- Historic Sites
Our most popular practitioner of the art speaks of the challenges and rewards of writing
April/may 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 3
Georg Brandes, Denmark’s leading literary critic, had a low opinion of historical novels. To read one, he said, “was like drinking real substitute coffee.” He was referring, of course, to the standard historical romance featuring real figures of importance intermingled with heroic imaginary ones. The classic example would be Alexander Dumas’ The Three Musketeers , an exceptionally interesting work; shoddy examples have proliferated in all times.
Many other critics have lambasted the historical epic, and with cause. It is often a mishmash of bad history filled with unjustified extrapolations and preposterous statements placed in the mouths of real-life historical protagonists. Also, the romantic interludes are apt to be ponderous and pallid when compared with the best novels emphasizing human relations.
Such criticism relates to style and may be disregarded if one’s personal taste accepts such distortions. I applaud Les Miserables and War and Peace but find Justin McCarthy’s novel about Louis XI and François Villon, If I Were King , quite unacceptable. Each reader will determine his own level of tolerance, and apparently a good many are able to accept anything, judging from some of the novels that succeed.
There is, however, a legitimate philosophical objection to even the most acceptable historical novel, one which has driven me to serious speculation. Because I am a well-known liberal, William F. Buckley’s very conservative journal, some years ago, felt called upon to dismiss all I had written as. fraudulent. The reviewer, not Buckley, called me outright “a liar” in that my bias distorted everything I wrote or said. He claimed that my basic approach to any narrative distorted it from the beginning, making it invalid.
There’s a good deal of truth in this accusation, whether the historical writer in question is Howard Fast on the left or Kenneth Roberts on the right. If the former writes a wildly exciting novel about gladiators, you do not expect him to come down on the side of the Caesars, and if the latter writes Oliver Wiswell , extolling the Loyalist version of the American Revolution, you know he is doing so to correct what he deems an imbalance in our history books.
I certainly write from a given set of preconceptions, and if I were to attempt a novel on the coal regions of my home state of Pennsylvania, I would certainly not choose as my heroes the coal-fields police in the pay of the big companies. When I did write about a handful of Jews defying the entire might of the Roman Empire in The Source , I found it easy and psychologically correct to depict them as heroic, and I doubt that I did fact any violence in doing so.
The typical historical novelist is a fairly honest researcher. He or she knows what the facts are and ignores or abuses them at his or her peril. Before the Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz, who would win a Nobel Prize for his historical narratives covering the early days of Christianity ( Quo Vadis ) or the beginnings of Polish nationalism ( The Teutonic Knights ), started any writing project, he did so much research in historical documents that he exceeded the knowledge of the average professor in those fields.
The same applies, I believe, to the three current masters of this form. They have been incredibly learned in their radically different fields, and if they write with a high degree of selection, choosing those episodes and interpretations that best support their preconceptions, they do so from a background of fact and understanding that is Herculean. Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian is probably as fine a historical novel as can be written. Mary Renault’s re-creations of ancient Greece are superb, while Zoe Oldenbourg’s novels of medieval Europe are prototypes of accurate reporting.
When young would-be writers tell me they might like to work in the historical field, I direct them to the works of these three women with the warning: “If you aren’t convinced that you can do better than these three, we really don’t need you. To succeed, you must do something different and do it better.”
If a young writer can approach history with a fresh eye and a new talent, he or she can make a resounding contribution, for there is a persistent need for the writer who can elucidate the history of a land, an area, or a people. I can testify to this because for the past ten years I have received almost every week some heartfelt plea that I move to the writer’s part of the world and write about it in such a way that the rest of the world will appreciate its significance.
The urgings have come from the heads of nations, the governors of states, and the mayors of cities as well as from private citizens. Indeed, I have sometimes kept two secretaries busy explaining that a writer cannot tackle any subject that may arise but only those with which he feels a deep affinity and on which he has some expertise. A good 95 per cent of the suggestions that reach my desk are irrelevant, because I would not begin to have the knowledge required to treat them.
