Legend in my own Lunchtime: My History with Historical Fiction
Let me start with a couple of confessions (illustrative of the problems of writing historical fiction, but which I hope rather than being daunting will encourage you that those problems aren’t necessary fatal. To put it another way I hope my own hapless examples will embolden you to think if the shmo like me can get away with, so can you).
Anyway, at one point in my World War Two era novel The Welsh Girl I have a German POW playing soccer and performing a “step-over”, the elegant and sinuous sleight of foot you might have seen performed recently by great contemporary players like Cristiano Ronaldo. It’s a lovely feint which in its sway-hipped fluidity is a little reminiscent of a dance move, one reason I wanted to include it in the book, but as one sharp reader pointed out:
“This term [step-over] did not come into football parlance until sometime in the last 20 years. In any case a stepover would have been very difficult to execute given the heavy nature of both football and boots in the 1940’s.”
Elsewhere in the novel I describe a character stopping at a British pub for a “Ploughman’s lunch,” typically a simple meal of bread and cheese, with a pickled onion on the side perhaps, all ingredients readily available in the 1940’s. But…not so fast. Let me quote from a screenplay:
MATTHEW: That food you’re eating?
MATTHEW: What would you call it?
JAMES: I dunno. Ploughman’s Lunch.
MATTHEW: Ploughman’s Lunch. Traditional English fare.
MATTHEW: In fact it’s the invention of an advertising campaign they ran in the early sixties to encourage people to eat in pubs. A completely successful fabrication of the past, the Ploughman’s Lunch was.
That’s a scene from a British Tele-play of the early 80’s, – an indictment of Thatcherism – entitled The Ploughman’s Lunch – written by a then young writer you might have since heard of called Ian McEwan (a fellow who knows a little something about historical fiction, of course, and who we’ll be meeting again in this lecture). As the movie’s director, Richard Eyre, has noted the titular meal is, “an extremely dense metaphor for Britain itself, which is still creating fictions about the past and using them to suit the needs of the present.”
A lunch that’s actually a legend, we might say.
Wikipedia, by the way, attributes the marketing campaign in question to the wonderfully named Cheese Bureau (which began promoting the meal in pubs as a way to increase the sales of cheese, which had recently ceased to be rationed) and later the Milk Marketing Board. Which prompts two thoughts: I wish there had been a body known as the Cheese Board? And, if only Wikipedia had been around when I was writing those lines in my novel (I looked up Wikipedia I should say…on Wikipedia naturally…and it was founded in 2001) though it might be argued that the bar for historical accuracy has gone up since even arcane information became instantly googlable.
More to the point I should also acknowledge Eyre’s point that the Ploughman’s lunch provides a very British metaphor, and that the Brits – we Brits – have often been associated with historical fiction. Hilary Mantel is the most obvious recent example, but McEwan’s contemporaries even in their youth, Graham Swift in Waterland, Kazuo Ishiguro in Remains of the Day, Julian Barnes in Flaubert’s Parrot, Pat Baker in Regeneration, even Martin Amis in Time’s Arrow, all wrote seminal works that were as much historical novels as books about history and time and memory. The trend in Britain is alive and well – Sarah Waters would be a fine recent example – and it’s sometimes tempting to associate the British with historical fiction. (Not to brag but) We do have an awful lot of it to fictionalize after all. This is where I often tell my undergraduates that I went to a high school – King Henry VIII’s (founded by the bloke in Hilary Mantel’s novel) – that’s older than your country. Still, the British predilection for historical fiction isn’t always seen as a source of pride, as much as a kind of longing for a more “glorious” past. I want to argue though that historical fiction is an important and perhaps even increasingly popular vein in American literary fiction (and indeed in popular culture as Mad Men and a slew of other quality dramas attests). Setting aside earlier notable practitioners like Gore Vidal, or E.L. Doctorow, we might note recent award-winning works by Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, Edward P. Jones, Toni Morrison, Andrea Barrett, and Michael Cunningham that all trade in historical material. If this is an end of empire reflex – and it may be, though as I’ll argue below there are plenty of other reasons for it – I guess you’re feeling it too.
