Updated: Mar 25, 2020
(Editor’s note: Please welcome to The Rap Sheet Janet Roger. She’s the author of Shamus Dust [Troubador], a brand-new crime novel set in the City of London in 1947 and starring Newman, an expatriate American private investigator who’s hired by a City councilor to keep his name from being connected to a recent killing. Roger claims an educational background in archaeology, history, and English Lit, with a particular interest in the early Cold War era. She’s also a great fan of mid-20th-century films noirs, which she describes as the “groundbreaking cinema of its time, peopled with an unforgettable cast of the era’s seen-it-all survivors, slick grifters, racketeers, the opulent and the corrupt.” Roger lives on a small island off the coast of Africa. Shamus Dust is her first novel, though she already has a sequel on its way, The Gumshoe’s Freestyle. In the essay below, she muses on the challenges modern fictionists face in determining how much period atmosphere and detail is needed in historical novels.)
Here’s one for all you 19th-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.
Now move some decades on, to an admission that’s truly astonishing. In his memoirs, ex-commanding general—but by then, president—Ulysses S. Grant, recounts his time in 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 long 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 up 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, managed to climb back out of the ravine, and rejoined the pack train. There is no record of whether the animal used an obscenity.)
Now forward a century more, this time to Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy. Her story begins in Bucharest with her heroine, Harriet Pringle, newly arrived in that Romanian city when war is declared in 1939. Six books later—there’s a subsequent 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. Manning is 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, Harriet is on board a rusted freighter, fleeing Athens with the last refugees from the Nazi invasion. The ship drags towards Alexandria, Egypt, 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 to 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.
I produce one last witness. I’ve just finished re-reading Raymond Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake, the fourth outing for his Los Angeles-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 first 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 explained that the country was at war, how come, or with who?
Almost 80 years on, however, modern readers—no longer close to the Vietnam War, let alone the bombing of Pearl Harbor—will certainly need it all explained. Until an annotated Lady in the Lake arrives (just this year we’ve had the first annotated edition of The Big Sleep), those echoes of Second World Wartime are going to fly over their rooftops.
You guessed it. 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, idioms 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 preoccupations 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 a historical fiction works—at least in part—as historical primer. It means letting us in on the many peculiarities 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 Vauxhall Gardens. We not only improve our 18th-century skill set (or fill in any century), but 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? And by the way, never mind the 18th century; John le Carré did all of this in A Legacy of Spies (2017), wherein he eased his readers through commonplaces of the first Cold War that by now wouldn’t be familiar to them.
As with Chandler’s Los Angeles, le Carré’s Cold War takes us back hardly more than 70 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, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (written in the century before the Hegels) or Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d'Urbervilles (published 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, and get the bellhop to page me.
This article was first published in The Rap Sheet 07 November 2019 by J Kingston Pierce https://therapsheet.blogspot.com/2019/11/historical-frictions.html