Building something new over the familiar
Historical fantasy is an odd, lovely genre, and it’s doing quite well at the moment. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Penny Dreadful, Outlander — they’re all a blend. But it is a genre in horrible danger of looking lazy. I think there are lots of people who would say that history is quite interesting enough without the insertion of unnecessary elves who possibly cover over the fiddly bits the writers can’t be bothered to research. And history alone is interesting enough, which is why we have historical fiction. Historical fantasy is doing something quite different, and it isn’t in the least about not wanting to research properly.
From a distance, fiction looks as though it’s all rather cool and hieratically mysterious creative processes, but then you hear phrases like world building, plot construction, deconstruction, character development, machinery, and quickly it becomes obvious that the whole thing is nothing more mysterious than a building site. Different genres build differently, but they do all build. Fantasy writers are stonemasons. They chisel out their own marble and design all their own structures, from scratch. The way historical fiction builds is much more like an archaeological reconstruction. It finds facts carefully and brushes the dust from them, and starts putting them all back together as well as it can. I’m a truly rubbish stonemason and so ninety per cent of what I write is researched history.
The trouble, though, is that history is full of lost things. When you write historical fiction, you make, at first, a kind of ruin, because from the moment a thing happens, what’s known about it erodes. People’s memories are unreliable, some things go unrecorded altogether, and after a while, language shifts; even if events are recorded in perfect detail, what would have been plain reading to anybody at the time becomes a contested academic exercise. One of my tutors at university, probably the cleverest person I’ve ever met, wrote a forty page article on four words of Old English, ‘wyrd bith ful araed’, a phrase that probably most Anglo Saxons could have explained in a few sentences. Immediacy — the sharp edge — is lost quickly. Over time whole structural chunks disappear, sometimes so much that you can’t see enough to really know what it all used to look like.
A piece of writing becomes historical fiction rather than historical fact when it guesses at what fills the gaps. Where academic writing leaves those gaps in, and keeps the ruin exactly, fiction restores the worn-away bits and sharpens things until the building stands whole, maybe as it really once did, maybe not, but brought to life again.
Fantasy in historical fiction goes a step further. It says, well, I like the look of this place, but I’d rather go over it a bit. Perhaps the windows were smaller to begin with, but I’m going to rebuild them taller, and the roof is going to be twenty feet higher, and perhaps this light was all right in nineteen hundred but it’s wretchedly dim now. To a point, it’s about restoration and reconstruction. But it’s also about building something new over something familiar. Some people do that in the style of the time, and so a reader looking at the result casually might not be able to tell what’s new and what’s original. Some people will remodel the whole thing and make it clear where the newness is; in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, for example, Belgium is moved briefly to America, but I don’t think anyone was fooled into thinking that that was historical fact. How smooth the grafts between history and fantasy are, and how bold they are and how many, depends on the architect.
It can seem mercenary to take a piece of history and put a chunk of something made up on the side of it, but it’s quite valid to do that in real architecture rather than in the story-making kind. There’s an Anglo Saxon church in Oxford, about a thousand years old now. The tower is a bit crumbly and even in an elderly street in an elderly city, it stands out as being especially ancient. But it’s got glass doors. Whether or not you like glass doors in churches is up to you, but the urge to put glass doors in an old church is the same as the one to put fantasy into history. It isn’t lazy, or out to trick anyone; it’s Grand Designs.