Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Historical Fiction: Unfairly Maligned, Having a Renaissance

I talk a lot about gender disparity in terms of art and fiction here at The Cabinet, but today I’d like to talk about a genre in which the books of most interest to men are just as sneered at and looked down upon as those geared towards women. By that I mean, Historical Fiction.

I’m not sure why the genre gets such a bad rap. Mostly, I guess because so much of it is aimed straight at the middlingest part of the middle brow: James Michener, Colleen McCollough, stacks and piles of various bodice ripping romances, those terrible doorstop size Civil War battle novels. Not to mention the awful, embarrassing Outlander novels. So, yeah, there’s a great deal of not so terrific historicals out there. But, but… some are really good, and I’ve always had a real fondness for the genre, and it seems to be going through something of a Rennaissance.

I’ve written here before about Historical Mysteries, such as the excellent Maisie Dobbs series, but for once I’m going to leave mysteries alone and write about some Literature, the kind with a capitol “L”, that has come out (semi) recently, and I have enjoyed immensely. The protagonists of all three are also, happily, teen girls.

I first encountered the work of Irish novelist Emma Donoghue in 1997 when she published her book of intertwined and reimagined fairy tales, Kissing the Witch. It’s a lovely and haunting book, one well worth your time and not often enough spoken about. I read her 2001 novel Slammerkin a few months ago and found it utterly unputdownable. As Donoghue explains in her frontpiece, a Slammerkin is an eighteenth century noun meaning either a loose dress or a loose woman. Her book is about both. The idea for the novel came from an actual murder reported in a contemporary broadside. Mary Saunders killed her employer with a cleaver as she wanted fine clothes.

Like Ms. Donoghue, I’ve a fondness for eighteenth century crime reportage and have a stack of stories I’d like to write at some point that I’ve found in places like the invaluable Newgate Calendar, or in this wonderful book of broadsides I have sitting on my shelf. It’s a wonderful period for crime reportage, and Slammerkin fairly leaps off the page in its vividness. Mary is a wonderful creation. She slides from the home of her poor working parents into one of prostitution and instead of it being a sad lament, it’s more a cry of freedom. Life was short, hard and brutal for everyone, and if one could get some pretty things along the way, all the better. There’s a fearsome amorality about her that rings true.

As I’ve said about another true life murderess, her life is fascinating because it seems as if things might have worked out for her – gone another way. But she just couldn’t stay straight, and the world was completely unforgiving, virtue being a mostly black and white affair. There’s crime and murder and sex. And Donaghue writes beautifully. Poor Mary was a mess and a monster.

Judith Merkle Riley, I was sad to discover while writing this article, died just last September of ovarian cancer. I am very sorry to hear of her passing, as she is a delightful novelist. Like Emma Donoghue, Riley has an advanced degree in history but writes like a novelist, not like an academic. Her book The Oracle Glass is the rarest of modern achievements: an intelligent, well-written entertainment.

The protagonist is Geneviéve, a teen girl who falls in with a group of devil worshipping, abortionist, fortune telling witches, masquerades as a one hundred and fifty year old sooth-saying dwarf, and is a part of events that nearly collapse the reign of the Sun King. There is romance and murder and double-crosses and politics and espionage. And, remarkably, the central story is true. A group of poisoning witches very nearly toppled the French government. They operated like Murder Inc. for French female aristocracy. It’s one of the best stories I’ve ever heard and can’t believe no one’s made a move yet. The people in Hollywood are morons.

I have no doubt that in many people’s hands this material would be preposterous, but Merkle was a savvy writer who understood that melodrama isn’t necessarily a dirty word, had a smart sense of humor and always stays in control of her story. She also knows her politics, and is excellent at conveying the nuances of court life and those whose livelihoods are dependent on it. There is also an interesting ambiguity in the the way some of the women's crimes are portrayed. Some are no doubt wicked and greedy to the core - but women were truly powerless in seventeenth century France, and it's fascinating to see the peculiar byways they wound up taking to control their destinies and fortunes.

Patrick McGrath is up there with Emily Brönte in the competition for who is the Gothic Novelist with the most Gothic upbringing. His father was Superintendant of Broadmoor, the hospital in Britain that treats the criminally insane, and MacGrath was raised on its grounds. I’ve read lots of his books, and particularly like his short stories. Ghost Town, his book of three connected Gothic tales which all take place in Manhattan, one in Revolutionary times, one in the 19th Century, the last right after 9/11, is wonderful. I most recently read Martha Peake: A Novel of the American Revolution, and I think it’s my favorite of his.

It’s told as a story within a story, and McGrath manages to write naturally in the atmosphere of the 19th century Gothic without it feeling anything like pastiche. Young Ambrose Tree listens to his old and sick Uncle William, a formerly eminent scientist, tell the story of Harry Peake, the “Cripplegate Monster” and his lovely daughter Martha. The two narrators, William and Ambrose are utterly unreliable, and though this is clear, one forgets. The depiction of decaying, Gothic England, in contrast with the New World the American Colonists are creating for themselves is wonderful. McGrath manages to convey how the rebelling colonists may have felt in a way I never really considered before. The whole thing feels both heart-breaking and complete in a way a normally associate with 19th century novels rather than modern ones. It's pretty extraordinary stuff.

The stories of all three of these books are carried by remarkable young women. They’re all wonderful creations, all interesting, all flawed. The plot is driven in all three by a rape. The vulnerability of women in the pre-nineteenth century world depicted in these three book is the stuff of horror, truly. But nothing is simple, ever, in life or in good fiction. I think sometimes stories set in modern middle class America or Western Europe often feel trite, the stakes feel so low. Romance really meant something in centuries past as the booby prize wasn't meet with ice cream and cocktails, but could be poverty and misery and death.

No comments: