Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Grim reality v Romance in historicals

Carrie Lofty who organises the Unusual Historicals has a very interesting post about literary v romance interpretation of history. Basically, she was pointing out that literary historical novels tend to emphaise the grim realities and while romance tend to paint a roiser picutre.

I can not disagree with this assement. The late great Elizabeth Goudge also pointed out how romantic novelist tended to see the rainbows in the pools of mud. She saw nothing wrong with this and neither do I.

Will Self is on record as saying that he likes to write about images that shock. But why are gruesome images more potent or striking than other images? Why are they more worthy?

With historicals, there is also the point of historical perception. If you do not know any different, will you necessarily perceive yourself as dirty or unclean? And there is an argument that actually things were far cleaner than one might think. (see for example Behind the Scenes --Domestic Arrangements in Historic Houses by Christina Hardyment) and that evangelic Christian movement of the mid-nineteenth century sought to portray things differently to prove a point.

And of course, the going on about lice always amuses me. Obviously those writers have never experienced the Lice War of primary school. As a battle hardened veteran, let me assure you that lice are with us today. The only thing that gets rid of them is the old fashioned combing combined with conditioner. Been there, done it. Tried everything. My scalp still crawls when anyone mentions them.
I won't mention rats but been there and done that as well. Rats scurrying over your feet is not fun. It is hubris to think that these things only existed back then.

If someone has never experience electricity, will they not think candlelight bright? It is all in the perception of the thing. What would the historical perception of an incident be?

When a spectator went to see a gladiatorial match, did he or she really give much thought or notice the blood? A long time ago when I went to the Spanish bullfight in Arles (in the Carmague -- traditional bullfighting does not include the killing of the bull), I noticed that the ritual killing was very different. The thought is absolutely horrific -- seeing a man gored by a bull, only to return leg bandaged and kill the next bull. The dead carcass of the bull was dragged around the area to the sound of loud cheers. Gruesome and shocking, yes, but on that sunny afternoon, somehow thrilling.
When I was writing the scene in Gladiator's Honour , I thought about that bullfight and how one can capture the whole thing. What would the reaction of the spectators been? Why was it so popular?

I also remember my high school English teacher who said that sometimes, things are more horrific for being offstage and simply alluded to -- for example the putting out of eyes in King Lear. It would not have been as powerful if it happened on stage.

For me as a writer , I have to weigh up my general audience and would certain images add or detract in the story. In other words, I know the dirt is there, but I may chose to take my camera shots from other angles. I only have a limited number of words to tell my story, and I like to look at a glass being half-full.

1 comment:

Carrie Lofty said...

Heya! Thanks for the mention. Maybe I'll post a link to the UH blog because it seems like something our folks there would like to weigh in on.

I became kinda touchy about this subject when starting my research on medieval life, a time period that was fairly new to me. I assumed all the gritty, horrible, unwashed awfulness that we find in popular movies and the most grim historical fiction. But not so. Sanitation, medication, living conditions -- all were much more civilised than we imagine. Such public misconceptions leave the historical romance writer having to defend our research. Annoying!