The Making of Historical Fiction
David Taylor, author of ‘The Man Who Lived Twice’, looks at the difference between historical romance and historical realism, and how his book fits between them.
Is your story true? Historical novelists are often asked this question. Sadly, there is no clear-cut answer. Truth is a relative term not an absolute.
The belief that there is a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of later interpretation is complete nonsense. Yes, you can get your dates right. The Battle of Hastings was found in 1066 but where it was fought and why the Normans beat the Saxons are still hotly debated issues.
We know comparatively little about the distant past and what we do know is coloured by the fact that history is always written by the winners.
For instance, in the sixteenth century, a historian’s first duty was to support the shaky Tudor claim to the throne while, even in the modern age of mass communication, those in power have been tempted to suppress serious criticism, which helps to explain gulags and concentration camps.
So where does this leave history? I think it’s like a shipwreck that has sunk out of sight, leaving bits of debris floating on the surface for scholars to salvage. In sifting through this flotsam, historians come to radically different conclusions about the wider picture.
It’s like trying to do a jigsaw when most of the pieces are missing.
‘Facts are not truth,’ award-winning author Hilary Mantel argues, but simply ‘the record of what’s left on the record’ – state papers, birth and death certificates, self-serving biographies or merely scraps of writing.
What’s not there, of course, is unrecorded speech, the testimony of the masses. Hence the need for historical fiction which, at its best, fills many of the gaps and silences in the archives.
Hailed as a new art form, the historical novel actually draws on a very old tradition. Before the written word, our ancestors relied on storytelling, an oral history that was far more democratic than the document-based evidence that succeeded it.
‘The historian will tell you what happened,’ wrote the American author E L Doctorow. ‘The novelist will tell you what it felt like.’
What matters is not absolute truth but the truth of the tale, the poetic awakening of ordinary folk.
And it took a poet to get the ball rolling. Finding himself eclipsed by Byron’s celebrity and greater originality, Sir Walter Scott abandoned narrative verse and turned to fiction with immediate success.
The first edition of Waverley in 1814 sold out in two days. However, not everyone welcomed its appearance.
‘Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones – it is not fair,’ wrote Jane Austen, with tongue in cheek. ‘He has fame and profit enough as a poet, and should not be taking the bread out of other people’s mouths.’
There was no stopping Sir Walter’s literary juggernaut.
Churning out twenty-seven books in seventeen years, he made himself the greatest writer of his age and remained a literary icon long after his death, almost as revered as Shakespeare for his ability to visualise history.
His tartan kilted romances were said to have defined Scottish identity while Ivanhoe, his twelfth century tale of love, valour and intrigue, not only glamorised the Middle Ages but reawakened academic interest in it. Scott’s influence was everywhere.
An ocean away in America, his tales of chivalry – the cult of knightly honour and the glorification of womanhood – captured the romantic imagination of the Southern upper classes to such an extent that Mark Twain would later claim that Sir Walter was largely to blame for the American Civil War.
But it couldn’t last. Tastes were changing. Scott’s romances fell out of fashion as Victorian England searched for social and psychological realism.
Dickens and Thackeray authored grittier stories for a new generation while, far away in Russia, Tolstoy wrote War and Peace, a truly panoramic novel which somehow managed to be both romantic and realistic.
The divide between these two kinds of historical fiction is very apparent today.
Book shops stack shelves with the latest historical romances, many of which have lurid bodice-ripping covers, although none of these books could possibly equal Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 masterpiece, Gone with the Wind, a sweeping Civil War novel that was also a lament for a lost civilisation, an Iliad with a Southern accent.
Much less shelf space but rather more praise will be devoted to the literary subgenre known as historical realism, a category in which Hilary Mantel’s novels about the inner life of Henry VIII’s chief minister Thomas Cromwell surely take pride of place.
Which brings me to my own novel, The Man Who Lived Twice, and why anyone should buy it.
I wanted my readers to experience the carnage of a Civil War battlefield; to know what it was like to wear heavy leg irons in a damp prison cell with cockroaches and mosquitos for company. To trigger my imagination, I used real people and real historical events, filling in the gaps in the story as I went along.
The Man Who Lived Twice is a panoramic novel set largely in nineteenth century America. Its central character is Colonel George St Leger Grenfell, a courageous but deeply flawed Cornish mercenary who happened to be the highest-ranking British officer in the Confederate Army.
Admired by General Robert E Lee and a legend to those under his command, ‘Ole St Lege’ claimed to have charged with the Light Brigade at Balaclava, hacked his way through the Opium War, defended the bullet-strewn barricades in the Indian Mutiny and helped Garibaldi liberate Italy.
Yet the tall, forbidding figure who tells these campfire tales is a wanted criminal, a fraudster who bankrupted his own father. He also has a death wish, an almost suicidal urge to risk his skin for a cause he privately believes to be doomed.
As massive armies collide and one hair-raising cavalry charge follows another, this complex man meets the love of his life, Rose Greenhow, a femme fatale who had gone from being the de facto First Lady in the White House to a notorious Confederate spy. He comes to realise he can no longer run away from his past.
In his spiritual odyssey, Grenfell travels the length and breadth of the continent, soaring precariously over enemy lines in a balloon and riding the rails in the Wild West, meeting the men and women who made, marred and mythologised American history: the business tycoons, early feminists and social reformers as well as the big-city bosses, murderous gunslingers and so-called Lincoln assassins.
Although apparently indestructible – in one Civil War skirmish he is shot eleven times without serious injury – Grenfell doesn’t have much luck. He is sentenced to death for a crime he never committed, spends long years in prison, and loses the woman he loves.
Then his fortune changes and he gets a second chance in life.
The Man Who Lived Twice is the story of a personal search for redemption set against the emergence of the United States as a world power. I hope you will consider reading it.
By David Taylor, author of ‘The Man Who Lived Twice’