You have the authority of the imagination, you have legitimacy. Take it. Do not spend your life in apologetic cringing because you think you are some inferior form of historian. The trades are different, but complementary.Hilary Mantel
Since the publication of my novel The Making of Martin Sparrow in 2018 I have often been asked the question ‘What made you turn to fiction?’ This has turned out, usually, to be a question with a sub-text: ‘What made you, a long-time historian, cross over to the other side?’ But whatever form the question takes, my answer is always the same: ‘That’s easy,’ I say, ‘you get to make things up.’
It’s a rejoinder that is nowhere near as liberating as it may sound. Just what is meant by ‘make things up’? And is the writer now free, discharged of all responsibility to history, having gone over to the other side? Here is my shot at an answer to those questions.
There’s a story that some readers may know as it is now borderline legend, about Peter Carey at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival in 2001. He was there to talk about his then new novel, True History of the Kelly Gang.
He was badgered by history buffs and Ned Kelly buffs, interrogators who said he’d departed from the known facts, he’d got this or that wrong. He parried question after question, got more and more frustrated, slid further and further down in his chair. ‘I made it up,’ he said, again and again.
Inga Clendinnen was there, cheering him on. She thought the history buffs were silly. ‘He knew he had written fiction,’ she wrote in that famous Quarterly Essay of hers, ‘The History Question.’ She wrote of Carey’s confidence, capering on ‘his edge of the ravine’ between history and fiction. ‘He aims at transformation not reclamation of the past,’ she said.
Now, here’s the thing. Using that same little story, Tom Griffiths came to an entirely different conclusion in his luminous work The Art of Time Travel (2016).
What Tom chose to see and to emphasise was Carey’s fascination with the historical Ned. When the novelist acknowledged his debt to the history books, he cited a small number of vital works and declared a particular obligation to the popular biography by Ian Jones called Ned Kelly, a Short Life (1995). ‘I turned almost daily [to these works] when I was lost or bewildered or simply forgetful of the facts,’ he wrote. So, well he might say ‘I made it up’.
‘But the thing is,’ wrote Tom, ‘he didn’t’.
Griffiths wanted to emphasise something other than invention. He said Carey was trading ‘on the power of a known past’; he was tracking the past, tracking once real people and once real events. And of course, Carey knew that. So, what did he mean when he said, emphatically, ‘I made it up!’
I think he was referring to the novelist’s liberty to go where historians cannot go. He was speaking of the novel’s location – inside Ned’s head. Carey goes there – and we know there doesn’t exist – but he goes there anyway and delivers up a marvellous fiction. In fact, it’s a fiction based on fictions and there are three of them: i) the fanciful conceit that Kelly, in the last year or so of his life, wrote an account of himself for a daughter, an account that survived the ravages of time in the form of thirteen dog-eared parcels – an imagined epistolary record; ii) the love affair with Mary Hearn who is, supposedly, the mother of this daughter; and iii) Carey’s voice, which was inspired by Ned’s Jerilderee Letter but is such an imaginative extrapolation – 400 pages worth – as takes it way beyond any historical document.
So, there’s no doubt, he made it up. But I think Tom Griffiths is right too. He points us to the historical novelist’s ‘particular responsibility’ to history and he affirms the point that Carey didn’t just make it up.
What is this particular responsibility of the writer of historical fiction to history? How might the historical past figure in historical fiction, and how is it utilized; how does it figure in fictional method and fictional form? And finally, what sort of a challenge might this be for the historian switching to fiction?
The answer to those questions depends on what kind of historical fiction we’re talking about, for there’s a clear distinction to be made, in my view, between historical novels that track history (such as Carey’s True History), and those that don’t – novels that are set in an historical time and place but follow imagined characters along an imagined storyline, an unknown journey or adventure with an unknown end. A mere tale.
In Hilary Mantel’s Reith Lectures, the great novelist spends quite a bit of her time fleshing out how we go about the writing of history and the writing of fiction, how the complementarity of the two genres does not minimise the gulf that separates them by way of method and sensibility. And yet, in historical fiction they are woven together. How?
