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Saturday, 3 October 2015

Historical Fiction: A Fictional Guide


A passerby hesitated, stared. “Excuse me–” he said. “Good citizen–are you Robespierre?
Robespierre didn’t look at the man. “Do you understand what I say about heroes? There is no place for them. Resistance to tyrants means oblivion. I will embrace that oblivion. My name will vanish from the page.”
“Good citizen, forgive me,” the patriot said doggedly.
Eyes rested on him briefly. “Yes, I’m Robespierre,” he said. He put his hand on Citizen Desmoulin’s arm, “Camille, history is fiction.”
Hilary Mantel, A Place of Greater Safety
An imaginary Robespierre lectures his imaginary boyhood friend, Camille Desmoulins, on the constructed, fictional nature of History, which he describes as a subject that has already been edited before the historian has arrived. They are interrupted by a fictional fellow citizen, eager to meet one of his ‘heroes’. The fictional Robespierre briefly sees himself from the point of view of this unknown passer-by; he and Desmoulins will become characters on the pages of other people’s stories: in short, they will ‘disappear’, they will become fiction.

How many layers of irony can one find in this brief passage from Hilary Mantel’s ‘A Place of Greater Safety’? Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that it is the very fictional nature of the scene that makes it so compellingly truthful. What historian could more eloquently describe the limitations of her subject as the novelist does here with such devastating precision? Historians might, of course, wish to challenge Hilary Mantel, not only for her invention, but also her scepticism. There are such things as historical facts, events, records, and they reward serious and detailed study.

But dare we say ‘truth’, in describing the picture that history offers us? This is a problem, and not only because the writers of history have never and will never agree on what the true picture looks like. We are also faced with weightier problem: the remoteness of our subjects, and the subjectivity of the surviving evidence. Mantel herself has written about this problem at greater length, and it is from her essay that I have quoted below.

Robespierre in caricature:
Executing the executioner

Robespierre’s life is as good an example as any of the challenge that the historian faces in reconstructing the past. The first thirty years of his life are almost entirely hidden from view. He lived his last five years in the full glare of the political limelight, which was as apt to distort then as it is now. Following his execution in 1794, his papers were left in the hands of his political enemies. In England in particular, Citizen Robespierre became a caricature of the naïve dreamer who transforms into a brutal tyrant. 'As the 19th century progressed, Robespierre acquired a set of nervous twitches and shudders, and a hideous yellow complexion highlighted by green veins.' This is the inverse of the hero-worship of the ‘patriot’ in the passage above. In contrast, Hilary Mantel’s novel offers a three-dimensional character, with blood in his veins: ‘Max’ Robespierre is thoughtful, hesitant, fatalistic, but clinging with determined eloquence to the ideals which had propelled him to high political office. I felt as if I was meeting him for the first time.

This is the power of historical fiction. It strips away the distance of years. Undeniably, there are vicarious thrills to be had here: what did it feel like to be amongst the crowds surging through Paris in July 1789, or to sit as part of ‘the Mountain’ in the National Convention in 1793? 'There are not two kinds of history, one sceptical and rational, and the other imaginative and erratic.' The best works of History are all of these things. They place us in the key moments so that we can try to comprehend the forces that shaped those moments. In so doing, the writers lend their hands to a shared enterprise: that of rescuing from oblivion the lived experience of previous generations.

I’ll leave the final words to John Adams. Not the real one, of course…

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