It’s time for some writerly chit-chat with author and writing mentor Sydney Smith. This month we talk about the power of historical fiction.
Napoleon once said, ‘What is history, but a fable agreed upon?’ Standard history books don’t tell the truth. Absolute truth is beyond reach. The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga states that, ‘the historian is a wrestler with the angel of death.’ What so often emerges is a collection of stories, written by those in power, designed to influence future generations with whatever they wanted us to believe. And too many voices are left out.
Some fabulous Australian writers have tried to redress this. Take historian Clare Wright, for example. Her marvellous book The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka won the 2014 Stella Prize. Wright reinstated women to their rightful place in the history books. Conventional accounts of the Eureka Stockade – as a founding legend for Australian democracy – were blind to the high proportion of women living and working on the Ballarat goldfields. They neglected the crucial contributions women made as agitators, petitioners, fund raisers and all-round rabble-rousers. ‘Women were there,’ Wright states in her introduction. ‘They mined for gold and much else of economic value besides. They paid taxes. They fought for their rights. And they were killed in the crossfire.’ Other non-fiction books like Australian Tragic by Jack Marx and Forgotten War by Henry Reynold place forgotten stories back on the historical record.
But what about historical novels? Fiction gives writers freedom to fill in gaps and explore new explanations and theories. Kate Grenville’s The Secret River and Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang are prime examples of this. Novelists can tell a fresh version of history, tales of the vanquished, the outsiders and in my case – the animals.
The novelist is supremely well-equipped to present a different historical agenda. Tolstoy did this in War and Peace, his brick-sized pot-boiler, which argues his ideas about the vicious futility of power, territorial ambition and war. He includes women as central players – because novels have to be about little people if they are to speak to their readers. Natasha Rostova, his main heroine, comes to stand not only for the soul and spirit of Russia but for all that is life-giving and life-sustaining.
The novel can also criticise history’s opinions. In The Child of Time, Josephine Tey has her detective hero turn his attention to Richard III, the last Plantagenet king of England. In his play, Richard III, Shakespeare presents the king as a villain, a child-murderer and a coward. Through her hero, Miss Tey offers an alternative view of Richard, traces the origins of Richard the villain to Sir Thomas More, he who was sacrificed to Henry VIII’s light-fingered attitude to marriage, and to Holinshed, whose Chronicles provided many stories for Shakespeare. Miss Tey notes that both men lived and worked in the service of Tudors. You will recall that Henry Tudor usurped the throne of England by defeating Richard on Bosworth field.
The novel is a polemic. Miss Tey is bent on reversing the historical view of Richard as a bad man. You only have to check out the Wikipedia entry on Richard III to see how her polemic caused consternation amongst historians, some of whom busily rejected her take on the king. For the sake of this blog, it doesn’t matter who was right and who was wrong, though Miss Tey’s argument is persuasive. What matters is that her novel, a classic of detective fiction, put a hissing, clawing cat amongst the fluttering pigeons of academic history.
It’s interesting how you say ‘novels have to be about little people if they are to speak to their readers.’ That of course is the beauty and strength of fiction. Most academic history does the opposite, and is filled with stories of Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, Napoleon and various kings and queens.
I glanced through the historical novels on Booktopia. Many titles point to their strength: The War Bride, The Other Boleyn Girl, The Maid, The Ship of Brides, The Tea Planter’s Wife, Girl of Shadows, Orphan Train, The Potato Factory, The Tailor’s Girl – the list goes on and on. Readers of these novels are drawn to tales of ordinary people.
Tim O’Brien, who wrote novels about the Vietnam War once said: ‘A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.’ Before I began writing my historical novel I asked myself – Is it a great story? Will it reveal some new aspect about the people and wildlife of the period? And lastly, does it deal with issues relevant today? The answers to all three questions was yes.
I’m writing a fresh version of history, giving a voice to the outsiders, the hunted and the animals teetering on the extinction precipice. It’s a unique story. Apart from a little gem, Coorinna, written in 1957, there is no historical fiction concerning the Thylacine. It’s time to fill the gap. My new novel will explore the forces behind the extinction of the greatest marsupial predators since Thylacoleo Carnifex, the mighty marsupial lion, vanished forty-five thousand years ago. What if those responsible weren’t the men who shot and snared them? What part did xenophobia play in their demise? And could the heroic actions of one, young fugitive alter the fate of an entire species?