Speaking of her Tudor novels about Thomas Cromwell, Mantel is at pains to demonstrate how engaged she was with the historical Cromwell, chief fixer to Henry VIII:
In my current cycle of Tudor novels, [she says] I track the historical record so I can report the outer world faithfully… but my chief concern is with the interior drama ofmy character’s lives. From history I know what they do, but I can’t with any certainty know what they think or feel.’
And she goes on to say,
Your real job as a novelist … is to recreate the texture of the lived experience: to activate the senses, and to deepen [the] readers engagement through feeling.
She is reminding us that fiction is the supreme genre for rendering subjectivity. She is immersed in the history. She is trading on the power of a known past, but she insists on the liberties of fiction, on her freedom to confer upon historical figures what we might call the touch of the real or ‘the texture of the lived experience’ – intimate scenes and gestures, and a language in which to articulate ambitions, desires and dreams: the sense that we are witnessing or eavesdropping on historical events.
In one fascinating passage, late in Wolf Hall, she tells us how her fiction may carry the burden of a vast unfolding historical process but its authenticity comes from an intimacy of settings that is mostly hidden from, or beyond the legitimate reach of, the historian. ‘Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions,’ she writes, as if soliloquising:
This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rose water; her hand pulling close the bed curtain, the discreet sigh of flesh against flesh.
She gives us, she says in her Reith Lectures, ‘what it felt like from the inside.’ But what does that mean? Stephen Greenblatt provides an eloquent answer. The great historical novels, he writes,
offer the dream of full access, access to what went on behind closed doors, off the record, in private, when no one was listening or recording…. [They] provide a powerful hallucination of presence, the vivid sensation of lived life. They set the dead in motion and make them speak: I am not a stick figure in a textbook; I was once alive, emotionally complex, beset with fears and daydreams, just as you are now. I will hide nothing from you. I will reveal to you what it actually felt like to experience in the flesh certain historical forces that are fixed in certain formulaic phrases: the Italian Renaissance, the English Reformation, the Irish Uprising.
Exceptional historians have produced a somewhat similar effect, summoning the ghosts. These are gifted scholars whose studies, blessed by documentary riches, have accessed the ‘interior’ world, uncovering remarkably intimate details about how certain people or certain groups in the past have felt and thought and talked. Robert Darnton’s study of a peculiar form of workers’ revolt in The Great Cat Massacre comes to mind. So, too, Carlo Ginzberg’s miller in The Cheese and the Worms, and the people of Le Roy Ladurie’s medieval village of Montaillou. There are disciplines, or sub-disciplines, that specialise in this kind of intimate recovery: l’histoire des mentalités for one; history in the ethnographic vein for another. As Darnton has said of his cat massacre essay and other episodes in his cultural history, he is attempting ‘to show not merely what people thought but how they thought – how they construed the world, invested it with meaning and infused it with emotion.’
But such works also achieve their sense of authenticity by frankly conceding the limits to the recovery of the past, whereas the historical novel does not have such limits. Its purpose is not recovery, but invention. Fiction is, indeed, about transformation not reclamation.
Tolstoy believed, conservatively, that the unrecorded past, lost forever, was 99.999 per cent of the experience of ‘the peoples’, and a fraction less, we presume, of the experience of the elites. That is the playground of the great historical novelists. They have the capacity to make us exclaim, ‘Yes, this is how it must have been’ or ‘this is what it must have felt like.’ They do this not by heaping on accurate detail from the historical record but by the illusion of reality conjured in the subjective realm; that sense of being inside the history, inside the player’s heads, or under their skin.
The historical novelist who tracks the history navigates continually between imagining the interior drama on the one hand and the constraints of the record on the other, though the first duty is always to the drama and not the constraint. Mantel, for instance, works away at the point where what is enacted meets what is dreamed, where politics meets psychology, where political history meets the interior drama, the latter always having priority, the former never unimportant. It is where fiction is in a kind of partnership with history, but history is the subordinate partner. The genre at its best is an elegant display of art, tracking close to history, perhaps close to a chosen historical interpretation, but freely imagining the texture of the lived experience beyondthe realm and reach of the documented past.
This is the fully-realized or fully-engaged historical fiction, fully-engaged with history, the emphasis almost as much on the adjective as the noun, where the symbiosis, the close-living to the advantage of the fiction is readily acknowledged.
By way of contrast, the historical novel that is not systematically engaged with history is another category of fiction, a category all of its own. It’s the novel set in the historical past that tells a story unknown to history and it is perhaps best described, simply, asimaginative fiction. This is where, for the moment, I situate my own practice as a novelist, and where The Making of Martin Sparrow belongs, in company with inspiring exemplars such as Brian Moore’s Black Robe (1985), Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove (1985), Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone (2006), and Sebastion Barry’s Days Without End (2016).
There is no track here, no recorded trajectory. There is no historiography for the storyline. The author is not capering on the edge of that ravine between history and fiction, not constantly leaping the ravine to confer with history and then leaping back; and there is no interpretation that the fiction writer may attach to, or follow. It’s not a partnership.
The locus here is firmly in the territory of pure fiction where the author may be inspiredby or borrowing from history, but s/he is not tethered to it; nor tracking it. This is a different kind of relationship with history: you’re writing not of what happened but of what might have happened; it’s where the outer story is as much a work of the imagination as the interior drama; the conjuring of the subjective realm. You’re operating in a complex, imagined world that is complete within its own artifice. It’s where ‘I made it up’ means, without qualification, I made it up!
The next sentence must come not from history but from the writer’s store of words and images, memories or even dreams; from inside the momentum of the story thus far, from that chemistry between the conscious and the subconscious, all of which is subordinate to the arc of the plot, the affinity of one chosen word for another, and the crafting of a plausible cohesion whereby the various storylines knit together. In other words, the act of composition has no regard for where the material comes from.
In imaginative fiction of this kind, history figures not as a partner or even a junior partner, but as a subordinate raw material. That raw material might be consequential in impact but it must be incidental in presentation. It doesn’t intrude; it quietly infiltrates in disguise. Historical detail succumbs, at every turn, to dramatic licence. It is there to serve at the convenience of plot and character, a use-value in the freely-imagining act of composition.
A nugget of historical truth might provide the catalyst or the spark for a novel; a true story might become a storyline, fictionalised and knitted into the weave of storylines that constitute the tale; scrupulously researched facts may be quietly present in the camouflage of speech or memory; and the documentary record will almost certainly provide language or little-known facts, the correct terminology for this or that or a startling image that enhances the quality of authenticity; part of the narrative of experience and emotions that is the core of what you’re doing.
But here’s a caution: too much old language (from diaries, letters, chronicles, newspapers) can be a distraction that drives the reader nuts. It has to be a light seasoning. In the best historical fiction and the best imaginative fiction, the language is, for the most part, modernist in its tendency and doesn’t disrupt the reader. The sense of the archaic can come simply from a well-placed old word – putrilage, besetment, embosomed, sconce, palanquin, cookfire, stump-stool, vasculum, fishwife – or it might come from what seems like a bygone formulation: the sound of a bellbird might be likened to ‘a dawn chime in the mansions of heaven’, the old word, ‘chime’ married with the pre-modern concept, ‘mansions of heaven’. Just how little is needed for effect is the point, confirming how very few words can do a lot of work. In The Making of Martin Sparrow, the exquisite sound conjured in this old language is in sharp contrast with the extremities of human life on the frontier:
A lone wood duck winged out of the west. He heard the call of a crow and somewhere nearby the song of a bellbird filled the air, like a dawn chime in the mansions of heaven. He took the small axe and cleaned the head in the dirt and then he fixed the weapon to his belt. He lifted the blanket on the corpse, one last look, a good long look…
Better still, take this sentence in Wolf Hall, from a scene where Cromwell contemplates the impending execution of Thomas More: ‘Bargain all you like. Consign yourself to the hangman if you must. The people don’t give a fourpenny fuck.’ That one word makes all the difference. Take out ‘fourpenny’ and it just sounds like twentieth century bad language.