But you’ll have noticed I’ve been avoiding the subject of my own errors that I began with…and errors, of course, they (and, I should further confess, several others) were. No hiding behind artistic license here, though I was fleetingly tempted to pass off my mis-use of the Ploughman’s Lunch as a deliberate mistake, a meta-mistake, if you will. The first instance mostly amuses me – I sympathize with the letter-writer’s nerdy precision that stems from the same love of soccer that made me include the scene in the first place – but it seems too obscure a point to much mar the book. The second (even though I made sure to fixed the reference when the book was reprinted in pbk) is more galling, less easily digested, if you will, a failure of my “ear” for history, which touches on the most vulnerable spot of any writer of historical fiction, any writer indeed, our authority.
Authorship, after all, as the word suggests is rooted in authority. It’s our implicit command of our subject – our setting, our characters, our story – that vouchsafes a reader’s time and attention. This, of course, is what that hoary old piece of writing advice (useful up to a point like all such advice), “Write what you know,” enshrines. In drawing from my own experiences in writing historical fiction for this essay I’m already invoking this very experiential authority (albeit ironically at the expense of simultaneously undermining the authority of my book). And yet historical fiction – and here I’m going to belatedly offer a writer-centric definition of historical fiction as any fiction set in a period before the author’s birth – tends by its very nature to be about things we don’t know and haven’t experienced, at least not first hand.
This lecture, then, is about how we as writers might claim or reclaim authority over material beyond our own immediate experience. But before I begin to address those strategies, you may be wondering…why risk it in the first place? Why attempt historical fiction when a falsifying pratfall – as I’ve so ably demonstrated – is so easy.
I suppose I’d argue first that writing beyond our own experience isn’t restricted to historical fiction, that analogous challenges apply whenever we want to write of experiences distant from the personal. While I’m taking historical fiction as my focus I’d like to think that some of the lessons here will have application to any material that falls outside our comfort zone.
I might also argue that most if not all writing is necessarily about the past (if not the historical past by my definition), including many novels we don’t think of as historical fiction (Middlemarch, say, a fictional representation of my home town of Coventry, England, is set in the 1830s, but was composed in the 1870’s). Writing is typically post-hoc. Something happens, we reflect on it, try to understand it by writing about it. Retrospection is our dominant narrative mode. We’re supposed and expected to know the ending in advance.
Think of that first – Ur – writing instinct which I’d argue comes for most of us when we’re the victim of some wise-crack in the schoolyard. We’ve all experienced that, and the concomitant moment of tongue-tiedness, when we were denied the snappy come-back, the witty riposte. Those moments befall us all but writers, I suspect are particularly prone to them. I wouldn’t be a writer I’ve often though if I were any good “live.” Writers are apt to dwell on such moments, revisit them, and typically – a few minutes, or hours, or days, or, if we’re really obsessed, years later – come up with the line we should have delivered. That is, we reimagine the past. This is the beginning of revision (an act, of course, that necessitates something in the past to revise). And this I’d argue is the germ of what makes us want to be writers, to remake the past, often for the better (to make ourselves the heroes and not the butts of such moments) in wish-fulfillment fashion, but sometimes, in more sophisticated work, for the worse, to explore a kind of fear fulfillment..
This writerly tendency to lean back in time is perhaps matched by an analogous readerly tendency. When the BBC surveyed British readers a few years ago to determine the nation’s favorite books the top ten included works like Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm as well as The Lord of the Rings, texts that British readers typically encounter in or out of school during their teens. Such texts are in some sense formative of our sense of what a novel can do and I’d argue that most of us implicitly compare later books to these “first loves”, often finding them wanting. Part of us reads to recover these early reading experiences, and writers – readers ourselves, of course – can go further and write texts to recover those experiences. Consider, say, the range of contemporary writers – from John Irving to Donna Tartt – who explicitly evoke Dickens in their work. The instinct here is less derivative or innovative than nostalgic. A case could be made indeed that the novel itself is a nostalgic form harkening back to its golden age…(though we should beware the revenges of posterity: fifty years from now if a reader wants to enjoy a Dickensian pleasure they might reach for Dickens before Irving or Tartt).
