Friday, August 14, 2015

Author or Characters?

A few weeks ago, I interviewed Glen Craney for New Books in Historical Fiction. I wrote about that interview and his book, as I usually do, on the week when the interview went live. Even at the time, I meant to revisit the discussion to pick up on a point he made that I found particularly interesting (there were many such points, actually—it was a great interview, and he had lots of fascinating things to say). Specifically, he mentioned that readers sometimes conflate his point of view with his characters’.

In The Spider and the Stone, Craney tells the story of Scotland’s First War of Independence from the perspective of the Scots, most notably but not exclusively Sir James Douglass, the friend and staunch supporter of Robert the Bruce, the eventual if temporary winner of that war. From the viewpoint of the Scots, the English and their king, Edward I Longshanks, are heartless invaders, opportunistically profiting from the inability of the Scots clans to settle on a leader. In brief, the English don’t come off well in this story, and readers—perhaps understandably—see the author, too, as arguing for the Scots side.

To some extent, this problem affects all historical novelists. Values differ across time and space, and a good novel must reflect that. This truth is giving me fits in The Swan Princess, where my Tatar warriors are rampaging about the forest seeking vengeance. However pacifist my inclinations may be, I would be writing farce, not historical fiction, if I let my warriors throw an arm around the villain’s shoulders and invite him to talk it out over dinner. Instead, they burn villages, shoot first and ask questions later, and generally act like medieval troops. At other times, they recite poetry and appreciate good architecture—they are characters, not clichés—but when push comes to shove, they do not flinch.

Still, Craney’s point seems to me broader than simple reverence for the historical past. Certainly, his characters too behave in ways that were appropriate for the times but seem abominably harsh today. But is it true that authors are also drawn to the sides that appeal to them in a given historical context: the Scots over the English, the Tatars over the Russians (or vice versa)?


I had already been thinking about this question in a different context. One of the GoodReads groups I especially like has been running a Heyer Read (that’s Georgette Heyer, the Queen of Regencies, if you somehow made it out of high school without immersion in the lives of Justin, Dominic, Léonie, Deborah, Max, Arabella, Frederica, Venetia, and their ilk). In July we read one of her later novels, A Civil Contract, about a marriage of convenience between a near-bankrupt viscount and the rich merchant’s daughter he marries, because the noble bride he wants is as impoverished as he and he doesn’t like to put her father to the trouble of refusing his suit. Adam, the viscount, is unfailingly polite to his bourgeois Jenny, even recognizing in due course that life has led him in the right direction after all. But Jenny—who loves him, although she never admits it—goes to ridiculous lengths in her efforts to make him comfortable, never considering her own needs so long as she fulfills what she considers the duties of a wife. Sweet as she is, and as poignant and complex as Heyer portrays their relationship to be, Jenny’s self-abnegation ultimately leaves this reader thinking that Betty Friedan should have come along a good 150 years earlier than she did.

Such an attitude toward marriage and wifely duties, of course, was not unusual in 1815, when the book was set, or even in the 1950s, when Heyer wrote A Civil Contract. I had just about decided, like Glen Craney’s readers, that she had been drawn to the topic because it expressed her own views when August arrived, with The Masqueraders in tow.

I have read The Masqueraders many times. It is my favorite Heyer novel (Faro’s Daughter is a close tie, and A Civil Contract, despite my occasional desire to give Jenny a good shake, is no. 3). I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it for you by giving away the plot, so I will just quote this passage from near the end.

Sir Anthony propped the [barn] door wide to let in the moonlight. “Empty,” he said. “Can you brave a possible rat?”
   Prudence was unbuckling her saddle-girths. “I’ve done so before now, but I confess I dislike ’em.” She lifted off the saddle and had it taken quickly from her.
   “Learn, child, that I am here to wait on you.”
   She shook her head, and went on to unbridle the mare. “Attend to Rufus, my lord. What, am I one of your frail, helpless creatures then?”

And indeed, she is not. Ignore the absurd use of “child” to address a twenty-six-year-old woman; pretty much everyone in this novel addresses others as “child,” whether they are older or younger. Prudence, at this moment, is wearing men’s clothes. In the last few hours, she has knocked one officer of the law out of a coach, held another at sword point, and escaped over the fields with Anthony. She can fight a duel, run a gambling house, hold her liquor in a hard-drinking age, and rescue a hapless maiden. She does do her best to convince the man she loves that he would do better to marry elsewhere, but only because she believes that he would come to dislike her ramshackle life. She is as different from Jenny as the proverbial chalk from cheese. Yet the same author created them both.

One of the joys of fiction is the opportunity it offers to submerge oneself in the emotions and thoughts of others—something we cannot do in real life, however much we care for someone, however well we think we know them. That’s as true for authors as for readers. Each character is distinct; each character has his or her own take on the world. But that take is not necessarily the author’s, however strongly the illusion is, for a while, sustained.

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