Thursday, January 12, 2017

Queen of the World

It’s not news that the Internet has wrought dramatic changes in the way that the computer-connected world—which, we should keep in mind, is not the entire world—approaches many aspects of everyday life. Those of us old enough to remember typewriter ribbons and white-out, paper maps that tore along their folds, and clocks with hands rather than digital readouts have war stories to tell about those moments when we recognized that elements of life we took for granted had changed irrevocably. Mine was an evening drive through New Haven, looking for a famous pizza parlor with my son navigating from the back seat on his smart phone. I named the streets as we passed them, as I would to someone reading a map, and he said, with that voice only teenagers speaking to their “ancient” parents can truly master, “Mom, the phone knows where it is.” I remember thinking, “I don’t know where I am. What do you mean, the phone knows?” But of course, he was right.
 

One such change—wrought by both the Internet and, before that, the cinema—is a renewed emphasis on visual representation. Text remains important, of course: people buy and read books, both print and digital; authors maintain blogs, like this one, and write materials of all sorts. But television, social media, YouTube videos, film, and other forms of still and moving images lie just a click away. Not every writer, by any means, imagines who would play which of his or her characters in a movie, but many do. I write in Storyist in part because it allows me to pin a cork board of images—film stars, random faces, portraits of sixteenth-century nobles and peasants as envisioned by nineteenth-century artists—on the right side of my screen as I write. Those faces inspire me, and when I find a new one that more closely resembles my evolving understanding of a particular person, I switch them out.

So I perfectly understand the impetus to televise fictional and historical stories. A good actor can convey with the flick of an eyebrow nuances of emotion that a novelist may need paragraphs to describe. Costumes, hairstyles, rooms, furniture, even mannerisms come across in a visual medium far more clearly than through a verbal exchange. Written works excel in taking the reader into a stranger’s mind, but for outward appearance and verisimilitude the screen has few equals.

The power of the image, though, makes accuracy essential. Costume designers routinely adjust historical styles to match current tastes, and that’s fine. But if a Carolingian lady is waltzing around in a crinoline, the audience gets the wrong impression, and that impression can be difficult to erase. The same holds true, to much greater degree, of time frames, personalities, and relationships.


That’s where the historical consultant comes in. In my latest interview for New Books in Historical Fiction,  talk with the historian Helen Rappaport about that important role, among other topics. The rest of this post, as usual, comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

The term “historical fiction” covers a wide range from what the mystery writer Josephine Tey once dubbed “history with conversation” to outright invention shading into fantasy. But behind every story set in the past lies the past itself, as re-created by scholars from the available evidence. This interview features Helen Rappaport, whose latest work reveals the historical background behind the Masterpiece Theater miniseries Victoria, due to air in the United States this month. Rappaport served as historical consultant to the show.

The Queen Victoria who gave her name to an age famous for a prudishness so extreme that even tables had limbs, not legs, is nowhere evident in Rappaport’s book, the television series, or the novel by Daisy Goodwin, also titled Victoria, that gave rise to the series. Victoria: The Heart and Mind of a Young Queen explores in vivid, compelling prose the letters, diaries, and other documents associated with the reign of a strong-minded, passionate, eager, inexperienced girl who took the throne just after her eighteenth birthday. This Victoria loved to ride, resisted marriage, fought to separate herself from her mother, detested her mother’s close adviser, and became infatuated with her prime minister and the future tsar of Russia before transferring her affections to Prince Albert, who initially did not impress her. Wildly devoted to her husband, she bore nine children but hated being pregnant and regarded newborn infants as ugly. Even her name caused controversy: christened Alexandrina, she switched to Victoria on taking the throne, overriding critics who insisted that Elizabeth or Charlotte were more suitable appellations for a British monarch. By the time she died sixty-three years later, entire generations understood the word “queen” as synonymous with “Victoria.”

Although the most powerful woman in the world, Victoria here makes some serious mistakes, as any eighteen-year-old thrust into the center of politics would. If she had no social media to record every misstep, she also had no publicity managers or image brokers to spin her rash remarks or misjudgments. As Daisy Goodwin notes in the foreword to this book, Victoria had to grow up in public, and she left a precious record of that journey in her own exquisite handwriting. But since this is the official companion volume to a television show, it also includes details about casting and costuming, as well as numerous photographs of the actors and background information about the times. It makes a perfect starting point for a discussion of history and historical fiction, their differences and similarities, and how to observe the requirements of one without violating the precepts of the other.

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