Beyond these basic writerly and readerly tendencies to lean back in time is the challenge, especially for contemporary novelists, of addressing the present in an age when the present is in constant, rapid motion. Much more rapid motion than in George Eliot’s day for example – if you doubt that (and of course there was major technological and political change in past centuries – the industrial revolution, the American Revolution, as I still like to call it) consider this one remarkable, exponential statistic. There are more people – those agents of change – alive on the planet today than have ever died. If the dead all came back (as Zombie’s let’s say), we’d out-number them. This incidentally means that there are more writers alive on the planet now than have ever lived…though whether that’s a sobering thought or one worth celebrating, I’m not sure.
Jonathan Franzen – our great voice of writerly anxiety – has bemoaned this rapidity of contemporary change and the challenge it presents to novelists in his famous lament “Why Bother”:
“What’s topically relevant while [a writer] is planning a novel will almost certainly be passé by the time it’s written, rewritten, published and read.” [The Corrections and Freedom, it might be noted each took 8-10 years to write].
Panic grows in the gap between the increasing length of the project and the shrinking time increments of social change: how to design a craft that can float on history for as long as it takes to build it.
Franzen is thinking in part of technological change, but the signal example of this is probably political/social change in the form of 9/11, that monumental before and after divider of our own times. The Corrections which famously came out in that same month in 2001, contains these lines towards its close:
“It seemed to Enid that current events in general were more muted or insipid nowadays than they’d been in her youth. She had memories of the 1930’s, she’d seem firsthand what could happen to a country when the world economy took its gloves off…But disasters of this magnitude no longer seemed to befall the United States. Safety features had been put in place, like the squares of rubber that every modern playground was paved with to soften impacts.”
It’s a pointed irony that, as Franzen himself notes, a working title for his essay I’ve been quoting from was “My obsolescence” and while 9/11 thankfully didn’t render The Corrections obsolete, it did in some sense make it instantly dated, make it in a sense a historical novel. (Though interestingly, reading those lines in our own straightened times the lines about the Great Depression have a piquancy they wouldn’t have had in 2001.)
James Wood, the critic, puts it most succinctly when in the wake of 9/11 he noted “it’s very easy to be very dated very fast now.” One response to this problem, of course, is to seek out apparently more stable, less shifting temporal ground – namely the past. And we might wonder if the flowering of historical fiction recently (reflected, in my own anecdotal experience, in the work of my MFA students) isn’t an effort to avoid being dated (or perhaps just a pre-emptive strike; it’s already dated!). The past after all can’t outstrip the pace of our writing – fortunately for me (my second world war novel took seven years to write, longer than the war itself, and my current project which touches on the Chinese building the transcontinental railroad had already taken longer to write than the railroad took to build! Mind you, in my defense, there were a lot more Chinese working on the railroad!)
It’s perhaps worth noting, as an aside, a parallel movement in contemporary fiction, an alternate response to this fear of being dated, which is to try to get ahead of the curve by casting our fictions into the future. We’ve seen a number of contemporary literary writers following this tack lately – the final chapters of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, or David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas are perhaps cases in point, as might be the recent work by Gary Shteyngart, or Hari Kunzru or the apocalyptic future visions of Cormac McCarthy, Emily St John Mandel, Chang-rae Lee and Claire Vaye Watkins. Still, I’m not sure if these are any less likely to become dated. Both Egan and Mitchell’s books, for instance, feature future dictions based on SMS language, the abbreviations used in text messaging…but the last time I looked my phone turned those things into full words…if not always the right word! Perhaps I might quote in this context, an infamous auto-correct error in a text message that went as follows:
“He’s crazy about you and he loves you so much. He told me the other day you’re the first girl he’d ever thought about the fuhrer with.”
