Thursday, 19 May 2011

Historical lessons in how (not) to write a novel

I’ve just finished rereading The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy  by Laurence Sterne, a definite ‘desert island’ book for me.  It struck me that if I were to give a course on novel writing, I would designate this novel as my textbook.  And, since I can’t label it a neglected classic, I thought that a good excuse to write about it was to use it as a starting point for reflections on writing historical novels.

Tristram Shandy is indisputably part of the canon of eighteenth century English literature, though admittedly few non-English students probably read it nowadays.  For those who have not availed themselves of its insane delights, I would have to follow the initial reaction of the London Critical Review that states, “This is a humorous performance, of which we are unable to convey any distinct ideas to our readers.”  Impossible to condense into a sentence, one might say that Tristram Shandy is the perfect novel that teaches how not to write a novel.  the eponymous narrator sets out with two main aims: to tell his life from the very beginning, and to describe everything exactly as it occurs.  He soon discovers the hopelessness and artificiality of the novel/ memoir form, but insists on proceeding doggedly, to hilarious effect (OK, hilarious for English students, writers, and assorted nerds).

Through his hapless narrator’s very failures, Lawrence Sterne demonstrates just how well he understands both the limitations and possibilities of the novel form, quite mind boggling when one considers he was writing at the very dawn of the age of the novel.  Here, then is the first in my series of reflections I suggest writers of historical fiction can take from Tristram Shandy:

As I mentioned above, Tristram Shandy undertakes to record every moment of his life, and I mean every moment: the book begins with his conception, and it takes two whole volumes before he is even born; in Volume IV, it takes five chapters to describe his father and Uncle Toby coming downstairs.  Yet, despite this resolution for strict chronology, time itself overlaps and twists in the novel.  In Volume VII, Tristram describes a trip to France that takes place in ‘real time’ as he frantically attempts to escape the clutches of death and continue his memoir (referencing Sterne’s real-life consumption), yet somehow the journey becomes that of an earlier Grand Tour with his father and beloved Uncle Toby:

…In this last chapter, as far at least as it has helped me through Auxerre, I have been getting forward in two journies together, and with the same dash of the pen… I am at this moment walking across the market-place of Auxerrre with my father and my Uncle Toby, in our way back to dinner—and I am at this moment also entering Lyons with my post-chaise broke into a thousand pieces—and I am moreover this moment in a handsome pavilion built by Pringello, upon the banks of the Garonne, which Mons. Sligniac has lent me, and where I now sit rhapsodizing all these affairs.  (VII. xxviii)

This comically begs the question: how faithfully chronological can we be as historical writers?  However we try to reproduce it, time in novels is an artificial concept. With visions of popularity and endless sequels in mind, along with the temptation to freeze the character at an ideal age, we throw out a succession of adventures that occur in unlikely rapidity; a huge novel such as Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose can take place over a matter of days; one as short as Virginia Woolf’s Orlando several centuries.  This artificiality can be our friend: we skip over week, or even years of a character’s life to suggest growth or a realistic pace of events, yet we invite the reader to linger in the extended moments of a first kiss or life-changing revelation.

And what about literal faithfulness to history?  I recall Sharon Penman noting of her earlier books, for example The Sunne in Splendour, that she trawled the historical record and made sure her characters were always in the right place on the right day.  This is not always as easy as it seems; in researching medieval Florence, I soon discovered the discrepancies caused by contemporary and later historians referring to more than one calendar system, or the less than perfect chronicling of events, even by those who lived through them.  I had to decide that, in the end, I would be as faithful as I could in reference to wider events, but when in doubt I’d freely use the dates most in my favour.  When we throw a known date/event to the winds, do we ’fess up and invoke the name of art?  What about when we go further and write alternative history, like Diane Scott Lewis’s Elysium, that reimagines events during Napoleon’s imprisonment?  Is the blending of real and imagined events still historical fiction—or can we argue that all historical novels, and even history books, are to some extent fictional anyway?

All this leaves us with a tangle of questions, which is precisely the point Sterne is making in the quote above.  It is all artificial.  If we try to approach time in fiction literally, as Tristram does, we are lost; if we approach it as an artist, picking and choosing – and yes, even embellishing and inventing -  for effect, then we fulfill the needs of our story.  Only then do we keep history and fiction in balance.


  1. I'm not sure if you'll remember me or not, but I had you for a class back in 2008. I've been reading through your blog and I'm wholly enjoying myself.

    You were a wonderful teacher and person, and I believe I still owe you a bottle of wine for your graciousness. =]

  2. Thank you for stopping by, Tyler. I remember you - you were my American Lit student. And since you must be over 21 by now, please drink that bottle of wine on my behalf!