time rife with crime, disease, poverty, and discrimination, and a period with no antibiotics, no human rights, and no social mobility?  Maybe we are nostalgic because it was a new beginning, a move away from civil war and religious oppression.  It introduced women on the stage and a savvy, if not sexy, King.  After the Puritans, opulence was fun again, sex was fun again.  It was, after all, the 60s.

Notes

[1] Robert Sawyer, Victorian Appropriations of Shakespeare:  George Eliot, A. C. Swinburne, Robert Browning, and Charles Dickens (Madison:  Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003):  16-17.  Sawyer quotes Desmet from their earlier co-authored study.

[2] Martha Tuck Rozett, “Constructing a World:  How Postmodern Historical Fiction Reimagines the Past.”  CLIO 25 (1996).

[3] W. Gerald Marshall, ed., Introduction to The Restoration Mind (Newark:  University of Delaware Press, 1997):  8-9; 11.

Waverley, Scotland’s Referendum, and Scottish Identity

Joseph Slater, active 1803–died 1847. A Sketch of Sir Walter Scott in a Garden (undated).  Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Joseph Slater, active 1803–died 1847. A Sketch of Sir Walter Scott in a Garden (undated). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Before the referendum on Scottish independence this past September, commentators pointed out that the historic vote was taking place during the septcentennial of the Battle of Bannockburn, in which Robert the Bruce led an outnumbered Scottish army to victory over English forces.  They speculated this timing would inspire Scots to fight for their freedom from English influence once again.  (Commentators did not point out that election day itself fell on the birthday of Samuel Johnson, who contributed more than his fair share of anti-Scottish jibes.)

Now that Scots have voted to remain with the United Kingdom, perhaps it is more appropriate to recognize that the vote was also held during the bicentennial of Walter Scott’s Waverley—a novel that at once celebrates a distinctively Scottish identity and defends the established Union as a valuable political arrangement.  This complex statement of Scotland’s union with England has echoes in the referendum itself.

Scott’s first novel concerns Edward Waverley, an aimless young officer in the British army who becomes immersed in Highland culture and political intrigue in the weeks leading up to the Jacobite Rising of 1745.  A number of factors inspire Edward to eventually join the Jacobite cause; perhaps the most important is that the romantic atmosphere and culture of the Highlands excite his vivid—but undisciplined—fancy.  A “creature rather of imagination than reason,” Edward is captivated by the region’s natural beauty, the power of its poetry and music, as well as the hospitality, civility, and strength of its people [1].  Even Bonnie Prince Charlie himself is “generous . . . courteous . . . [and] noble-minded” (312).  Edward is not wrong to recognize the value of these traits; his mistake is letting them overcome his reason and seduce him to Jacobitism.  (When describing Robert Burns’s political sympathies, Scott used language very much like what he used to describe Edward’s flirtation with treason:  “I imagine his Jacobitism, like my own, belonged to the fancy rather than the reason” [2].)

In addition to depicting the romance of the Highlands, Scott elevates elements of Scottish law.  When Edward’s friend Fergus Mac-Ivor, a Highland chief complicit in the Jacobite Rising, is condemned to death, he scoffs at the notion that the English were more civilized and enlightened than Highlanders.  He describes the brutal punishment awaiting him—he would be hung (though not to the point of death), disemboweled, decapitated, and then publicly displayed.  Fergus remarks:

This same law of high treason . . . is one of the blessings, Edward, with which your free country has accommodated poor old Scotland—her own jurisprudence, as I have heard, was much milder.  But I suppose one day or other—when there are no longer any wild Highlanders to benefit by its tender mercies—they will blot it from their records, as levelling them with a nation of cannibals.  The mummery, too, of exposing the senseless head—they have not the wit to grace mine with a paper coronet; there would be some satire in that, Edward.  (348)

Contrary to conventional wisdom, and in a remarkably bitter tone, Fergus contends that Scottish law was more humane and civilized before reform imported the “tender mercies” of the English.  The English have barbarized the Scots, not civilized them.