Which neatly illustrates that these “future” fictions, might have more in common with historical fiction than might first appear!
But this move to the past (or future), I should say isn’t only, or even primarily, defensive, a retreat from the present, as much I’d hope as a means of finding perspective from which to observe the present. Wartime novels of the past, say, have a new significance during contemporary conflicts. A recent novel about my home town entitled Coventry by the Canadian writer Helen Humphreys, set during the infamous fire-bombing of the city in the second world war – an event that gives us the verb “to Coventrize” and which was used to justify the even more destructive Allied attack on Dresden later in the war – draws, as she notes in her acknowledgments, for its research on historical records but also eye-witness accounts of the more recent bombing of Baghdad.
OK, so if writing about the past is in some sense inevitable, and if writing historical fiction seems a more and more likely recourse for contemporary novelists, let’s return to that question of how we as writers bolster or reclaim our authority, when that temporal material isn’t naturally within our personal purview.
To begin with, of course, what we know needn’t be confined to personal experience (that’s the outer limit of “Write what you know’s” usefulness).What we know – everyone in this room will agree, I’m sure – includes what we read. Research, naturally, is a foundation of historical fiction, a way of clawing back that writerly authority. One of my early forays into historical fiction, for instance, was a story called “Relief” set during the Zulu Wars in the writing of which I learned the useful lesson that if you pick a relatively little known by-way of history your own command of it doesn’t have to be exhaustive just more extensive than that of your reader. I’d warrant, say, that no one in this room knows much about the Zulu Wars…(nobody? Phew!) and/because the truth is I don’t either, but by virtue of having read a single history book on the topic I’m our resident authority. On the page this manifests as a bluff the reader can’t call. If I demonstrate that I know two or three things about a subject that you know nothing about, to all intents and purposes I might as well know an infinitely greater amount than you, and my authority is thus restored. Write what you know a little more about than your reader, might be the better advice.
A more extreme example of this leverage over the reader, I should confess, is the occasional resort to false or bogus authority. My story “The Hull Case,” say, set in the early 1960’s opens with this epigraph:
“Of modern North American cases one of the earliest and most widely reported abductions occurred in the early sixties to a mixed race couple in New Hampshire…”
Taken: 12 Contemporary UFO abduction narratives, K. Clifford Stanton
Which is actually true (if you believe in such things)…though the author and the book cited don’t exist. I couldn’t find an appropriately pithy quote to this effect so I made one up.
And yet, not so fast. While my authority over an average reader is restored, perhaps, (to the point of abusing it) the terror for any writer of historical fiction, any writer relying on research indeed, is that beyond us lies a greater authority or authorities in the form of the writers of the texts from which we’ve done our research:
Historians! (Of whom we might as historical fiction writers say: Can’t live with ’em; can’t live without ’em!)
What we’re facing here perhaps is a version of Bloom’s anxiety of influence, whereby living author’s feel themselves in tension – a kind of oedipal struggle – with the forebears who have inspired them. This is manifest from time to time in the charges leveled against historical novelists who’ve done their research so diligently that they are accused of plagiarism (as Ian McEwan was after the publication of Atonement), or merely discounted as ventriloquists (as David Mitchell was by some in the wake of Cloud Atlas). One critic went so far in David’s case of decrying his facility with historical idiom as a “capacity for imitation that suggests he lacks originality.”
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t it would seem.
In fact, having put my own head in the lion’s mouth – I was on a panel about historical fiction at the American Historical Association Annual Meeting a few years back – I can (re)assure you that historians can actually be quite well disposed to the work of fiction writers. As one historian confided in me at the time, “All historians are frustrated novelists” (to which I could only reply that all novelists were also frustrated novelists!)
