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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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The Problem of Didacticism in the Historical Novel

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Because I am now freed from the shackles of reading for research, I have just started an historical thriller that has been receiving rave reviews: C.J. Sansom's Dissolution. However, because the disease of literary criticism has by now infected me deep into my bones, I cannot approach this novel in the light-hearted, entertaining way I am supposed to, and cannot help but think about questions of technique.

Dissolution has sparked off a few thoughts about the problems of historical novels in particular, and also of first person narration in general.

Issues in the former begin on the first page, and can be summarised by a single word: didacticism. This novel is set in the Tudor period, in the wake of the Henretian Reformation. But lest we miss the connection, within the first few paragraphs we are informed that our hero is working for Lord Cromwell; that he had "once believed with Erasmus that faith and charity would be enough to settle religious differences between men"; that he spots poles on London Bridge upon which stand the heads of those executed for treason; and that he is mourning the death of Queen Jane (Seymour). The historical details are packed in here, but the effect is like touring a museum recreation of a Tudor scene.

There is nothing natural in either the novel or such a museum, as every person has been placed there not for their own purposes, but to illustrate with waxy rigidity some dimension of the period. The blacksmith never simply happens to be working, but must present a "blacksmith working," hammering the anvil with the utmost concrentation; the shepherd is never simply shivering in a field wondering how long it will be before he gets home to his mutton stew, but is a "shepherd herding," crook in hand, posed as if looking too-strenuously for a lost sheep; a lady never empties a chamber pot whilst yelling at her kids, but is trapped forever in time as "woman emptying chamberpot." In an educational museum, of course, such caricatures serve a legitimate purpose. But in a novel seeking to recreate a thriving London scene, the mentions of the names of Cromwell, Erasmus, Seymour, Henry VIII all just seem to coincidental to be true to life. They have the quality of mannequins, lacking individual character and there simply for a purpose of the events which they illustrate. The historical novel must cling to the world's realism more than other genres, since history has actually happened, and the fiction inhabits that genuine - if now lost - world, rather than emerging from a timeless authorial imagination. Oddly, though, the more the historical novel strives for realistic detail the more it over-reaches its remit as a novel, a work of fiction.

If the opening of the novel is overloaded with pop-history, a different but related problem arises when the writer cannot assume his reader's general knowledge. Consider this exchange between the detective-hero, Shardlake, and his assistant, Mark, as they ride past a church:
All the windows of the church were filled with candles, a rich glow filtering through the stained glass. The bell tolled, on and on.
"The All Souls' service," Mark observed.
"Yes, the whole village will be in church praying for the relief of their dead in purgatory."
Now can we really imagine that the Mark who knows instinctively what date the bells are tolling on really needs to be told the significance of this particular service by Shardlake? Of course not. But then, the information is not really directed to him, even though conveyed in dialogue, but to the secular, modern reader. When even dialogue, the most vernacular of representative modes, is turned to the demands of history rather than simply inhabiting it, the whole artifice of the novel is exposed. The problem is that it is trying to perform two incompatible aims: to render a period realistically, whilst providing an entertaining and plausible work of fiction.

So this leads me to my first, general question: are good historical novels impossible to produce in a modern era when a reading public lacks a general grounding in social and religious history? As Andrew Motion observed recently, it is becoming increasingly difficult to teach English Literature because students do not know the Bible or classical mythology on which much of the canon is based. Even fifty years ago, one can imagine that the final sentence quoted above would not have needed to be written, because the author could expect a reader instinctively to know the meaning of All Soul's Day. The historical novel has been perhaps the most popular genre of recent times; one can bring immediately to mind Ellis Peters' Cadfael novels, Umberto Eco's The_Name_of_the_Rose, Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, Conn Iggulden's Emperor series, Bernard Cornwall's Sharp books, Allan Mallinson's Matthew Hervey series. Do these fictions suffer by being unable to stand as independent narratives in their own right, instead needing to convey history as information, rather than as the coincidental backdrop to the narrative, like the weather?

Not being an expert in this field, perhaps I am being unfair, which is why I present it as an open question. To look more specifically at this particular novel, though, another question springs to mind which is more specific, and can be illustrated by the following passage:
We made our way down Scarnsea's cobbled main street, where the top storeys of ancient houses overhung the road, keeping to one side to avoid the emptying of pisspots.
What is wrong here is the corollary to the didactic edge I have been complaining about. Again, we have the historical detailing. But that this is a problem may have something to do with this novel's narrative technique: first person narration. Keeping to one side of the street to avoid chamber pots is the sort of instinctive action that, in a character of its time, would have been entirely unconscious, and therefore not worth commenting upon. As with the dialogue quoted earlier, this moment exposes the didactic intention of historical fiction. But it is something we might object to less strongly if this information was relayed by an objective, omniscient, third-person narrator.

Such narrators act as discriminating eyes. They select what information we need to be told, and exclude other possibilities or unnecessary details. This is what John Fowles recognised in his postmodern reworking of the Victorian romance, The French Lieutenant's Woman. This historical novel is thick with metafiction, self-reflection on its own status and mechanisms as a novel (Linda Hutcheon would categorise this as a "historiographic metafiction.") In particular, Fowles presents himself as a character in the work, and likens himself to a puppeteer, pulling the strings of the love plot, presenting characters in certain beneficial or negative lights, and introducing modern paradigms of knowledge anachronistically into the Victorian period. Fowles seems to be saying that we cannot ever recapture history objectively, and any aspect or character of a period that is recollected is placed there, like props in a set, because the author requires it. History is made, not discovered, by the process of story.

Sansom's novel fails to realise this. By seeing events as if through the eyes of a character, it seems to be suggesting that such things could actually have happened, that these particular thoughts (avoiding chamberpots, acknowledging why the bells tolled) occured at the level of consciousness, and can therefore be written explicitly. Now I do not want to suggest the novel is not entertaining - I am certainly caught up by its tale of monastic murder. But it is compromised as a novel, a work of fiction, by clinging through the first person to the belief that a period can be seen now as it was seen then. I argue, however, that this is not the case, because between past and present the didactic intervenes, when to be successful any idea of a double-intention ought to be dissolved.

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Posted by Alistair at 8:10 pm

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