Scott ends the novel by emphasizing the positive elements of Highland culture, mourning that it “has now almost entirely vanished from the land, and with it, doubtless, much absurd political prejudice; but, also, many living examples of singular and disinterested attachment to the principles of loyalty which they received from their fathers, and of old Scottish faith, hospitality, worth, and honour” (363).  The single negative trait he identifies in this passage—“political prejudice”—refers to Jacobitism, but some English characters harbor misguided anti-Scottish political prejudices, so there can be no sense that such bigotry is a purely Scottish shortcoming.  Scott explains that the novel was an attempt to ensure that Highland virtues were not completely lost, to “preserv[e] some idea of the ancient manners of which I have witnessed almost the total extinction” (363).  Saree Makdisi has described such passages as “claims to a sentimental Jacobitism, to the trappings and rituals of a mythic Highland past” by which Scott tries to preserve the “anti-modern otherness” of the Highlands [3].

Yet the novel is certainly not an unalloyed celebration of all things Highland, nor a dive into history’s dumpster to retrieve Jacobite ideals.  Scott challenges the premise of the ’45 when Edward, before he joins the cause, contemplates:  “Since [James II’s abdication in 1688] four monarchs had reigned in peace and glory over Britain, sustaining and exalting the character of the nation abroad and its liberties at home.  Reason asked, was it worth while to disturb a government so long and established, and to plunge a kingdom into all the miseries of civil war, for the purpose of replacing upon the throne the descendants of a monarch by whom it had been wilfully forfeited?” (149).  And because Edward’s eventual allegiance to the Jacobite cause is grounded in Quixotic folly, it does not withstand its early encounters with the enemy.  Just before his first battle against the British forces he abandoned, Edward recognizes the foreignness of his new army:  “he saw the wild dress and appearance of his Highland associates, heard their whispers in an uncouth and unknown language, looked upon his own dress, so unlike that which he had worn from his infancy, and wished to awake from what seemed at the moment a dream, strange, horrible, and unnatural” (236).  The Highlanders are too foreign, too distinct from Edward’s experience of Britain, for him to feel that he belonged in their army.  The “anti-modern otherness” of the Highlands is too much for Edward.

Jacobite foreignness is an important part of the pro-Hanoverian thread in Waverley.  Because they fought to re-establish the Stuarts as the monarchs of the United Kingdom (and not to separate Scotland from that kingdom), Jacobites can be considered Scottish nationalists insofar as the Stuarts themselves were Scottish, and therefore more British than the German Georges.  Yet Scott challenges even the superior British-ness of the Stuarts, frequently reminding readers that Prince Charles and his allies were as continental as they were Scottish.  Kenneth McNeil argues that Fergus in particular “embod[ies] a particular mode of French masculinity that Scott elsewhere associates with the failings of French culture” [4].  This guilt by association with the French would have been especially damning when the novel was published, just at the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

The blend of Hanoverian unionism and Scottish nationalism apparent in Waverley is also manifest in Scott’s own life.  He helped organize King George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822, staging elaborate ceremonies to commemorate the first visit of a British monarch to the Scottish capital in nearly two hundred years.  But he also fought parliamentary efforts to reform the Scottish jury system to more closely resemble England’s, and others to prohibit Scottish private banks from issuing notes of currency under five pounds.  Scott’s protests against the former ultimately failed; he was successful in the latter, which is why his portrait still graces all notes minted by the Bank of Scotland.

Which brings us back to the recent referendum.  In its editorial endorsing a vote against independence, the Edinburgh newspaper The Scotsman, asked: “Does the Union cast a dark shadow over us?  It does not seem that way, Scotland is a prosperous, peaceful, successful country.  We are confident in our national identity with our own distinctive society.  We have our history and our heritage.”  This expresses simultaneous, not divided, loyalty to the United Kingdom and Scotland.  Based on such sentiments, one may infer that the 27% of Scots who voted “no” out of “a strong attachment to the UK and its shared history, culture, and tradition” also felt a strong attachment to Scotland and its own distinctive history, culture, and tradition.  It is a fresh version of the complicated patriotism that Scott depicted vividly in Waverley and elsewhere.

I doubt that many Scots were asking themselves, HWSV?—How Would Scott Vote?  But Scott’s simultaneous embrace of Hanoverian rule and celebration of Scottish identity help clarify some of the impulses behind the results of the referendum [5].

———————————–

Notes:

[1] Walter Scott, Waverley, 138.  Subsequent citations will be provided in the main text.

[2] John Gibson Lockhart, Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott, 4.181.

[3] Romantic Imperialism: Universal Empire and the Culture of Modernity, 97.

[4] Scotland, Britain, Empire: Writing the Highlands, 1760-1860, 98.

[5] For a broader consideration of Scottish literature’s relevance to the referendum, see Evan Gottlieb’s recent piece in the The Huffington Post.