Description cannot be ornamental. Best to leave the reader hungry. But if economy is important, so too is particularity or precision. History must provide a language that properly situates one’s characters with respect to the limits of their knowledge. The authenticity of the narrative will depend on these things, on understanding, detail and texture that comes from the documented past. The research is no less onerous than the research an historian might do, or a novelist like Mantel. She calls it ‘the informed imagination’. Characters must possess the common knowledge of their time, so they don’t say what they could never think. Similarly, a good novelist will have his or her characters operate within the ethical framework of their day, shunning the comfortable perspectives of presentism, and if that shocks the reader, all the better.
History, here, has no special privileges. It is a mere servant. There is no partnership, so to speak, with the interior drama. The accurate detail can be unobtrusively significant but what gives fiction its vitality is not so much ‘the accurate detail as the animate one’, for novelists are ‘creators, not coroners of the human case,’ as literary critic James Wood has observed. In some fiction it’s the scholarship that is the problem – a narrative overloaded with little facts, labouring under a stagey attention to period detail or clunky patois; a narrative ‘entangled in the simulation of historical authenticity.’
Ditto for landscape. In a frontier novel such as Martin Sparrow, the foreign setting (foreign for white men and women) has to figure as history figures – consequential but incidental – a descriptive strategy fitting both what the characters would know and what they cannot know; built into perspective, part of the narrative of experience and emotions, thus integral to the story:
They went up the gully to the heathland above the cave. They walked west for about an hour and then took rest, sat themselves down on the lip of a basalt outcrop fringed with tea-tree and spider flower. They searched the scene to the north and the north-west, the upland dissected by the maze of ridgelines and valleys to the far horizon.
Sparrow wondered how they might ever find their way should they press on. The country so abrupt and warped and altogether infinite, the patterning so random a man might succumb to a most morose and hopeless bewilderment …. He tried to sight the valley of the upper Branch but he could see nothing but the hazy blue-green sameness of the forests and the endless confusion of sandstone rimrock. He was awfully glad to be with Bea and the long-legged pup, but he worried about pressing on and he worried, too, about not pressing on.
The foremost ridge was lightly wooded with strange trees, the skewbald limbs bent low, tortured and twisted by the onslaught of the elements year-round.
‘What if the savages come?’ he said.
It is in such intimacies of the moment, for the most part beyond the reach of any documented past, that we conjure the sense of the real, the novel passing from mind to mind showing us the world as consciousness moves through it. And not being anchored to the record, this branch of fiction makes a different pact with the reader. To paraphrase Henry James: ‘What the historian wants is more documents than he or she can use, but what the novelist wants is more liberties than he or she can take.’ The liberties are paramount. The paradox here is that when it works, readers and reviewers are quite often sure it’s historically accurate or ‘true to the history’. It’s a conjuring trick.
In writing a novel of this kind there has to be a keenness, not to follow history but to follow your thoughts anywhere, to let your characters guide you, to vanish into the story and to write from the inside. To call it historical fiction would be a deception. It’s just fiction.
The Making of Martin Sparrow is a novel set on the frontier early in our colonial history. It is, therefore, inevitably dealing with issues that arouse deep passions and divisions in our own time.
We often write or revise history out of the urgent concerns of the present – but we do that in fiction too. Good historians are committed de-mythologisers, as are many novelists. Both history and fiction contribute to an informed public memory. ‘History and fiction may seem to be sibling rivals for the truth sometimes,’ writes Alex Miller, ‘but they are essentially complementary in their civilising project.’
To write a tale set on the early colonial frontier without a firm grounding in the history of dispossession and violence – the cycles of atrocity and counter-atrocity, the predicaments, the uneasy accommodations, the moral dilemmas – would be a rather vacuous exercise. We know a great deal, now, about our nation’s more than century-long commitment to forgetting; we now have the fierce controversies of the ‘history wars’ and a voluminous scholarship of recovery to enrich our collective memory. This is no less the case for the circumstances confronting women – like Sparrow’s companion, Bea Faa – in those first years of settlement, both the menace and the opportunities of the frontier, the vastly varying settings, or micro-settings, for entrapment or accomplishment.
