Historical Fiction One: The Curse of Presentism

Past mysteries: the minister who went away with the fairies. Or did he?

Last month, which seems like a very long time ago now, I blogged for the Edinburgh eBook Festival, writing a series of posts about Historical Fiction. Since they've now disappeared into the ether, as festival posts will, I think it's well worthwhile giving them another airing here because I know there are a great many readers who love historical fiction - and lots of writers thinking of embarking on it as well. For myself, I write a mixture of historical and contemporary. Right now, I'm researching a new historical novel and simultaneously finishing off a novel set in the here and now, so my mind is literally all over the place. 

There are five posts, and this is the first. 

Thanks to Valerie Laws of Authors Electric for helping me out with the term presentism. I wasn’t aware of it, but it neatly encapsulates a point I want to make – and it seems like as good a beginning as any to this series of posts. Here’s a useful Wikipedia definition: Presentism is a mode of literary or historical analysis in which present-day ideas and perspectives are anachronistically introduced into depictions or interpretations of the past. A quick scan online will reveal plenty of blog posts and other pieces pontificating (with some justification) about anachronisms in historical fiction as well as in film and television programmes. Sometimes they can be deliberate. The judicious use of anachronism in movies like A Knight’s Tale where the fuss and adoration surrounding participants in these Mediaeval tournaments is beautifully paralleled by that accorded to gladiatorial athletes like Ice Hockey players, manages to be both accurate and illustrative of a genuine truth about the times. We recognise the parallel and extrapolate from it. It’s also enjoyable and entertaining. There are, I’m sure, novels as well as movies where these deliberate anachronisms are used with a purpose to illuminate some kind of parallel between past and present culture and society. In many ways they involve the opposite of presentism, using present day ideas and preoccupations to illuminate the past.

Casual anachronisms do cause problems for various reasons, the main ones being that they look like mistakes, they look like inadequate research and they can pull readers right out of their willing suspension of disbelief in the world of the book. The trouble is that we come across rather a lot of pieces of historical fiction where the author has been meticulous in excluding all possible anachronisms – and we still don’t believe a word of them. We don’t believe in the world of the book. And that is always going to be a problem for readers, arguably an even bigger problem than the occasional inadvertent anachronism.

I’ve been asking myself why this happens and have come up with two possible answers. One could indeed be described as the curse of Presentism, where 21st century ideas, character traits and perspectives are deliberately made to take precedence over historical realities for what are seen as reasons of marketing to a modern audience. The other challenge seems to involve a general failure on the part of the author to seek to address and inhabit the time and place in which the novel is set. Over the course of the next few weeks, I’ll be looking at this in more detail and in terms of my own historical fiction, and offering a few possible solutions from a personal perspective. Feel free to chip in with your own thoughts and ideas below.

We all indulge in manipulating ideas and perspectives to some extent especially as readers but as writers too. Who doesn’t love the ‘feisty’ heroine and the ‘bad boy with the kind heart’ hero – especially if we’re writing and/or reading within a genre such as romance? But this needn’t necessarily involve presentism. Lizzie Bennett could be described as ‘feisty’ in modern patronising parlance. She’s certainly clever and opinionated. Darcy is the epitome of the unlikeable, disdainful hero who turns out to be honourable and loveable and since Jane was writing for her own contemporaries and with a pen that could occasionally drip acid, we’d better believe in the truth of these characters. But we can’t then criticise Pride and Prejudice for the way in which Charlotte marries Mr Collins because an ‘establishment’ of your own is better than none at all, in a world where unmarried daughters tended to lead very miserable lives indeed. And if we’re writing about this time and place, we’d better be well aware that although we might be allowed our feisty heroines and bad boy heroes, very few young women at that time were brave enough to challenge the status quo. An establishment, a home, a marriage, however unfortunate or ill starred, might well be better than the alternative and we should at least let that perception inform our fiction, if we want it to seem real.

There’s also a sort of reverse presentism that infects critiques of novels and that influences the way we sometimes tackle historical fiction. I’ve seen swathes of people criticising Wuthering Heights (one of my favourite novels, for which I make no apologies!) because ‘Heathcliff is nasty and Cathy is irritating.’ This attitude seems to me to involve a sort of retrospective imposition of modern romance conventions upon a great but unique novel. Ironically, many of these conventions seem to have been inspired by a misreading of WH. I’ve a feeling nobody would publish it now, or not without serious revision. The characters would be deemed unlikeable, the story incredible. This is exactly the novel Emily intended but it was very shocking back then. It certainly shocked Charlotte. We find it shocking even now and blame the writer for our own revulsion.

The Olivier movie didn’t help. It’s probably the best of a very bad bunch of evocations of the novel. They took a story that was rough hewn, thorny, prickly and uncomfortable and softened all its hard edges, turning Heathcliff into a romantic hero and Cathy into a wishy washy heroine. Few people in subsequent years seem to have been able to come to terms with the undoubted fact that Heathcliff is a damaged sadist, Cathy is mad as a box of frogs, and this is still a brilliant, troubling and upsetting book about the nature of obsessive attachment, written by a young woman who lived at a time and in a rural place where instances of casual cruelty would have been fairly commonplace. They are not unknown now, but we women are not supposed to write about them with the grim and disturbing impartiality Emily managed to achieve. We are supposed to show our disapproval where she did not. 

My own 'homage' to Wuthering Heights.
Years ago, when I was studying Mediaeval Literature, one of our lecturers pointed out to us that we were never, ever going to be able to understand the texts as somebody living at the time would have understood them. You can’t unlearn. You can’t forget what you know. But he taught us that we could at least be aware of what we knew, and how we understood things, and try hard not to impose that and its related sense of superiority or cynicism on what we were reading and how we understood what we were reading. It’s something that has stayed with me all these years and whenever I tackle a piece of historical fiction, I find myself trying hard for a kind of total immersion in a time and place. It’s what an actor does: assuming a persona, thinking like the character thinks, speaking as they speak. As a writer, you don’t ‘make’ anyone do anything, but you have to find ways of interrogating your characters, inhabiting them, finding out what makes them tick and then writing as that person, back then, even when it goes against the grain of all your contemporary insights.


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