Blurred Lines: When Fiction Tells the Truth

Olaudah Equiano was most certainly a key figure in the abolition movement of the eighteenth century.  His narrative, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African (1789), is one of the best known of the ere and represents the story of thousands of Africans captured and forced to live a life of misery and captivity in foreign lands.  However, in a 1999 issue of Slavery & Abolition, Vincent Carretta argues that Equiano may have been born in South Carolina and therefore falsified the parts of his narrative that described his journey across the Atlantic.  I argue that the information, if true, does not detract from the value of the narrative.  In fact, I suggest that Equiano’s representation of the truth is merely a reflection of how difficult it is to make a distinction between fact and fiction.  What Equiano testified to is the traumatic experience many of his friends and family had to experience; he was simply the most proactive and vocal in sharing the truth.  Writing his story while including small embellishments based on the honest and painful truths of others around him does not make him a liar.  They make him an author of historical fiction.  Authors of historical fiction desire to tell the truth, and in order to do so, they must exist slightly outside the realm of known fact.  In his novel Someone Knows My Name, originally published as The Book of Negroes (2007), Lawrence Hill reveals heart-wrenching details of the slave trade and ends up portraying history authentically.

Set in the mid- to late-eighteenth century, Someone Knows My Name begins with an aged Aminata Diallo (an African who was captured and sold into slavery at age 11) looking back on her life.  She has found herself in London working with the British Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.  They have asked her to write a memoir in the fashion of historical author Olaudah Equiano.  This frame for narration allows Aminata to recall painful events in her past with accuracy and with the wisdom of age.  We learn that as a young child she watched both of her parents brutally murdered by her captors.  She travels months on foot to a port on the coast of Africa, where she then experiences the horrors aboard a slave ship.  Once she arrives in America, she is sold to a South Carolinian indigo plantation owner.  Her memories include both beautiful and painful recollections as well as her impression of the world as a child.  For authors of historical fiction, including Hill, the overall goal is to create an authentic representation of life in the past.  Much of the authenticity in a novel comes from a recreation based on fact, artifacts, and firsthand accounts.  Difficulty arises when the author includes too much historical description and overwhelms the reader or not enough knowledge and the novel thus loses some of its desired impact.  In order to include authentic details of the slave trade, Hill must address controversial issues like imperialism, religion, and rape.

Lawrence Hill does not hesitate to address the tough and often gruesome aspects of slavery.  The authentic portrayal of life as a slave, from capture to eventual freedom, creates a dynamic backdrop for the character-driven novel; however, his attention to detail does not derail the effect of the novel.  On the contrary, the authenticity enhances the novel’s aim.  Fortunately for historians, the slave trade industry kept detailed and extensive records.  Upon investigating many of the specific details about slavery in the novel, Hill’s research becomes evident.  The description of the slave ship Aminata travels on is a perfect example of the type of authenticity Andrew Beahrs describes [1]:

Everywhere I turned, men were lying naked, chained to each other and to their sleeping boards, groaning and crying. Waste and blood streamed along the floorboards, covering my toes…Piled like fish in a bucket, the men were stacked on three levels—one just above my feet, another by my waist and a third level by my neck…The men couldn’t stand unless they stooped—chained in pairs—in the narrow corridor where I walked. On their rough planks, they had no room to sit. Some were lying on their backs, others on their stomachs. They were manacled at the ankles, in pairs, the left ankle of one to the right ankle of the other. And through loops in these irons ran chains long enough for a man—with the consent of his partner—to move only a few feet, toward the occasional cone-shaped bucket meant for collecting waste. (63-64)

The passage above is an example of Hill’s authenticity in the novel.  Details like the exact location of the chains on the men’s ankles and the horrific conditions match descriptions found in history books.

Very few firsthand accounts exist describing life as a captured African aboard the slave ships, but Equiano shares the collective experience of many Africans in his memoir:  “The closeness of the place, and the heat and the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us.  This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now become insupportable.”  As Carretta concludes in Equiano, the African: Biography of A Self-Made Man, the memoir is enhanced by the apparent fabrication because Equiano becomes the voice of the voiceless.  While he might not have experienced firsthand a slave ship, the power of his written voice moved people into action.  His purpose was to tell the truth of slavery, and whether or not he experienced every single gruesome detail is irrelevant in the end.  In order to tell the truth, Equiano needed to move outside the lines of personal history for an authentic representation of the entire slave journey.

