Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Gore Vidal

‘As every dullard knows, the historical novel is neither history nor a novel. History means footnotes and careful citations from others tenured in the field, while the “serious” novel is about the daily lives of those who teach school and commit adultery.’

Gore Vidal

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Nostalgia and the historical novel

I have just finished Alexandre Dumas' swashbuckling Le Vicomte de Bragelonne (serialized 1847-50) which flags a bit at the end (and is the beginning of a trilogy ending in The Man in the Iron Mask). It has an atmosphere of nostalgia and sadness ageing (particularly d'Artagnan's recognition that he is increasingly irrelevant despite his bodily verve). The novel is also suffused with a sense of nostalgia, Dumas's desire for a time when things were simpler and more noble (as opposed to the perceived venality of his own times). I rarely think about this idea - that the historical novel often renders the past as somewhere idealised and more perfect, indeed a place of lost ideals: 'such friends, indeed, that none are now left like them', Le Vicomte, ed. Coward (OUP, 1998), p. 619. This is a fetishisation of the past that needs more exploration, the sense that the historical novel can allow a consideration of a better time.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Monday, 18 July 2011

Lost in Austen and reading about the 'past'

‘I’m having a bit of a strange postmodern moment here’
‘Is that agreeable?’
                        (Lost in Austen, ITV, 2008)

In ITV’s Lost in Austen a reader of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice becomes caught up in the action of the fiction in a kind of narrative-time-slip. The heroine, Amanda Price, becomes magically enmeshed in the world of Pride and Prejudice through an interface in her bathroom, swapping places with Elizabeth Bennett who enters modernity (and becomes ‘real’) with relish (hence the mobile phone). Price has to negotiate various aspects of the novel rely on her knowledge of Austen to ensure a happy ending in reality and fiction. Price eventually stays in the fictional world to be with Darcy, who she falls in love with, leaving Elizabeth Bennett in the contemporary, ‘real’ world. Lost in Austen is part of a suite of dynamic reimaginations of Austen’s work, texts which consider the fiction of the past as something that might be easily disrupted, rewritten, rejigged, or improve with the addition of zombies and seamonsters. The quote that is an epigraph to this chapter comes when Price asks Darcy climb into a manmade lake, visually quoting the most famous scene from the seminal 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice in which Colin Firth, playing Darcy, emerged dripping from a pool. Price satirically points out the way in which Pride and Prejudice has become a set of tropes to be played with and detached from their original, giving rise in recent years to film (Chadha 2004), advertising, novels (Grahame-Smith 2009), reality television (Channel 4 2002) and newspaper columns (Fielding 1995-6). Austen, and the fictional ‘past’ that she represents, opens up a visual and textual palette that allows film makers, novelists, and television writers incredible latitude to reinvent and rework. The fictional past becomes a repository of themes, ideas, images and discourses to fuel new and dynamic work (and this is in addition to the numerous continuations, sequels, prequels of Austen’s novels that have been being written since the mid-Nineteenth Century (de Groot 2009, 65-6)).

Quite apart from playing rather neatly with the conventions of costume drama, and challenging the ways that reader-viewers engage with the idealised past that Austen in particular represents, Lost in Austen dramatically represents the motif of encountering with the past through reading about it, and anticipates various ways in which reading-engaging-empathising might be construed. The past is a place which has a strongly delimited narrative, where things happen that are correct; yet at the same time the local, the domestic, the particular might be interrupted, fragmented, spliced or confused. Price is aware that she is imagining, dreaming, inhabiting another’s world, but her very manifestation in that world changes it subtly and turns it into a story about her; it is a physical iteration of the central theory of romance fiction, that is, that it allows the fantastical projection of the reader’s self into the story (McCracken 1998, 75). Fiction in Lost in Austen allows a space of possibility, ensuring that the reader can hold a – physical and imaginative – place in then and now. This imaginative simultaneity demonstrates once again the interesting demands that historical fiction makes of the reader, and the implications for a model of the historical imagination are clear. The ways in which readers of historical novels engage with the past are sophisticated and thoughtful. How do we, as readers, solve the seemingly commonplace conundrum that historical fiction is real and not real, that it must cleave to fact and authenticity even as it points out its own specious falsehood? How, within all this, do we deal with our own affective, empathic relationship to the past and the narratives we read?

Teaching Philippa Gregory novels in Hyde

Friday, 17 December 2010

Student reports written about reading historical fiction

The following is a link to a folder of reports written by Third Year students about reading historical fiction. They consider reception theory, reader-response, data collected by questionnaire, interviews and other theories in order to begin to model how readers respond to, and, more importantly, why they read, historical fiction. If you use these documents please acknowledge them.