The problem can be visualized in this way: Suppose that tomorrow an event of shattering importance were to occur in Tibet. It would not be preposterous for someone to propose that I write about it, nor would it be ridiculous for me to accept, because during the past forty years I have done an immense amount of work in Asia. I would already have in mind the history of Tibet, its geography, religion, economic structure, and general patterns of living. I would have seen the terrain from Kashmir, from Gilgit, from Skardu, from the Indian border, from the Russian border with Sinkiang, and from Nepal. More important, I would know the long history of Iran, Afghanistan, India, China, and Russia-in-Asia, so that whatever was happening in Tibet would have rich historical precedents in these neighboring nations. Specifically, I would know who had been ruling in these countries at any specific moment over a period of several thousand years and would, in short, have a rich and varied cognitive base against which to judge events in Tibet.
I would think that three months of intensive work would equip me to start thinking creatively about Tibet, because I would previously have done nine-tenths of the work and hammered out nine-tenths of the necessary understandings. My background knowledge of Tibet and its international setting would prove to be enormous, because that’s what education on the spot gives a writer.
Now let’s suppose that an event of even greater world-wide importance were to occur in Paraguay. Because I speak Spanish and have written on Spanish history, I am sure that some publisher would propose that I write an account of these crushing affairs. But I would be totally incapable of doing so, not because of any lack of interest but because I had not, during the past thirty years, done my homework.
The publisher would be misguided to offer me such a commission; I would be idiotic if I accepted. My knowledge of Paraguay would be so deficient that no amount of catch-up study would qualify me. I could not repair in a few months the oversight of a lifetime.
Consider how defenseless I would be. I would not know the history of Paraguay, and what might be even more disqualifying, I would not know the history of its surrounding neighbors: Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia. Take any given date during the past two hundred years, and I would not know who was ruling in Brazil, or Bolivia, or Paraguay itself. I would not know the nuances of the border disputes or the peculiarities of the regional religions or the economic interrelationships existing among the surrounding countries. In short, in writing about the real causes of the Paraguayan crisis, I would be quite incompetent.
Most writers of historical novels are as well prepared on their chosen subjects as I would be on Tibet. Most avoid subjects on which they are as poorly prepared as I would be on Paraguay. Therefore, the reader acquires from a well-written novel a sense of historical reality and occasionally insights that are either compellingly beautiful or staggeringly relevant.
I cannot accept blanket condemnations of this field, because it is obvious to me that much of the world’s great literature falls into this genre. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are historical novels in epic verse, and every stricture that can be laid against Tolstoi’s War and Peace can be thrown against them. They re-create important segments of Greek history. They presume to cite the behavior of real human prototypes. They inquire into the motives of gods and goddesses. And they report historical events.
The great Greek dramas that depict the fall of the house of Atreus are of the same character, as are the Norse Eddas. In fact, the heroic legends of most nations fall within this category, and they do so for a good reason. People want to know how the values of their society evolved, and this can be known only when perceptive writers look back upon a sequence of events and organize them to provide insight and meaning.
The perfect historical novel is the Bible. Even the New Testament looks back upon events that happened generations before, selecting, rejecting, emphasizing, and giving added moral weight to occurrences that might otherwise have been forgotten or have lost their significance.
The essence of the historical novel is that a writer with current information and attitudes looks back upon events of moment so that he or she can organize such experience and give it meaning. I doubt that a good historical novel could be written much sooner than seventy-five years after the events being discussed. The Koran may be an exception, but modern scholarship suggests that even this remarkable document was largely a recollection in tranquillity.
From the immense amount of mail I receive on this subject, I judge that citizens have two motives in wanting a novelist to write about their corner of the world. First, they realize intuitively that a land does not attain full meaning until some artist with words and concepts externalizes its history and transmutes it into a narrative that sings. Second, there is a strong urge to have the rest of the world appreciate how interesting the homeland can be, for this shared recognition lends stature.
One of the most poignant memories of my writing life occurred when a Turkish diplomat asked if I would consider coming to live in his land for a while and writing about it. He said: “Desperately we need a good book about Turkey. It’s depressing to be a Turkish diplomat and to enter a plenary session and realize that not one person in that hall has ever read a book about Turkey … except maybe Franz Werfel’s The Forty Days of Musa Dagh , which tells how we Turks massacred the poor Armenians.” He, better than I, appreciated the true value of a historical novel.
When I planned my long novel Centennial , I studiously avoided the big, easy subjects of westward expansion like gold mining, railroad building, and the establishment of cities like Denver and Salt Lake because I believed that any reasonably good writer could handle such material. Only one with long experience and deep dedication could take subjects like the drylands or the prairie or the mystery of irrigation and make them fascinating, and I wanted to devote my energies to that greater problem. When the book was done, the wisdom of my choice was ratified by hundreds of citizens of Nebraska, Wyoming, and Colorado who sent me letters stating that I had at last put into words what they had always felt about their homeland. The majesty had always been there; it required a book to make it clear to the general public.
The thing that pleases me most about the novels I’ve done is that hundreds of young Gentiles who were marrying Jews have written to assure me that until they read The Source they did not appreciate the culture they were marrying into, while an equal number of young Jews have said that until they read my book they did not appreciate their own heritage. But the real reward came when Jews immigrating from Russia informed me that handwritten translations of my novel had circulated secretly among the community with the notation: “If a Gentile can know so much about Judaism, how can you know any less?”
My biggest disappointment has been a recurring one, starting most painfully with my first long novel, Hawaii . When I published the book back in 19591 realized that it was a collection of historical novelettes, each of which merited full-length treatment as a novel of its own. Also, since each segment dealt with a specific ethnic group—Polynesian, Hawaiian, Caucasian, Chinese, Japanese—young writers from these groups ought to retell the stories from their point of view, drawing upon the more advanced research that would be coming along. There ought to be a Chinese account of the Chinese invasion, a Japanese version of their immigration.
Now two decades have passed and the corrective novels I anticipated have not been forthcoming and will not be until young people of talent do at least as much work as I did back in the germinating period of 1940 to 1959. They must know all that I knew and then half again as much, and until they do, they are not eligible to supplant what I accomplished, even though such supplanting is called for.
I have had identical disappointments with my novels The Source, Centennial , and Chesapeake . In every instance each segment of these novels should be supplanted by strong, up-to-date accounts written by informed local residents who have done the enormous background work required, but up to now such writing has not appeared, because young people of talent have not done the work.
I expect better luck with my last novel, The Covenant . Since it deals with a national problem that ought not be left in the hands of an outsider, it is likely that various South African writers will enter the international field with their own accounts of what happened in their nation. I fully expect their novels to be better than mine, but I warn them that they will fail unless they do at least as much hard work and soul searching as I did.
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.
Because I have been required to work over long time spans and keep many hereditary lines in order, I long ago adopted the convention that all my characters were born on the first of January of any given year. This means that love-making must have been rather hetic in the various Aprils, but I have placed no emphasis on this.
Finally, I do not think of myself as a historical novelist. In each of my books a major part of the narrative has always involved recent decades or years just passed. I try to use history the way it should be used, to elucidate the present and uncover the golden sheen that exists when it is viewed with a clear eye.
As to the length of my books, I have been much abused by certain critics, by book clubs that find them extremely difficult to publish profitably, and by some college professors. But almost every day of my life I receive letters from all over the world protesting that the books were too short: “When I approached your final chapters I felt a deep sense of loss, for I realized that I would soon be leaving the little world you had created, and I began to ration myself, only a few pages each day, because I did not want to quit that vibrant universe.”
Mary Renault can create such a universe. So can Zoe Oldenbourg. And when you recall that Marguerite Yourcenar is the master of us all, you begin to wonder if the historical novel has become the predilected art form of the gifted woman writer. If so, I would be proud to be affiliated with writers of such obvious talent.