- Historic Sites
Our most popular practitioner of the art speaks of the challenges and rewards of writing
April/may 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 3
What I’m saying should be obvious. Each generation deserves its own historical novels, because each will have its own interpretations of what has gone before. James Fenimore Cooper’s view of the American Indian simply does not suffice today, so the field is wide open for daring new presentations. We sorely need a great novel about Captain James Cook, one of the most appealing gentlemen in history. Innumerable people have reprimanded me for having overlooked the story of Alaska. For twenty years I’ve carried an outline in my head, but I see now that I shall not be able to write it. Gladly I pass along the idea to someone younger. It’s a majestic theme.
When I say that the writer of a historical novel must do an inescapable amount of work, what do I mean? Ardent research as to facts. Long speculation as to their meaning. Patient review of the physical setting and its maps. Attention to the customs of the time including dress, social conventions, patterns of earning a living, and amusements. Constant reference to the Oxford English Dictionary to ensure that a word used was in existence at the time stated. And ingenious speculation as to what the characters might have been doing at a given time. It has been well said that the writer of a historical novel does not know what he’s looking for until he finds it, which means that a great deal of the work done will prove to be useless.
From my own experience I’ve developed a few generalizations. The historical novel is a lower form of art than the pure novel. War and Peace can never be as intensive an artistic experience as Dostoevski’s The Idiot , which exists in an almost timeless frame. The greatest novels are those that concern not historical exploration but the exploration of the human soul. Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad are the great exemplars, with Madame Bovary serving as perhaps the world’s finest novel in any form.
But the historical novel, well done, can be amazingly effective. Memoirs of Hadrian, Les Miserables, Quo Vadis , and Gone With the Wind will always have readers, for they recount the great adventures of the human race. E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime showed us how the form could be used in a daring new way with rather cliché material to achieve powerful impact. In the hands of a great writer the historical novel achieves its own merit. Writers serve themselves poorly when they rely too heavily on dialect, bizarre social habits, or extreme situations. A score of writers has exploded on the scene during my lifetime, extolled for their clever use of dialect, but they have been mostly ninety-day wonders, excessively praised and soon forgotten.
Regardless of what period I was writing about, or what the social level of my characters, I have always assumed that these were able persons, quite capable of survival in their times, and that they did not speak like clowns or raving illiterates. Within their own language they survived; they expressed complicated thoughts; and they were able to speculate about their world. They were fictional literates, and I refrained from using dialect tricks to make them seem cute or idiotic. However, I must say that I like the manner in which Thomas Hardy uses a rural dialect now and then to achieve mood and wish I could do as well.
Violence is a part of history, but excessive documentation of it weakens rather than strengthens the historical novel. For decades I have wanted to do a novel laid in the Balkans and was much attracted to the extraordinary Rumanian enemy of the Turks, Vlad the Impaler, prototype of Count Dracula of Transylvania, but I was steered away by the awful brutality of the man and his times. Vlad is worth two paragraphs, but he is so imposing that he would run away with two chapters, and such sheer hideousness is not worth the telling.
The contemporary Gothic novel written primarily for women is a debasement of the form, and I recall the shock I received when out of curiosity I reviewed summaries of the three-year output of a publisher who issued one such novel every month: “An impressionable young English girl reports to a great manor house on the moors to serve as governess to the two children of a widower who will not allow her to venture onto the third floor.
“An impressionable young French girl reports to a great castle on the Loire to serve as governess to the two children of a mysterious count who will not allow her to venture onto the third floor.
“An impressionable young American girl reports to a mysterious mansion on the Hudson to serve as governess to the children of a moody gentleman who forbids her to venture onto the third floor.”
If Charlotte Brontë could only have received a share of the royalties due her, she, her two sisters, and their feckless brother, Branwell, could have lived rather handsomely in their moor house.