In the same way, Hill romances history in order to tell the overall truth of the slave trade; the detailed and fictional accounts of Aminata’s thoughts and feelings humanize an often number-based representation of history.  Someone Knows My Name fleshes out the skeleton  that history books give us; Aminata’s journey resonates because she is human.  We can picture the young girl raped and forced to carry on working as if nothing happened (Hill 161) in a way not permitted through the statistics presented in textbooks.  Using Aminata’s life as a framework, Hill demonstrates the devastating effects of each part of the slave trade industry.  The novel exists successfully in the realm of historical fiction because Hill balances authenticity with accessibility and creates an accurate portrayal of life as a slave and, subsequently, the freed slave.  The familiar human emotions of fear, love, and hope enhance the experience and are not outweighed by the strange elements, like slavery or life in the 1700s.  Delicately interwoven with fact, the romance of history in Someone Knows My Name brings to life a difficult and often obscure part of history.  Hill’s novel is a work of historical fiction that reveals more about historical events than any textbook ever could.

—————-

Note:

[1] Beahrs, Andrew.  “Making History:  Establishing Authority in Period Fiction.” The Writer’s Chronicle 38, no. 1 (September, 2005):  34-40.

The Eighteenth-Century Settings of Walter Scott’s Waverley Novels

Sir Walter Scott, 1771 - 1832

Sir Walter Scott, 1771 – 1832.  National Galleries Scotland

This year marks the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Waverley, Walter Scott’s novel about a naïve English soldier’s involvement in the Jacobite Uprising of 1745.  Scott’s first novel and the nearly 30 works that constitute the Waverley Novels had a dramatic effect on the course of not only fiction, but history writing as well.  Scott’s synthesis of historical subject matter, supernatural mystery, and romantic intrigue made his novels both enormously popular and critically acclaimed—no small feat considering the depths to which the genre’s reputation had sunk by the early nineteenth century, as Ina Ferris has shown.

Scott’s influence extended across Europe and into the United States.  His works inspired paintings by (among many others) J.M.W. Turner, John Everett Millais, and Eugène Delacroix, as well as operas by Gaetano Donizetti and Arthur Sullivan.  When Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery, he chose his new name based on a character from Scott’s poem The Lady of the Lake.  In the Virginia town where I grew up, there is a street called Waverly [sic] Way, not far from Rokeby Farm Stables; I currently teach about 100 miles away from the town of Ivanhoe, VA.  Along Central Park’s Literary Walk, a statue of Scott accompanies ones of Shakespeare and Robert Burns.  Even his critics acknowledged his enormous influence: Mark Twain blamed the Civil War on Scott, “For it was he that created rank and caste [in the South], and also reverence for rank and caste, and pride and pleasure in them.” To illustrate his distaste, Twain named the wrecked steamboat in Huckleberry Finn the Walter Scott.

In short, Scott was enormously popular and influential as both a poet and a novelist—but few people today read his work for pleasure. [1] Go to a bookstore, and you’ll find maybe one or two of his novels, while his contemporary Jane Austen has rows and special displays devoted to her work, not to mention sequels and rewrites featuring zombies and vampires.  Scott’s broader cultural presence has declined as well.  Although Season 3 of Downton Abbey included a couple of references to his poetry, to my knowledge the BBC hasn’t adapted a Walter Scott novel since it produced Ivanhoe in 1982. The 1995 film Rob Roy, starring Liam Neeson and Jessica Lange, bears no relation to Scott’s novel of the same title.  Perhaps the most recent popular film at all relevant to Scott is the 1993 comedy Groundhog Day, in which Andie MacDowell’s character scolds Bill Murray’s with lines from Lay of the Last Minstrel.  (Murray, who plays a weatherman, expresses surprise when she tells him the author of the lines: “I just thought that was Willard Scott.”)  Outraged politicians occasionally recite Scott’s lines from Marmion—“O, what a tangled web we weave, / When first we practise to deceive!”—but invariably attribute them to Shakespeare.

Why is Scott so forgotten?  The scholar Ian Duncan explains that he “tell[s his] students: everybody loves Jane Austen.  The real challenge is to say you love Walter Scott.” [2] And a challenge it can be, for a handful of reasons, including Scott’s convoluted plots, digressive narratives, and heavy use of dialect.  But perhaps what deters most general readers from picking up a Scott novel is precisely why most readers of this website would be interested in doing so: the novels draw their dramatic intensity from specific historical events—and very often these events are rebellions, riots, invasions, and other crises of the eighteenth century.