An intelligent work of imaginative fiction set in the historical past must be underpinned by an informed-ness that pervades the tale in a moral sense, for the most part embedded deep in context and conversation, in truths that are partial and cumulative, conditional and contested, and home truths that might just surface in a flash of keen-eyed understanding. In Martin Sparrow such a moment, at one point, carries on the voice of the émigré Bostonian, Thaddeus Cuff:
It’s the first settlers do the brutal work. Them that come later, they get to sport about in polished boots and frockcoats, kidskin gloves . . . revel in polite conversation, deplore the folly of ill-manners, forget the past, invent some bullshit fable. Same as what happened in America. You want to see men at their worst, you follow the frontier.
As historians we like filing systems, card or digital, no matter. We spend a lot of time sifting evidence, interrogating the surviving record, checking discrepancies, assessing the status of that evidence, asking who is telling me this and why? It’s all about method, about understanding the limits of the record while extracting from it as much as we can; reconstructing contexts, recovering lost intentions and lost meanings, wrestling with fallible and biased witnesses, with incomplete accounts; pondering silences and evasions and constantly questioning our conclusions. And we’re always trying to tell two stories – of what we think happened and how we’ve come to know what we think happened.
The process of writing fiction is the opposite of this. The trades of history and fiction may be ‘complementary in their civilising project’, but the respective method and the related sensibility in each case sets them well apart. What for the historian is ‘method’ is, for the fiction writer, osmosis. It’s a weird alchemy, as E.L. Doctorow makes plain:
It’s not a terribly rational way to work. It’s hard to explain …it’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights but you can make the whole trip that way.
The fiction-writer is like the silk worm, spinning the story from some mysterious chemistry within. It is not a terribly rational way to work.
And Mantel would agree:
I like my world, and particularly my inner world, to be organized [she tells us]. I like filing systems. But the whole process of writing novels is the opposite of that – it’s do not label, do not define, do not decide, leave everything loose. You have to say to yourself, I take my hands off, I let my unconscious work for me.
Thomas Mann said ‘A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.’ That little maxim may be most appropriate to the historian switching to fiction, historical or otherwise. The art of historical fiction, and the art of imaginative fiction may be tempered by historical considerations but in the progression from first draft to final manuscript the writer must transcend those considerations, lift into the realm of imaginative possibility, and go where historians cannot.
Historians switching to fiction must tap into a creative mode that is alien to their normal practice and revel in the liberties. They must go driving at night or, in Mantel’s words, they must take their hands off. They must vanish into the story, into a realm where truth does not inhibit art, where feelings are more important than facts, and the author’s first duty is to thrill or delight. Best of all, you get to make things up.
Thanks to Paul Daley, Jim Davidson, Stephen Gapps, Tom Griffiths, Kiera Lindsey, Mark McKenna, Lesley Johnson, Douglas Newton, Brenda Niall, Suzanne Rickard and Elizabeth Webby for constructive comments along the way.
Peter Carey, True History of the Kelly Gang, University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia, 2000.
Inga Clendinnen, ‘The History Question. Who Owns the Past?’, Quarterly Essay, no. 23, 2006.
Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and other episodes in French Cultural History, Penguin Books, London, 1984.
Stephen Greenblatt, ‘How it Must Have Been’, New York Review of Books, November 5, 2009.
Tom Griffiths, The Art of Time Travel. Historians and their Craft, Black Inc, Carlton, 2016.
Larissa MacFarquhar, ‘The Dead are Real. Hilary Mantel’s Imagination’, The New Yorker, 15 October 2012.
Hilary Mantel, ‘The Day is for the Living’, BBC Reith Lectures. First Lecture, 13 June 2017.
–‘Can these Bones Live?’, BBC Reith Lectures. Fourth Lecture, 4 July 2017.
– Wolf Hall, Fourth Estate 2009.
Alex Miller, ‘Written in our hearts’, Weekend Australian, 16-17 December 2006.
George Plimpton, ‘EL Doctorow, The Art of Fiction, No. 94’, Paris Review, issue 101, Winter 1986.
James Wood, ‘Invitation to a Beheading’, The New Yorker, 7 May 2012.