Still, even if the historians, with their professional assurance, their sophisticated sense of both the distinctions between fact and fiction and the grey areas between them, don’t resent us there are plenty of others out there to potentially challenge our authority over historical material, not least those – older than ourselves – who may have lived through the period in question if we’re writing of the relatively recent past. Coupled with their authority is often a resentment towards someone who would presume to tell (or should that be steal?) their story.
This of course begins to suggests that some historical subjects are easier to write about than others. Something set in 1900, after all, can’t be gain-said by anyone alive, as something set in 1960 might be. The rule here – exemplified by my example of the Zulu war above – might be the more obscure the better. There are advantages to this, of course, beyond merely avoiding someone calling your bluff. Novels, as their name implies, bring news and the new. That would seem to militate against historical novels, to suggest the term is even an oxymoron, though here we might take Harry Truman’s words to heart:
“There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.” (Truman incidentally also advised “Study men not historians” which might remind us that it’s the characters at the center of our historical fictions by which they live or die; make the people believable and readers will go along with the rest). Obscure passages of history therefore allow us to bring news of the past to the present…but (as editors will remind us) obscure history is often obscure for a reason. It’s not sexy. The bywaters of history are often becalmed. And yet, the idea of finding the new in the known can still guide us when we consider writing about more well known periods and events. And, of course, as we approach well known periods or events, well known figures begin to emerge and we see a trend to featuring real figures in historical fiction.
The trick here may be to find those human-scale figures, just to one side of the famous figures, figures who are slightly obscure to the history, who have been overlooked or over whom there is dispute. Female figures, so often sidelined by His-story, have proven a rich vein in this regard. Think of the proliferation of “Wife” novels – the Aviator’s Wife, The Paris Wife, Ahab’s Wife etc etc – which explore the known past (fictional or historical) at a slant. There’s a small industry geared to novels about the wives of Henry VIII. (A trend I once spoofed in a short-short of my own called “Bride of the Future” about Nostradamus’ wife). But it’s not all wives. Geraldine Brook’s March, a fiction about Mr March, father of the Little Women, suggests we might dub these “Spouse novels.” And, of course, the categories of those overlooked by history extend beyond marriage – the butler Steven’s in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, say , suggest that beneath or to one side of the historical vision of Great Men lie lesser men. Even Hillary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell comes to us from behind the bulky girth of Henry VIIIth, though in the case of Cromwell we’re offered a figure at once well known, but also unknown, a figure of some mystery as to his roots, his motives.
My own Welsh Girl features as a character Rudolph Hess, Hitler’s Deputy Fuhrer, famous for his mysterious flight to England in 1941 and subsequent claims of amnesia. Hess is famous, but because historians (reflecting the view of his contemporaries) can’t agree about his mental state (genuine or feigned) the historical record in regard to him is obscured, broken even, offering a gap that fiction can fill, without – and this is crucial- contradicting known fact.
The Hess instance points to another distinction we might draw in regard to historical fiction. Some historical facts are arguably more important than others, certainly more loaded, more politically, more ethically charged. To write even glancingly of the Holocaust (and to write of the second world war without touching on that aspect might itself seem derelict) is to be aware that there are “fictions” – distortions, lies – that seek to deny the Holocaust, or reduce it (I’m particularly sensitive to this issue because one of the biographies of Hess I drew on in my research was authored by the now discredited British historian, David Irving, a once respectable academic, one of the debunkers of the Hitler Diaries, but now an infamous Holocaust denier). Some – including the brilliant Cynthia Ozick in her essay “The Rights of History and the Rights of the Imagination” – would argue that to humanize the leaders of the Third Reich, as any characterization must do, is a dubious ethical move. The argument is sometimes referred to in short-hand as the problem of Hitler’s dog, who he’s famously shown being kind to in the German film The Bunker. I’d argue on the contrary that the monstrosity of such figures lies in their very humanity. Hitler is more not less of a monster, because he loved his dog. And we are probably better, not worse, served to be reminded that war criminals can be kind to dogs…or might be great guys to have a beer with.
