On imaginatively interpreting “why” things happened as they did along with “how” they happened in our historical fiction. Book recommendations: Martin Puchner. George Eliot, Jerome de Groot, Richard Cohen, Ashutosh Mehndiratta, Michael Ondaatje, and Maggie O’Farrell. And a reading and writing exercise.
New reader? Browse through the free newsletter archives and subscribe.
A Quick Housekeeping Note
Before we get into this month’s essay, I hope you’ll take some time to browse around the brand-new newsletter page. I’m very happy there is now a way to browse and search through the archives as they grow. Of course, the page will evolve so bookmark it if you like.
I come from a part of the world where we continue to lose our memories of historic, culture-defining events with each passing generation and at an exponential pace. These memories are not being recorded and preserved as they could be despite our easy, ubiquitous technologies. A century from now, when even these technologies and media will become obsolete, it will be harder to recover and restore—if people then are even inclined to do so—meaningful substance from the throwaway ephemera that is being added everywhere with every second.
In his latest book, Culture: The Story of Us, from Cave Art to K-Pop, Martin Puchner writes that such cultural preservation and passing down through the generations is about the “know-why” versus the “know-how” of life. He clarifies upfront that he is not interested in the idea of culture as property—something that a community or country owns. Instead, he sees culture as always evolving from encounters with other cultures. When influences from far and wide come together—even as fragments transmitted with errors and misunderstandings—there are synergies and serendipities that result in even more cultural creativity and innovation.
George Eliot’s “Historic Imagination”
Puchner explores fifteen specific people or communities through the ages and across the globe to show how “a new story of culture emerges, one of engagement across barriers of time and place, of surprising connections and subterranean influences.” These engagements can be constructive or destructive. And the latter kind—e.g. war, invasion—brings collateral damage, of course. But the interactions always lead to “new forms of knowledge and meaning-making” and “astonishing strategies of resistance and resilience.”
One of the fifteen explorations is about the evolution of the historical novel in Britain. Instead of Walter Scott, the usual benchmark in discussions about the Eurocentric historical novel, Puchner writes about George Eliot and how she turned to the historical novel form and made it her own. With its new historicism approach, Middlemarch elevated the genre and laid the groundwork for the kind of historical novel we aim for and love today. Puchner writes:
The point was no longer to embed different ideas about the past in historically accurate settings, but to show the workings of history. In Middlemarch, Eliot wrote a novelistic counterpart to the work of great historians.”Puchner, Martin. Culture: The Story of Us. United States: WW Norton, 2023.
Several other Eliot critics, scholars, and readers have made similar observations about this novel. For example, Jerome de Groot has written:
George Eliot’s historical fiction is less interested in the traumatic events of history. Her masterpiece, Middlemarch, is subtitled A Study of Provincial Life, and she looks for meaning and significance in the margins, away from the central occurrences . . . Eliot’s reflection on historical circumstance, therefore, suggests that it allows us to see the ways in which people are caught and to reflect on the reasons for this; a kind of politicized hindsight which then allows the individual to reflect upon their contemporary circumstance.De Groot, Jerome. The Historical Novel (the New Critical Idiom): Taylor & Francis, 2009.
Eliot herself defined the “Historic Imagination” in her notebooks as follows:
[By the “historic imagination”] I mean the working out in detail of the various steps by which a political or social change was reached, using all extant evidence and supplying deficiencies by careful analogical creation. How triumphant opinions originally spread—how institutions arose—what were the conditions of great inventions, discoveries, or theoretic conceptions—what circumstances affecting individual lots are attendant on the decay of long-established systems,—all these grand elements of history require the illumination of special imaginative treatment. But effective truth in this application of art requires freedom from the vulgar coercion of conventional plot, which is become hardly of higher influence on imaginative representation than a detailed “order” for a picture sent by a rich grocer to an eminent painter—allotting a certain portion of the canvas to a rural scene, another to a fashionable group, with a request for a murder in the middle distance, and a little comedy to relieve it.George Eliot, “Essays and Leaves from a Notebook (1885),” George Eliot Archive, accessed March 6, 2023, https://georgeeliotarchive.org/items/show/16.