It’s only a slight overstatement to say that the Waverley Novels can be understood as a fictional history of the eighteenth century, albeit from a distinctively Scottish perspective rather than the England-centric model to which most readers may be accustomed.  Scott himself explained that his first three novels were meant “to illustrate the manners of Scotland at three different periods. Waverley embraced the age of our fathers, Guy Mannering that of our own youth, and the Antiquary refers to the last ten years of the eighteenth century.”  Scott’s interest in the eighteenth century continued after this initial trilogy and he would return to Jacobite intrigue.  His fourth novel, The Black Dwarf, involves James III’s failed effort to invade Britain in 1708; the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715 lurks in the shadows of Rob Roy; and Redgauntlet concerns a fictional aborted Jacobite conspiracy of the 1760s (and, unlike his other novels, is told in the very eighteenth-century epistolary style).  But Scott wasn’t exclusively a chronicler of various Jacobite failures.  The historical event behind The Heart of Midlothian is the more obscure 1736 Porteous Riots in Edinburgh, and The Bride of Lammermoor depicts the contrasting consequences of the Act of Union for two Scottish families.  (In the original edition of The Bride of Lammermoor, published in 1819, Scott set the action around the time of the Glorious Revolution.)  “The Highland Widow” and “The Two Drovers,” stories from Chronicles of the Canongate, portray Scottish characters struggling to reconcile their beliefs and customs with their nation’s union with England; the third and longest tale, “The Surgeon’s Daughter,” revolves around characters’ attempts to find fortune in India in the late-1700s.

Scott’s eighteenth-century résumé expands if you follow the lead of many scholars and broaden the timeline to include the Restoration.  Old Mortality concerns the Killing Time of the late 1600s, when Scottish Covenanters clashed with the government of Charles II; The Pirate is set in the Scottish islands of 1689 (and contains countless references to John Dryden and Restoration theater); and the Popish Plot is a major plot device in Peveril of the Peak.  These settings and events afforded Scott opportunities to explore his favorite themes, including the contentious and often violent transition from one set of laws and traditions to another, whether it be the last gasps of Highland feudalism in Waverley or efforts to reform the Northern Isles in The Pirate.

Although I have been emphasizing Scott’s interest in eighteenth-century subject matter, his interest in the period extends beyond that.  He was informed by eighteenth-century thinkers, particularly Edmund Burke and Adam Smith, and devoted much of his career to the study of eighteenth-century poets and novelists.  He published editions of John Dryden and Jonathan Swift, for which he also wrote biographies; and he was involved in an early attempt to canonize the British novel, contributing biographies of Daniel Defoe, Tobias Smollett, Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne, Horace Walpole, and others to Ballantyne’s Novelists’ Library.

I don’t expect Walter Scott’s novels to be re-imagined to include kilt-wearing vampires any time soon.  But I am confident that readers interested in the eighteenth century would be drawn to Scott’s representations and interpretations of what he recognized as a tumultuous and exuberant age.

—————

Notes

[1]   My point about Scott’s lack of an audience pertains to general readers; among scholars, he has been enjoying a revival for some time.  Edinburgh University Press recently completed its new scholarly editions of the novels and has begun work on editions of the poems.  This is in addition to the many scholarly books and articles about Scott’s work that have been published in the last two decades.

[2]  Approaches to Teaching Scott’s Waverley Novels, 19.

British Historical Fiction Before Scott

The eighteenth century has served as the backdrop for some of the greatest historical novels, from William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844) to Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety (1992) and Thomas Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon (1997).  But the century also produced a large number of historical novels, many of which are less well known.

Conventional literary history for a long time credited Sir Walter Scott with inventing the genre of the historical novel with his Waverley Novels (1814-32) — a myth that Scott helped to promote. The Waverley Novels were indeed groundbreaking, with record-breaking sales and international influence. The success of Scott’s gripping tales of Scottish history (among other things) inspired other novelists to try their hand at mixing history and fiction, leading to great 19th-century works like Alessandro Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi (1825), Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris (1831), and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869).

Despite Scott’s influence and popularity, he wasn’t the first historical novelist. It’s always hard to identify “firsts” of any sort, for no writer exists in a vacuum. In the case of the historical novel, you can find precursors and models for the historical novel going all the way back to antiquity. And I mean all the way back — Homer was a historical novelist of sorts, though he wrote in verse.  Closer to the modern era, 17th-century French writers such as Mme de Lafayette intermingled fictional and historical characters and events in her great historical novel La Princesse de Clèves (1678).

