Novelist Andrew Martin considers why he’s drawn to writing historical fiction.
I have written fourteen novels, most of them wholly or partly historical. (I say ‘wholly or partly’ because my latest, The Martian Girl, is set both in the modern day and 1898.) I am happy to identify as a historical novelist. It seems a logical thing to be if, like me, you prefer the past – or at least the look of the past – to the present.
It was partly to escape man-made fibre, plastic, McDonalds, and globalisation generally that I wrote – between 2002 and 2013 – a series of novels set in Edwardian times. If characters in a contemporary novel go into a Pret a Manger, does the writer bother describing the place? The world was much better set up for novelists in 1901. Regional accents and identities abounded; almost every shop, pub or restaurant on a high street was unique. The sky over London contained myriad atmospheric effects as a result of smoke and steam interacting with weather; and the countryside was so much more countrified. The dusty roads of a typical village might see one car a day. I was inspired to write an entire novel (Death on a Branch Line) by seeing an old photograph of a ladder propped against a hedge. (My motivation was the fact that a hedge might be so dense and high that a ladder was required to see over it.)
In my Edwardian novels, I was also escaping the fluorescent light which bleaches out our world. I particularly enjoy firelight and candlelight. There’s always a candle by my bed, and a major reason for my setting a novel in the 18th Century, was to describe the effects of candlelight. The novel, Soot, is about the murder of a silhouette painter, and the world evoked is monochromatic with snow on the ground and shadows looming.
Another reason for writing historical fiction is to escape the tyranny of the news. A few years ago, I did write an entirely contemporary novel, The Yellow Diamond, which is about rich Russians in Mayfair (itself a fairly 18th Century place I must admit: its private clubs have carriage lamps by the doors, and real fires burn within). As the time of publication approached, my usual neuroses were supplemented by the question of what the real-life Russians of Mayfair were getting up to. Would their iniquities mirror those I had invented? And would that be good or bad for the book?
I hear more and more people saying they avoid the news because it disrupts their lives. The implication is that the news is somehow getting out of hand. The word ‘news’ means both new events and the presentation of those events. To say there are more of the former – more actual new events – than ever before would be historically illiterate. People have always thought the times they lived in were uniquely tumultuous. But there are periods when society seems to be rushing headlong into the future. I am particularly interested in that phase of neophilia that occurred in the 1960s when Britain seemed to have a mid-life crisis, and Harold Wilson tried to ally himself to the ‘White Heat of the Technological Revolution’, even while smoking a pipe and generally behaving like a Yorkshireman out of a J.B. Priestley novel. During this phase, when ‘the motorway of life’ was being celebrated, ‘comprehensive redevelopments’ wrecked many of our towns, and a lot of beautiful and useful railway lines were closed. Those Edwardian novels of mine were set on the railways, and they were written partly so I could tell people born roughly at the same time as me – 1962 – what they had missed.
The Britain of 2018 seems Janus-faced. Nostalgia for an imperial past might explain the Brexit vote, but we are also a nation of technophiles, and I want people reading my historical novels to be thinking how much easier – or harder – the characters’ lives would be if they had smartphones.
Christopher Hitchens once said it was unreasonable and weak to try to avoid the news in this first sense of the word. His words (I think) were, “You might not be interested in the zeitgeist, but the zeitgeist is interested in you.” I agree, but I do not think it unreasonable to avoid the news in the sense of the communication of new events, of which there certainly is more than ever. The term ‘breaking news’, often appearing on websites flashing in red, seems highly pompous to me. I suppose we are meant to think of breaking waves but to me the term suggests breaking wind, so flatulent and grandiose is the presentation.
The news media is always telling us what is happening or what is going to happen. There’s less about what happened earlier on, and discussion of the past seems to have become taboo, hence the widespread use of the historical present. Here is an expert on the history of wine glasses quoted in the Financial Times magazine: “For the first half of the 18th century, people don’t tend to drink wine from the table. Wine is brought to them in a glass on a little salver, they take a swig and…” Everything must be ongoing. In Tesco some shelves are labelled ‘Snacking’; satisfied customers at McDonalds are ‘lovin’ it’.
So I could conclude that I write historical fiction to make up for this shortfall of the past tense in people’s lives, but it would be truer to say that I write historical fiction because I am fifty-five years old. I was never very up-to-date in the first place (in 1977 I nearly had a fist fight with somebody who insisted that the Sex Pistol were better than The Beatles) and now modernity is slipping away from me.
Martin Amis once said, “After a certain point a writer disengages from what is happening in the real world, and the real world actually looks not only strange but inimical.” The context was a discussion – in 1991 – of his father, Kingsley’s, work, of which Martin Amis said, “He can’t really write about 1991; he writes about a sort of frozen world that existed twenty or thirty years ago.”
Any writer of fiction has to face the fact that once they’re past fifty (or maybe even forty), they’re writing historical novels whether they want to do so or not.
- Girl Reading A Letter By Candlelight Artwork by (after) Jean-Baptiste Santerre
- The Locomotive, Monet, 1875