In Rose Tremains historical novel Restoration, two characters discuss the importance of background to a paintings overall effect. Even in a portrait, where the viewers attention is drawn primarily towards a single central figure, background is crucial:
[the background] must flatter. More, it must lend permanence to the life of the sitter, no matter how brief his actual existence may turn out to be a picture must be composed so that no part of it is dead, so that, wherever the eye wanders, there is interest, whether it is in the detail on the hilt of the sword or a minutely rendered rowing boat on a distant Arcadian shore.
In discussing the relationship between foreground and background, Tremain isnt just speaking of painting; shes also talking about the historical novel. We read historical novels, after all, not just to experience the actual or imagined existence of their characters, but to see how these characters grow out ofand, in interesting ways, depart fromtheir particular historical moments. In other words, its not just that we have interest in the detail on the hilt of the sword; these details are part of the reason that we read historical novels in the first place. Hence the complaints of anachronism that have plagued the genre since the time of Walter Scott: Jacobite hilts werent like that at all!
These issues have been in my mind due to James Woods review of Hilary Mantels Bring Up the Bodies in last weeks New Yorker. In the midst of his glowing review of the follow up to Wolf Hall, Wood takes some swipes at the historical novel as a genre:
Both this new book and its predecessor, Wolf Hall, are mysteriously successful historical novels, a somewhat gimcrack genre not exactly jammed with greatness. One of the reasons for this literary success is that 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.
Wood goes on to explain how Mantel avoids the dangers of working in such a gimcrack genre (my italics):
Where much historical fiction gets entangled in the simulation of historical authenticity, Mantel bypasses those knots of concoction, and proceeds as if authenticity were magic rather than a science. She knows that what gives fiction its vitality is not the accurate detail but the animate one, and that novelists are creators, not coroners, of the human case.
Any sensitive reader would have to agree with Woods statements here. When we read historical fiction, were not looking for some positivist sense of authenticity but rather for a felt sense of authenticity. Were looking, in other words, not for factual accuracy but for aesthetic rightness.
But are Woods knots of concoction unique to historical fiction? Of course not. Think of all the works of realist fiction that provide plenty of accurate detail but not the animate one." (Wood himself has skewered many such efforts.) Or think of the works of science fiction that wow you with their descriptions of future technology but lack the moral and intellectual force of Ursula Le Guins The Dispossessed. Yes, there are lots of bad historical novels, but there are also lots of bad realist novels, and lots of bad science fiction, and lots of bad lyric poetry. By Woods standard, every genre is gimcrack, and every successful achievement in a given genre only succeeds insofar as it departs from that genre.
And to a certain extent this is true: Ursula Le Guin is a great writer precisely because she isnt like other, lesser sf writers. But that isnt what Wood is saying in relation to Mantel. To say, as Wood does, that Mantel achieves greatness not by transcending her genre but in spite of her genre is to misunderstand what writing within a particular genre gives both author and reader. It gives a sense of boundedness and order that enables the free play of the aesthetic; it provides a living system within which a detail can become animate. To return to Tremain's quotation, details are of "interest" in part because of the background out of which they arise and, for literature, this background involves the history and development of generic conventions.
Wood obviously doesn't think that Mantel wrote a modern novel and then put the historical bits in, but to suggest that she might have underestimates just how important, how delightful, convention and constraint can be in literature.I havent yet read Bring Up the Bodies, but if its as good as Wood says, I suspect that it will be because its both a great novel and because its a great historical novel, not one or the other.
About the Author
Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY. His book on poetry and theology in the modernist period is forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press.