Historical Fiction as “Know-Why” along with “Know-How”
Borrowing Puchner’s distinction between know-how and know-why here, we might say that Eliot didn’t simply gather an encyclopedia of facts to present her version of “know-how.” She did thorough research and analysis to also formulate her version of “know-why.” And only then did she fill the remaining gaps with her imaginative interpretations and crafty storytelling.
This is one of the biggest challenges we face as historical fiction writers when we try to recreate a past world and time. We are also working with fragments of the past that have been transmitted with errors and misunderstandings due to the many blind spots and biases of the chroniclers of their times. We have, undoubtedly, subjective agendas of our own with the stories we choose to fictionalize. Given all that, how do we bring a past world to life in vivid, immersive ways that are both familiar and strange to our readers? I’m talking about going beyond the technical worldbuilding of what our characters eat-sleep-wear-say, how our settings look-feel-smell-sound, how social structures hinder-elevate-magnify-diminish, etc.
Can we, for example, go beyond showing the social hierarchies that existed during a particular period and how that may have affected our characters? Can we also aim to illustrate the political and religious dynamics that created and enabled such hierarchies?
For me, the ideal historical fiction reader does not want to be told how things happened; they can turn to history texts for that. They want to understand, from a novel’s storytelling and narrative approaches, why things happened the way they did. Better yet, they want to actively engage their imagination while reading to draw their own conclusions about the whys and wherefores. (Sidebar: Eliot was not so good at this bit. She sometimes got long-winded and didactic in her fiction. A different discussion for another time.)
We may think of much of history as a host of random events driven by a set of arbitrary actions taken by a small group of powerful people. But, in our fiction, we want to explore more cause and effect, correlation and causation, and checks and balances. I’m not saying that the worlds we build in our stories must be fully explainable and logical. I’m saying they must be believable, even with all their happenstances and weirdness, and richly layered.
An Example from the Movies
While there are several strategies to add those rich layers to our fiction, I’ll highlight one in particular with an example from another medium: film.
The 2017 World War II blockbuster movie, Dunkirk, stirred up much controversy because of its whitewashing. Despite all the outcry, it won many accolades and awards.
As Ashutosh Mehndiratta writes in his new book, India and Faraway Lands, the British Indian army had 43,000 Britons and 1,30,000 Indians when Britain declared war on Germany. By the war’s end, the Indian troops had increased considerably, and some 87,000 had died. Even in World War I, over a million Indians had been enlisted.
Mehndiratta gives us some more fascinating nuggets about how, during those war years, India became quite an international destination. It was a haven for Polish, Greek, Maltese, Iraqi, and Kazakh refugees. It was a prisoner-of-war camp for German and Italian soldiers captured in North Africa and Chinese soldiers who escaped from Burma. Over 2,00,000 American soldiers and engineers found their way to Bombay, Calcutta, Karachi, Delhi, and other port cities, which led to all kinds of interesting trade and interpersonal interactions. Most of this still doesn’t make it into World War II fiction. Imagine all the missed plot and subplot possibilities.
Publishers and agents will tell you that World War II continues to be the most popular historical fiction topic. In fact, it’s an entire subgenre of its own. And India’s engagement in both the great wars is well-documented, as I also wrote about briefly here. Yet, many works, like Dunkirk, never include a single Indian soldier, even as a minor character.
Richard Cohen’s excellent 2022 book dives deep into this kind of selective and subjective filtering and why we all need to understand this better.
Looking for book recommendations? Check out my ongoing book lists.
However, the fight over the narratives of who we are and who gets to write history shows itself in all cultures, and what we understand of our history affects what we do and what we believe.Cohen, Richard. Making History: The Storytellers Who Shaped the Past. United States: Simon & Schuster, 2022.
So an exclusion like the one in Dunkirk is, to me, not simply a representational failure. It is also, to a certain extent, a moral and an ethical failure.