Paradoxically though, while historical obscurity or opacity lends fictional cover, it might also be argued many well known historical stories allow great license through their very familiarity. A narrative that has been told many times, for instance, especially one that has been fictionalized many times over, begins to move into the territory of legend or myth, a space that licenses variation and departures from the “facts.” My story “Relief” trades on this a little – there’s a movie version of some of the same events that some of you may know called Zulu. I’ve also written about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, historical figures to be sure, but ones so obscured by myth that almost anything goes in depicting them. The logic here seems to be that if multiple past versions exist, the new version can’t be definitive – its relationship is as much to those versions as to some putative actuality – and if it can’t be definitive it seems to labor under a lesser burden of truth.
We might consider the 2013 Oscar race in this light for a moment. If you can cast you minds back you might recall that Zero Dark Thirty, the fictionalized retelling of some very recent history, ran into flak about its accuracy, precisely I’d argue because as the first and thus far only depiction of that event it was held to the standard of being definitive. A decade from now when we’ll have half-a-dozen more versions of those events on film and TV and in books that burden will likely be lifted and we’ll apprehend the movie – for good or ill – somewhat differently.
Of course, the other historical text that got some scrutiny, and criticism during the 2013 Oscar season, was Spielberg’s Lincoln bio-pic. That’s surely a story we’re very familiar with, one told over and over (the challenge there was to find something new in the familiar, though thankfully not quite as new as making Lincoln a Vampire Hunter, like another recent if lesser celluloid offering!). But Spielberg’s movie still attracted criticism, despite treading mostly familiar ground, because it aspired to – through the seriousness and prestige of the production – a kind of definitive status, emblematized by the offer to distribute DVDs of the movie free to all high schools. That’s an effort on the part of the fiction to over-write history, to stand for it. The push-back was likely also because Lincoln, the movie, was such a major event, widely talked of, widely distributed. The media in which we attempt our historical fiction, I would suggest, shapes the reaction to it. A short story about Lincoln wouldn’t attract the same outrage quite simply because the story doesn’t have the same cultural capital as the movie. By the same token the bar for novels is higher than stories. Stories by their brevity rarely claim to be definitive, but novels can aspire to that and are sometimes judged as such. The lesson here perhaps is to offer your most contentious historical assertions in the form of a short story...nobody will notice.
There are many other tricks of historical fiction we might touch on, most of them means of defusing or undermining the authority of others. Magical realism, say, often allows us to touch on the past but free ourselves from the limits of reality. Humor is also often helpful (historical figures rarely laugh and are rarely funny; if you can make a joke in the past – ideally one about a bodily function, I’ve found – you’re going a long way to distancing yourself from the historical record). Others go further to explore deliberate anachronism, itself a source of comedy, though not only comedy. The Vikings in Wells Tower’s wonderful story, “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” speak in a kind of modern idiom:
“Just as we were all getting back into the mainland domestic groove, somebdoy started in with dragons and crop blights from across the North Sea. We all knew who it was. A turncoat Norweigan monk named Naddod had been big medicine on the dragon-and-blight circuit for the last decade or so, and was known to bring heavy ordnance for whoever could lay out some silver. Scuttlebutt had it that Naddod was operating out of a monastery on Lindisfarne, whose people we’d troubled on a pillage-and-consternation tour through Northumbria after Corn Harvesting Month last fall.”
Tower’s Vikings sound like frat boys, or jocks, or perhaps most pertinently Vets – and the very incongruity asks us to think about how this past speaks to our present. Finally, we see a trend towards alternate histories like Philip Roth’s Plot Against America (in which he imagines a Lindberg presidency) or Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policeman’s Union (actually a kind of alternate present, predicated on the founding of a Jewish enclave in Alaska in the 1940’s) or Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (also an alternate present, presuming a history of human cloning).
These latter are narratives that suggest less a competition of authority – a kind of I know more than you, nyah-nyah – than a cooperation. The author naturally knows more of their invented world than we do, but they also ask us to bring to the table our knowledge of the real world, of history. The contrast between fact and fiction here is the crux of the matter. We have to know, Roth needs us to know, that he’s making it up, changing history, in order to fully appreciate the work (and it’s implied political allegory). Alternate histories are often at heart narratives about fate; we need to know the alternatives to contemplate them. This dance of what the writer knows and what the reader knows is also clearly central to our pleasure in anachronistic fiction – it’s what lets us in on the joke – but I’d argue it’s also in fact often crucial even to more traditional historical fiction.
I rely on you in The Welsh Girl to know that the Allies will win, and Germany lose the second world war, even though my characters don’t know that yet. Hillary Mantel relies on us to know that Anne Boleyn won’t live to a ripe old age in Bringing Up the Bodies. Ian McEwan wants us to know that the pre-war world of his characters in Atonement is living on borrowed time even if they don’t. And Claire Messud needs us to know as we read her Emperor’s Children, a novel set in New York in the summer of 2001, what that fall will bring, just as Colum McCann’s 2009 National Book Award winner Let the Great World Spin, which begins with Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the Twin Towers in 1974, invites us to bring our understanding of the fate of those towers to our reading. There’s a pathos in knowing more than these characters, a perspective essential to the emotional success of all of these works – dubbed posthumous irony by Susan Sontag (a term McEwan actually uses in Atonement) – and this is fundamental to historical fiction. We, the reader know in some sense, how it will turn out. Not in all the details, of course, the how, the why are what we read for. And yet, we’re aware in some god-like sense of the fate of these figures, their time. Our existence, our times, mean that they and theirs have passed.
I want to end with this thought. We’re aware that changing the past can change the present (we learn this from Star Trek and The Terminator if nothing else). That’s why getting a detail like the Ploughman’s Lunch wrong is so problematic, it falsifies the past and in doing so changes the present, albeit in some infinitesimal way. But the present as we’ve begun to see, also changes the past, how we see the past particularly. My relationship to Helen Humphrey’s depiction of the bombing of Coventry in 1940 is altered by my knowledge that she researched it in part via accounts of the bombing of Bagdad. That line of Franzen’s from 2001’s The Corrections about the world economy taking it’s gloves off reads today with a different import than when it was written. And I started The Welsh Girl in 1999, but after 9/11, after the invasion of Iraq, after Guantanamo, a war-time novel about POWs became a different thing. James Wood has observed that [“Hilary ] Mantel seems to have written a very good modern novel, then changed all her fictional names to English historical figures of the fifteen-twenties and thirties” but I’d argue that she’s by no means unique in that.
I wanted to end with a passage from David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas where he very knowingly addresses this phenomenon by making a distinction between what he calls an actual and virtual past:
“The workings of the actual past + the virtual past may be illustrated by an event well known to collective history, such as the sinking of the Titanic. The disaster as it actually occurred descends into obscurity as its eyewitnesses die off, documents perish + the wreck of the ship dissolves in its Atlantic grave. Yet a virtual sinking of the Titanic, created from reworked memories, papers, hearsay, fiction – in short, belief – grows ever “truer.” The actual past is brittle, ever diminishing + ever more problematic to access + reconstruct: in contrast, the virtual past is malleable, ever brightening + ever more difficult to circumvent/expose as fraudulent.
The present presses the virtual past into its own service, to lend credence to its mythologies…”
In the longest view the virtual past may be all we have. Better to create than to forget. The Ploughman’s lunch in these terms is a metaphor not just for Britain’s relationship to the past, but all our relations, and perhaps especially that of the historical novelist. So much so that I’m actually thinking of putting that reference back into future editions of the book…