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message 1: by Jennifer, Group Founder/Mod #1 (new)

Jennifer (jennifertudor) | 726 comments Mod
Just thought this was a neat article by Sarah Dunant, author of The Birth of Venus


The novelists who tackle the past can tell us more about how we live our lives today

Sarah Dunant

Sex and violence in Ancient Rome, well-oiled pectorals in Sparta, Russell Crowe in Sherwood Forest (accent in Dublin) and blockbuster dramas on the Borgias and Medici. In the global world of entertainment, where video games, TV, books and movies feed remorselessly off each other, the past is back with a vengeance, though with little resemblance to history as it actually happened.

So what’s new? Hasn’t popular culture’s relationship to history always been more myth than reality? Think Hollywood and the western, or all those biblical epics, a treasure trove of screenplays “in the top drawer of every hotel room in America”, as Cecil B. DeMille once put it. Except half a century after his death, there is a new religion to be exploited. Richard Dawkins may believe in the mutation of genes over the Holy Spirit, but elsewhere we seem united in our worship of celebrity. And as our appetite increases and the B-list gets tackier, so the past becomes irresistible. Real or imagined, it doesn’t really matter: movies of Helen of Troy, the high-living Duchess of Devonshire, the quarrelling Boleyn sisters, a 26-hour version of Spartacus and the endless soap opera of famous dynasties.

With such opportunities for sensationalism one wonders if popular culture can ever engage with the complexity and confusions of history. Should it even try? There is an argument, put forward most recently by the author and critic Amanda Craig, that the past is a cop-out, only one step away from escapist fantasy. Leave history to the historians and let the novelist grapple with the present. Yet while Dickens may have been a sublime chronicler of Victorian modernity, there were many others, such as Tolstoy with War and Peace, who needed the perspective of time to give meaning to a history that, though they hadn’t lived it, had in many ways forged the present they now inhabited.

It’s an argument worth pursuing precisely because it is the novel, possibly more than any other art form, that can explore complexity over sensation when it comes to the past. Here is a form of time travel in which, if the novelist has done the research, writer and reader can create a fiercely imaginative and challenging experience.

Consider the new Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction — worth £25,000, making it one of the top prizes in the country — which will be awarded next week in Scotland. The shortlist is compelling — if I say so myself. Three of the seven writers, Hilary Mantel, Adam Foulds and Simon Mawer, were Man Booker contenders. The other four, Adam Thorpe, Iain Pears, Robert Harris and I, are either bestsellers or award-winners in other fields. All the books consider history through a number of different prisms, but with the present never entirely out of their sight. Mantel, Harris and I have politics at the centre, analysing how power, often hand-in-hand with religion, operates in the bureaucracy of the Tudor court, Cicero’s Rome or a republic of women incarcerated in a convent in 16th-century Italy. Pears, meanwhile, investigates a banking scandal of the late 19th century (how apt is that?), while Thorpe’s Hodd is a savage deconstruction of the myth of Robin Hood.

The last great flowering of historical fiction was in the Fifties and Sixties, and it’s here, perhaps, that it got itself a bad name. Jean Plaidy, Margaret Irwin, Georgette Heyer, Anya Seton ... the list is long and their output was prodigious. The austerity of postwar Britain demanded a fiction of escapism, royal romance and adventure as colourful in its creation of national identity as the cut of women’s bodices, styled for instant ripping. For young readers such as I was, it supplied something akin to an early hallucinogenic experience. The seeds of the Sixties revolution were already in place.

That revolution also bred a new breed of historians. Marxism, feminism, race and gender studies all mounted attacks on the accepted grand arch of history. They sought a richer, more inclusive vision for a more democratic present; a history of nobodies as well as somebodies.

The rewards were fantastic. From Carlo Ginzberg’s breakthrough study of uneducated religious dissent The Cheese and the Worms to Natalie Zemon Davis’s thrilling The Return of Martin Guerre, veins of pure gold were revealed. For novelists it was irresistible. Toni Morrison’s astonishing imagination enriched our understanding of slavery. Sarah Waters’s gay adventures rewrote the sexual history of the Victorians, while my own trilogy on the Italian Renaissance told through the experiences of women could not have been conceived, let alone written, even 20 years ago, such was the lack of documentary evidence.

But there is more to this new flowering than good stories. Historical fiction, like history itself, always tells us as much about the time it is written as the period it is writing about. And right now there are huge questions to be asked about the renewed power of religion. It informs global politics, dominates international security, influences social and scientific policies in countries as big as America and spawns a new intellectual war between believers and those out to ignite a new secular revolution.

Suddenly, history has a great deal to offer us when it comes to penetrating “otherness”. And when understanding how belief can be so powerful that it changes attitudes towards death, suicide, even murder, history is a potent tool. It was only a few centuries ago that Europe was consumed by religious wars, and faith both oppressed and brought comfort and meaning in times of brutal poverty and inequality. How far did the threat of Hell or the promises of pleasures in Heaven dictate behaviour then? How and when did the adrenalin of fervour turn to violence? And how did the word of God become the rights of men rather than women or children, imposing a straitjacket on human sexuality bound to end in hypocrisy and abuse? Having spent the past ten years deep within Renaissance Italy, it sometimes feels to me as if I have been learning as much about the present as the past.

Whoever wins on June 19, the culture is already richer for the arrival of historical fiction as a new player in the literary world.
The Walter Scott Prize will be presented during the 2010 Borders Book Festival on June 19 (bordersbookfestival.org)

message 2: by Colleen, The Enforcer/Mod #2 (new)

Colleen (nightoleander) | 345 comments Mod
Thanks for the post Jennifer!

message 3: by Kate. (new)

Kate. | 174 comments Thanks Jennifer

message 4: by Allie (new)

Allie | 9 comments hmm So does anyone know who won the prize she mentions?

message 5: by Jennifer, Group Founder/Mod #1 (new)

Jennifer (jennifertudor) | 726 comments Mod
Yes, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel won.

message 6: by Lyn (Readinghearts), The mod of last resort/Mod #3 (new)

Lyn (Readinghearts) (lsmeadows) | 1550 comments Mod
Wow, that's two for that book.

Susanna - Censored by GoodReads (susannag) | 227 comments It's a very interesting piece of historical fiction.

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