In the last few decades of the 18th century, historical fiction became very popular with British readers. The novels of the middle of the 18th century tended to be sentimental or comic tales set in contemporary England, modeled after the two leading figures of the day: Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding. But beginning in the 1760s, the dominance of Richardson and Fielding began to wane, and novels set in different historical eras and geographic locales began to compete for readers’ attention. Dozens of popular novelists produced historical fictions of varying sorts in the half century before Waverley. A few of these writers, such as William Godwin and Maria Edgeworth, are well known to people who study 18th-century literature, but the majority of these novels are by forgotten or even anonymous writers.

The reason for this increase in the production of historical novels, and novels more generally, in the last third of the 18th century, has to do with the growth in popularity of circulating libraries throughout Britain. Circulating libraries were lending libraries, where anyone, for a fee, could borrow volumes of the latest publications. They flourished especially in big cities like London and Edinburgh and in fashionable spa towns like Bath and Cheltenham. Books were very expensive in the 18th century, and public libraries didn’t yet exist, but circulating libraries allowed middle-class readers access to a wide array of publications. Three-volume novels (which could be loaned out simultaneously to three different readers, a volume at a time) were especially popular, and as libraries expanded the demand for new titles grew.

My book British Historical Fiction before Scott (2010) examines the popular historical novels of this era. In it, I look at 85 novels published between 1762 and 1813 to explore how the conventions of the historical novel took shape during this period, how the genre grew out of but eventually branched off from the Gothic tradition, and how it was received by readers and reviewers. These novels show a tremendous amount of variety in setting, style, and quality. The settings can range from the ancient world in Alexander Thomson’s Memoirs of a Pythagorean (1785) to 17th-century France in Ann Yearsley’s The Royal Captives (1795), an early take on the man in the iron mask story. Stylistically these novels range from sentimental weepies like the anonymous Lady Jane Grey (1791) to boys’ adventure tales in James White’s The Adventures of King Richard Coeur-de-Lion (also 1791).

The earliest historical novels I look at are also important texts in the history of the Gothic novel. Thomas Leland’s Longsword, Earl of Salisbury (1762), Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), and Clara Reeve’s The Old English Baron (1777) often feature prominently in histories of the Gothic novel. All of these texts are set in the Middle Ages and draw upon features of the medieval romance: women in peril, creepy castles, young heroes with mysterious origins, and often supernatural occurrences. At the same time, these Gothic romances also highlight aspects of their historical settings — the Crusades in the case of Walpole, the Barons’ War in the case of Leland, and details of medieval customs in the case of Reeve.

Sophia Lee’s novel The Recess; or, a Tale of Other Times (1783–85) illustrates the intersections and the common origins of Gothic and historical fiction. Critics continually face difficulties in labeling her remarkable novel: it seems to be a Gothic fiction because of its use of conventions such as secret passages and persecuted maidens and its atmosphere of gloom and terror, yet it lacks what has come to be seen as the defining feature of the Gothic, the supernatural. Lee does employ many of the features of the historical novel: the story takes place at a particular historical moment (the late 16th and early 17th centuries), depicts real historical figures (Mary, Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I, the Earl of Essex, James I, and many others), and features major historical events such as Essex’s campaigns in Ireland and Mary’s execution.

After the success of The Recess, the histories of the historical novel and the Gothic novel begin to part ways.  In the 1790s especially, the “Gothic” branch of this tree emphasized the supernatural, suspense, and shocks. Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796), for example, features a historical setting (the Spain of the Inquisition), yet historical backdrop is subordinate to scenes of horror. In contrast, a different subset of novels aimed to depict scenes from the past, featuring subtitles such as “A Tale, Founded on Historical Facts” (Henry Siddons’s William Wallace, 1791), “A View of the Military, Political, and Social Life of the Romans” (E. Cornelia Knight’s Marcus Flaminius, 1792), and “Anecdotes of Distinguished Personages in the Fifteenth Century” (The Minstrel, 1793) that highlighted the historical source material for the novels and their didactic function.  Sites like the Internet Archive, Project Gutenberg, The Hathi Trust, and Google Books have made many of these early historical novels freely available online and to download, so interested readers can now easily explore this corner of literary history.