History as Tyrant and the Artist as Lackey

The modern novel first appeared in the 18th century. What made it modern?  It was different from prior romance stories in its effort to be realistic as opposed to formal. Instead o f silly romances, one might read about what really goes on in life!

In this sense, one might think of Joyce as the ultimate modern novelist — he transformed an epic tale into a mundane, minutely observed, real one. Joyce rejected the historic as a constraint rather than an embellishment of life. And in his view, it was time to break free of that constraint. It was a slightly mad project, but the times were a bit mad back then.

BTW, Joyce did not reject the heroic aspect of story-telling. The artist played the role of hero-liberator.  It was not an uncommon view of the role of art at that time Artist as hero!  A bit later, Picasso would revel in this role. The worst thing an artist could do would be to reinforce old cliches.  Thus Dickens should be thrown onto the scrap heap. And thus, Shaw would worship “superman”, a creative man or woman, free from the constraints that society imposes. We have moved from art as art (the old romances), to art as life (Joyce), to life as art (Shaw).

All well and good. Except that a certain segment of the reading population appears to be indifferent to the need for any liberation at all. They remain obsessed by real, historical characters and want to know, for example, what Henry VIII might have been like  And they want to see the man in action in a story.

This is an old tradition that just won’t die. The original popularity of Shakespeare’s historical dramas served the same purpose. At a time when books were not as available as they are now, this may have been the primary way to sate this appetite. Modern TV takes this to an absurd level, with actors playing recently deceased presidents and even actors playing famous actors.

It matters not whether the real subjects of these stories were as boring as dish towels. The story teller can make them sympathetic or monstrous.

But … there is an issue here. It came up with Shakespeare and it comes up now. How much can/should the dramatist or novelist play with the facts? How much leeway to we give Shakespeare to paint Richard III, for example, as a monster? And how much should writers put fake dialogue into the mouths of real historical actors?

Hilary Mantel, a rather successful creator of fiction based on historical characters argues that novelists should not try to be historians. They should be free to use their imaginations. And yet, Mantel is as much a slave to historical sources as any other historical dramatist.

Claire Armistead argues that perhaps writers should move on from this genre. One might write of historic times, but not necessarily to embellish historical characters.

.. if there’s one novel …  that signals a way forward for both historical fiction in particular and literary fiction in general, it’s Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday, which seems to have escaped the notice of all the major prize juries, perhaps because it is so divested of the pomp and circumstance at which Mantel was gesturing (one could almost describe it as

Is Armstead right? Are we likely to give up on the pomp and circumstance? Of course not!


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