When I would tell fellow academics I was writing a historical novel about my period, their eyes would widen and the questions and comments would come, always friendly and supportive, maybe a little wistful:
–Is it hard?
–I could never do that; I don’t have enough imagination.
–How do you find the time?
(Answer: you make the time)
Reading historical fiction as a child (Rosemary Sutcliff, Jean Plaidy, Georgette Heyer…) was a huge part of why I became interested in history, so the link between historical writing and fiction was there from the beginning. Now my friend David Perry (another medieval historian who pushes his own writing beyond the confines of the academy) has written a thoughtful essay on fiction and scholarship that discusses my novel, Pilgrimage and Bruce Holsinger’s A Burnable Book:
I was pretty thrilled, as was just about everyone else I know (because I sure didn’t keep the news to myself) except for a couple of men who seemed to feel that somehow my novel had been sullied by being called a beach read. Oh, no. No, no, no, no. Beach reads are important. Beach reads are special. Beach reads are the books you can take time with, the ones you don’ have to read in fifteen minute snatches on the metro, or as long as you can prop your eyes open before crashing at night. Beach reads are planned, chosen, anticipated, savoured. They are ones you can allow yourself to fall into and be swallowed up by knowing that nothing more pressing will pull you away from them.
What makes a perfect beach read? For me, it has to be long. Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy long. Really long. You don’t want to finish it too soon. They have to have paper covers, because hardbacks make red dents in your chest when you read them lying down on a deck chair. They have to transport me somewhere I’ve never been before — or return me to an old, long-loved place. I often re-read old children’s books when I am home for the summer. If they take me somewhere new, it can be a beautiful magical place, or a hard, difficult place.
She’d earn her place on this earth for her contributions to the history and culture of medieval Spain alone, but Cynthia Robinson is also an author of compelling and engaging contemporary literary fiction. I read the first few chapters of this in draft, and I am really glad to see it has been published. So check out Tatiana’s Wedding if you are looking for a good read. Lovely cover too:
I am that strange person who did not like The Girl with the Pearl Earring, but loves the rest of Tracy Chevalier’s work. This goes true for her The Lady and the Unicorn, which I just finished tonight. To be honest, I started it tonight too. A story of the creation of the famous Unicorn tapestries, now housed at the Musee de Cluny, in Paris, it is that good.
If you read other reviews of this book, you will find that their authors can’t resist the chance to use “tapestry” metaphors when describing Chevalier’s skill. “A deftly woven tapestry,” “not a stitch is missing,” they write. However, this attention to the book as the fully-realized production of a single person, an “author,” seems to miss the exact point Chevalier is trying to make about artistic creation. Nicholas des Innocents, the painter who designed the tapestries, is at the heart of her book, and it is he whom a modern audience would credit with being their “author.” But the story is designed to show us how these wonderful examples of the fifteenth-century art of weaving are in fact the product of many, many hands and brains and sources of inspiration. Chevalier reveals to us, not only the contribution of the designer and the members of Brussels atelier that weaves the tapestries, but the the role of the patrons who debate over the design; the merchant who acts as go-between, hiring the designer and arranging for his work to be made a reality; the women who serve as muses; the servants who care for the house so the work can be done; the English wool workers who ship their cloth to Ostend; and even the unappealing Jacques Le Boeuf, smelly because of the urine used to fix the woad that gives the beautiful blues to the tapestries.
It is easy to suppose that Chevalier sees her own creation as an author in the same light. The fantasy is of an author who toils alone and creates a book as a pure, solitary act, the work of her brain transmitted through her hands onto the page. The reality is that Chevalier’s book had as many hands in it as the tapestries themselves: an agent and an editor and maybe other readers who suggested revisions and made comments at an early stage (Chevalier thanks a long list of people in her acknowledgements), and closer to publication, there was a copyeditor and proofreader. Someone designed the cover (actually, his name is Richard Hasselberger — it is on the back flap of the dust jacket — and it is a very nice cover indeed) and took the author photo (Jerry Brauer) and created the layout and chose the type face and given that this novel followed the huge success of Girl with the Pearl Earring there was probably a substantial group in charge of publicity and promotion. And we can add to this list the booksellers who hand-sold it, the librarians who recommended it, and all the people who reviewed it. All of these were needed to make The Lady and the Unicorn what it is. And none of this takes away from Chevalier’s work.
So many friends greeted my acquisition of this book with so much excitement that I thought a review was in order now I have finished reading it. For those that you don’t know, Edgar Goodspeed was a Theologian and New Testament scholar at my very own Divinity School at the University of Chicago, getting his degree from there in 1898 and teaching there between 1900 and 1937. Goodspeed was responsible for building up the manuscript collection that now bears his name at the university, a collection of New Testament manuscripts and papyri. How could I resist a book by another novel-writing colleague?