By the way, if you are writing a historical novel, Mehndiratta’s book might be a good resource. It covers a 5,000-year history of global events that shaped the Indian subcontinent and vice versa. Though told mostly from India’s vantage point, this book is in conversation with Puchner’s book. Like the latter, Mehndiratta also describes multicultural encounters through the ages that led to major evolutionary developments. He also includes tales of intrepid travelers, forgotten cities, and revolutionary texts. As he writes:
Despite the scanty evidence, one thing remains clear—the human past was interconnected all along . . . The ancient Sanskrit phrase Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, meaning ‘the world is one family’, could not be more true.Mehndiratta, Ashutosh. India and Faraway Lands: 5,000 Years of Connected History. India: Amaryllis Publishing, 2023.
(If that last bit about revolutionary texts interests you as much as it does me, please also pick up Martin Puchner’s earlier book, The Written World:The Power of Stories to Shape People, History, Civilization.)
A Reading and a Writing Exercise
1) Reading: pick one historical novel where you think the story has been expansive and layered enough to a) include multi-cultural encounters like the ones in Puchner’s and Mehndiratta’s books and b) give us the know-why instead of just the know-how about one of its major plot points.
Here’s one of my all-time favorites: Michael Ondaatje’s award-winning The English Patient. It’s a World War II novel. But, unlike the aforementioned movie, there is a multicultural cast of characters here: the eponymous Brit (who’s actually Hungarian; not a spoiler, I promise), his British lover, a Canadian nurse, an Indian sapper, and an Italian-Canadian thief. Ondaatje was deliberate about the differences in his characters both in terms of backgrounds and appearances. And by showing us the war—the external one and each internal one—through all these different points of view, Ondaatje gives us insightful perspectives on the meanings of freedom, survival, and more. The prose is also beautiful, as you can see from the tiny sample below. To cap it all off, it has one of those rare book-to-film adaptations that enhances the book-reading experience.
We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves . . . She entered the story knowing she would emerge from it feeling she had been immersed in the lives of others, in plots that stretched back twenty years, her body full of sentences and moments, as if awaking from sleep with a heaviness caused by unremembered dreams.Ondaatje, Michael. The English Patient. United States: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2011.
2) Writing: With your work-in-progress historical novel, look for one plot point where you can include something about another culture. It could be as brief as the Indian tigress in Maggie O’Farrell’s medieval Italy novel, The Marriage Portrait. Try to make it as unexpected (but plausible) as possible and aim for maximum mileage as O’Farrell has done. That tigress has barely two or three scenes, but she’s an important driver in the main character arc development.
She could tell him everything, she knows. From the fiery feel of the fur to the crack of the iron bar on her wrist as she was dragged away. She could describe for him the fetid air of the menagerie, the shackled ankles of the bear. She could tell him that a few weeks after their visit to the Sala dei Leoni, she plucked up the courage to approach her father during a music lesson, which he sometimes attended, if he could spare the time, and ask him if she could see the animal again, and her father had ripped open her heart, with words like blades.O’Farrell, Maggie. The Marriage Portrait: A Novel. United States: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2022.
In Closing, Two Caveats
1) There is always a moral and ethical responsibility when fictionalizing history as the Dunkirk example above shows. Imaginative interpretation does not mean taking unwarranted liberties with well-proven facts. Of course, certain kinds of alterations may be acceptable if explained with care in a historic note. We’ll discuss examples of these in a future newsletter.
2) It’s important to remember what Jeff VanderMeer has defined as worldview versus storyview in his terrific craft book, Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction. Essentially, worldview is what you, as the writer, know about your story, and storyview is what your characters know and believe about their world. There should always be a healthy tension or gap between worldview and storyview. VanderMeer is discussing fantastical or speculative worlds there, but this approach also holds for other genres, including ours. We’ll dive deeper into this idea separately too.
Last month, we discussed the “what” question. This month, although I had not planned it as such, we’ve discussed the “why” question. Let’s see, ahem, to whom we might turn next month. I hope this was useful and as thought-provoking for you as it has been for me. Please let me know in the discussion area below. And you can also sign up for my next historical fiction workshop if you like.
Thanks for reading. This newsletter is a free publication. Here are some ways you can support the work: