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Peculiarities of Another Age

Here’s one for you nineteenth-century German philosophy scouts. It’s about Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Godfather of Dialectic and head-and-shoulders giant of the opaque. Don’t think for a second that this is trivial. The question is: What did Mrs Hegel call her husband around the house? I mean, seriously, how did she address him? After all, she had a choice. Give up? Why, she called him Mr Hegel, silly. That’s Biedermeier Prussia for you.

Eye Watering Self-control?

Now move some decades on to an admission that’s truly astonishing. In his memoirs, ex-Commanding General - by then, ex-President - Ulysses Grant, recounts his time at the Mexican-American war. Young Ulysses is a captain of infantry, galled by the antics of his mules packing supplies over the mountains on the march to Mexico City. So frustrated that he’s even ready to overlook his men’s profanities when yet another mule takes a tumble over the lip of a steep ravine. Thus reminisces the much older U.S. Grant. Though, he adds, darned if he can recall ever using a profanity himself; not in his entire life. Excuse me? A career officer of infantry, soldiering through some of the most bloody alarums and excursions of his century, who doesn’t own to ever having used a cuss word? Lordy! Then again, these things do go in cycles; Grant’s profanity-free progress through the military would have staggered Shakespeare’s Falstaff as much as it does us. The veteran knight is just fine with calling his own prince and future king a bull’s pizzle, whereas Grant, let’s not forget, was a Victorian army officer. Did he simply not think in profanities? Or did he exercise a lifetime’s eye-watering self-control? Answers please. (And on an animal harm note - the mule survived the fall, climbed back out of the ravine and rejoined the pack train. There is no record of whether the animal used an obscenity).

Voices of Their Time

Now forward a century more, this time to Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy. Her story begins in Bucharest, her heroine newly arrived there when war is declared in 1939. Six books later - there’s a Levant Trilogy as well - her characters have taken a journey through Athens, Cairo and on into Palestine, one step ahead of the war in southern Europe and north Africa. She’s a wonderful storyteller (if you’re planning six volumes you’d better be). Also an acute observer of the manners, mannerisms and casual prejudices of the times. So picture this. In April 1941 she’s on board a rusted freighter, fleeing Athens with the last refugees from the Nazi invasion. The ship drags towards Alexandria, overcrowded and without food or water. Another expat - he’s in Harriet’s own set - passes around the women on deck to hand out the only onboard supply of toilet paper;  three sheets each, he explains to her, one up, one down and a polisher. How’s that again? Here’s a young Englishman - no more likely to address the married Harriet by her first name without her permission than flaunt the ladies-first rule. Could he possibly be so flip and familiar? Well yes, yes, and yes. Olivia Manning lived through the period and the events. You can trust her on the manners and idiom of those ex-pats marooned by a war. The voices are of their time. And while that was certainly before my time, I was brought up with Harriet Pringle’s generation still everywhere around me. I can vouch for the rightness of it.

Taking War for Granted

I produce one last witness. I’m just finished re-reading Raymond Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake, fourth outing for his LA-wearied shamus Philip Marlowe, and was struck by two things. The first was noticing quite how many references there are to the world war going on in the story’s background (the book was published in 1943). The second thing is the very obvious one that Chandler doesn’t need to flag up the war to his readers at the time. Or for me either, for that matter, when I first discovered the story as a teenager. He mentions the dim-out, the tire rationing, security on a road across a dam. A prowl-car cop shrugs that in two weeks he’ll be in the army. Wartime is everywhere around, but so close-woven into the story’s fabric that you’re hardly aware. Naturally. What reader of the time would need it explaining that the country was at war, how come or with who?

Almost Eighty Years On

The modern reader - no longer close to Vietnam, let alone Pearl Harbor -  will certainly need it explaining. Until the Annotated Lady in The Lake arrives (we’ve just had the first Annotated Big Sleep) those echoes of Second World Wartime are going to fly over their rooftops. You guessed. Historical fiction is where all this is headed

You know the sort of thing: Prince Rupert, fresh from battle, crashes into the royal bedchamber where England’s King Charles is astride a spaniel, crop in hand. Rupert bends the knee and announces, Sire, I‘ve just offed the rebel mob at Cirencester. Charles grins, adjusts a wig modeled on the spaniel, high-fives Rupert and says, Yyyyyyeessssss! Not found that one on Netflix yet? You will. Rely on it.

The wig and the Sire, you see. Set any story back in the day and somehow you’ll have to deal with the friction between the then and the now. Meaning that there will be background events to explain, prejudices of the day to interpret, idiom to re-cast and manners that no longer play. And that’s going to be a taller order the more distant the period setting is; much more so for Biedermeier Germany than for Philip Marlowe’s world at war. Reader or audience will need to be brought along with you. There are options available.

Broadly speaking, one way is to decide that history is your hat stand; that power, sex and money are the same pre-occupations for all time and period is incidental; not more than bringing the fashions and haircuts in line. Take this route and (under the breeches and the hat feathers) language and manners can remain essentially contemporary, which is to say immediately recognizable to that modern reader or modern audience. On film, The Favourite (2018) pulled this off with intelligence and dash, combined fun with some serious intent and won awards. Carry On Up the Khyber (1968) less so.

But another way is to face the problem of period square-on, accepting that an historical fiction works - at least in part - as historical primer. It means letting us in on the many strangenesses of another age and setting in order to pull us through the story. In the right hands, that can be fascinating and fun in itself; by the time we’re done reading we might have learned how to holystone the deck of a seventy-four, or what streets our coachman better take to the Vauxhall Gardens. We not only improve our eighteenth century skill-set (fill in a century), we run into history we didn’t know or hadn’t properly appreciated. We see our own language in development and encounter the ancestry of manners. What’s not to like?

Le Carré's Cold War

And by the way, never mind the eighteenth century; John Le Carré is doing all of this in his latest A Legacy of Spies, where he needs to ease his readers through commonplaces of the first Cold War that by now won’t be familiar to them.

As with Chandler’s Los Angeles, Le Carré’s Cold War takes us back hardly more than seventy years. But roll back the centuries again - to fiction written at the time, for its own time - and it’s very obvious how much adjustment there is to make. Without footnotes, or a decent introduction by somebody who knows, Richardson’s Pamela (written in the century before the Hegels) or Hardy’s Tess (later in the century of Grant) will likely lose us altogether in the detail. Read either of them in an edition that supplies an expert guide, and the wonder at being enlightened mixes with being appalled by how much we didn’t know we were missing. One way or another it’s that friction - the grit in the gears between then and now - that any period yarn has to deal with.

So here’s the thing

Soon I’ll be looking along the historical fiction shelf in my local bookstore. What should I take home? How about something that has the verve of history-as-hat-stand, the fascination of the historical eye-opener, stylishly written by a guide to the period I can trust? Is that too much to ask? Recommendations please. Get the bellhop to page me.

HISTORICAL FRICTIONS: Peculiarities of Another Age

Janet Roger in Rap Sheet November 2019


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