Especially a book devoted to the hunt for medieval manuscripts, a hunt that bears striking similarities to his own real-life acquisitions. For while he was a New Testament scholars, the materia for the study of the Greek New Testament is manuscripts copied in the Middle Ages. In his story, the first-person hero and narrator of the tale is assisted by the as-intelligent-as-she-is-beautiful Letitia (“Tish”) in a hunt for a cache of manuscripts hidden, after the fall of Constantinople, revealed by a curse found in the colophon of a manuscript being studied at the University of Chicago. It is a a sea-borne quest in which the scholars are assisted by wealthy American patrons to reach the monastery of Selime where they find the treasure they seek behind a trapdoor in a tomb: Byzantine regalia, and relics, and, best of all, illustrated manuscripts.
Shades of Indiana Jones. Only, not really. For while Goodspeed knows he has to add a few dastardly ruffians and menacing Greeks to his tale, he isn’t as comfortable with tales of high adventure as he is writing about the mundane frustrations and excitements of ordinary manuscript study. And that is the best thing about this book, from the perspective of this medievalist. We learn the virtues of using ultra-violet light over reagents to uncover text written in palimpsest, that is to say, text that has been over-written by another text. It is under the original cursed colophon that they find their clue to the location of the manuscripts they seek. They are thwarted by the demons that plague all of us: libraries with inconvenient opening times and backward equipment, jealous librarians who refuse to understand the crucial importance of our own personal quests, languages that need to be learned, transportation that must be acquired, and the religious agendas of those who are the custodians of the treasures the scholars seek to reveal. The final crisis comes, not at the hands of the enemies who have been dogging their every step (book dealers who *gasp* cut up manuscripts in order to sell their miniatures one by one), but at the hands of the customs officials who threaten not to let them remove their prizes from the country.
If you ever have had to sweet-talk someone in a language you don’t know very well to look at a manuscript you are sure will be crucial for your work, this is the novel for you.
I was tagged by Julianne Douglas over on Facebook to quickly write down ten books that have meant something to me, and then pass along the request to ten more people. I can’t do anything the easy way, so I thought it would be fun to do a blog post about it, and to explain why these books are important to me. Since it is the time of year when many people are looking for gift ideas, maybe even some of what I say will provide some inspiration. I am going to stick close to historical fiction for my list, since I have been thinking a lot recently about what makes good historical fiction in general, and medieval historical fiction in particular.
Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdattir. It is maybe cheating to begin with this because I have about fifty more pages to go, but it was reading this book that got me thinking about medieval historical fiction in the first place. Somehow Undset managed to write here a novel that continues to speak immediately to contemporary themes and problems, while at the same time maintaining a perfect period voice. I have not discovered one jarring note (though specialists in medieval Scandinavia might feel differently). I am thinking of how I could work it into a course.
Cecelia Holland, Great Maria. This novel is another of the first that comes to mind when I think of other books I have loved that, for me, capture the Middle Ages and its values perfectly. Its heroine is awkward and difficult, and unsympathetic at times. This is because she thinks and feels and acts differently than we would do. This is because she lives in a very different world, and Holland does not allow us to forget it.
Margaret Elphinstone, The Sea Road. This one will be less well known even to my book-reading and medievalist friends. It is the eleventh-century tale of Gudrid, as told to a cleric and scribe in Rome, of her role in the Viking exploration of the North Atlantic and her own journey to North America. Gudrid’s world is pagan and Christian, civilized and wild and once again, Elphinstone gets her voice perfectly. I should also say that everything Elphinstone writes is an instant hard-cover buy for me.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings. This isn’t historical fiction, most would argue, but rather fantasy. I am going to argue that it belongs on this list of books that made me think about how to write historical fiction. Tolkien’s Middle Earth is not some fantasy realm in some imaginary world, however it may appear to a casual reader. He binds it to the geography and language of the word that we know, the world that is ours, by creating stories told about stories told about stories, layering the past upon the past.
Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Shadow of the Wind. I saw that Julianne had The Angel’s Game on her list which I unaccountably still have not read, though I went to an author reading when it first came out, and got a signed copy. This one is a book about books by a man who loves books. More than that, Ruiz Zafon casts a spell on the reader from the very first page. We are in post-civil war Barcelona with all its beauty, menace, and danger until the last page when he lets us go again.
Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. This is the perfect book for someone raised on Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen. Like Heyer, she captures that Regency voice without anachronism, and at the same time manages to work in the magic in a way that seems seamless and plausible.
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall. Hilary Mantel in her best historical fiction, here and in A Place of Greater Safety, about the French Revolution not only writes a historical novel, but constructs a historical argument. Here, her argument is a revisionist portrait of Thomas Cromwell. Usually he is depicted as the most hated of Henry VIIIs servants, but Mantel gives us a view of him from the inside to present him as a more sympathetic character. Her depiction of Thomas Wolsey and Thomas More were equally daring.
Sarah Dunant, Sacred Hearts. Most people would think that a story that takes place entirely within the walls of a tightly enclosed sixtenth-century Ferarrese convent would not be interesting. Those people would be wrong. I read this shortly after teaching a class on Terese of Avila’s autobiography and felt it gave flesh to some of the bones of what Teresa describes.
Markus Zusak, The Book Thief. I have already discussed this book on my blog, so I won’t say too much here except that this is another book about books (I am detecting a theme here…), and it made me have sympathy for characters I thought I could not feel sympathy for.
Simon Mawer, The Glass Room. The story of the twentieth-century told through a modernist house built in what was once Czechoslovakia, this one hits close to home. Not only does it depict the world of my ancestors, the world into which my father was born, and the pain of going into exile from that world, the characters themselves reflect elements of members of my family. This may, then, seem less strictly “historical” than the other works on my list. But whether a book takes us to Tang China or Renaissance Italy, surely we love it because we see parts of ourself in it?
I found myself identifying with every word in this article, by a fellow expat-in-the-US Canadian, to the degree that I began to wonder whether I had in fact developed some sort of second identity and had actually written it myself (Anne of Green Gables? Check. AS Byatt and Hilary Mantel? Check. Squishy feelings of treachery the day I got US citizenship? Check. Okay, that is me identifying with David Rakoff.) And I have similar personal reasons for wishing the Booker would remain closed to American writers. Frankly, I don’t find I connect much with American literary writing, past or present, and if I want literary fiction, I tend to turn to a Commonwealth author. It was very kind of the Booker over the last decades to make the best easy for me (and I think this is the place to subtly work in the fact that my cousin Alison Pick was longlisted for the Booker in 2011.)
But I can accept that the Man Booker people are not attending to my interests and desires. They are still making a mistake. The main reason the Man Booker people should not open their prize to Americans, is that it risks making the prize irrelevant. There are already several internationally prominent American prizes for best American book. The Booker risks becoming an also-ran, the Golden Globes of the book world. “We liked it too!” “Yeah, big deal.” Or maybe year after year, they will resolutely not give it to an American; maybe that is part of the point. And then we’ll be subjected to headlines “Americans shut out of Man Booker again,” “Franzen snubbed by Man Booker Committee,” before finally, “First American to win the Man Booker.” Spare me.
I am reading a book now that got all the right reviews and caused a bit of a stir in the more literary corners of the book world when it came out in 2006. Its author is an extremely talented writer, and the book is very clever, but I don’t think I am going to finish it. I don’t like the characters enough to spend more time with them. I don’t like the main characters, and none of the secondary characters are compelling either. I don’t care if they show some sort of growth over the course of the book, or if they just remain in their mean little worlds. Even the cute little kid is whiney and I want him to shut up. There is a skill in making characters so believably irritating that readers want to avoid them…but it may not be the most useful skill.
I am trying to understand why I am reacting this way; why unsympathetic characters are such a turn-off (this isn’t the first book I have put down for this reason) because at the same time, there is nothing I like less than the overly-perfect hero, the kind whom the author demands we love before he has earned it from us by what he does on the page. For the second novel I wrote, I took the most unsympathetic character from the first and tried to figure out why she was so horrible. So it is not that I don’t like edge and ambiguity.
I think that maybe what I am missing from these books is a sense of humour, or, better, a sense of humility (which is the necessary prerequisite for humour). When I speak of a sense of humour, I am not talking about the ability to tell or laugh at jokes. I am speaking of an awareness of the absurdity of the world that prevents us from taking ourselves too seriously. It is something like what Dean Priest says to Emily in Emily Climbs:
A woman who has a sense of humour possesses no refuge from the merciless truth about herself. She cannot think herself misunderstood. She cannot revel in self-pity. She cannot comfortably damn anyone who differs from her. No, Emily, the woman with a sense of humour isn’t to be envied.
Those who can take refuge from the merciless truth about themselves, who think themselves misunderstood, and wallow in self-pity are, frankly, kind of boring. And the characters in the book I am reading take themselves so, so very seriously.
I think, by contrast, of the sort of characters Arthur Phillips writes about. Most of them are fairly unsympathetic in the same way as the ones in my discarded books — they are selfish and self-centred, venal and shallow. But humour pervades the novels, gently poking and prodding the characters, the author, and the readers. The characters are nothing if not ridiculous, and that makes me care what happens to them.
Today, I received a book contract. Cuidono Press is going to be publishing my historical novel, Pilgrimage in 2014. No, it wasn’t unexpected — these things take a lot of lead-up time, I have discovered. A Lot. I finished this novel in 2007, just to give you a bit of an idea. I am so grateful to Martha Hoffman, who read it way back then and remembered it, and asked me if I would publish it with her new small press, and I am also so grateful to Stephanie Cabot, my agent, who has been with me through all those long years and never gave up.
Since it has been a long journey, and since I have a hunch that maybe everyone (or is it only every academic historian?) would secretly like to write a novel and get it published, and wants to know how such a thing can happen, I think over the next few days and weeks, I’ll tell the story of the path that I took to get here. Watch this space.
I really enjoyed this blog post from Kris Waldherr on a subject near and dear to my heart, book covers, so I thought I would post a link here. She is specifically focussing on historical fiction, including the infamous and ubiquitous “headless woman” cover: