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In Search of Alias Grace - Atwood

- A mediation (originally a lecture) on how she, as an historical novelist, approached questions of time and memory. She is speaking specifically about Canadian lit, but general points can be extricated.

'fiction is where individual memory and experience and collective memory and experience come together' (1504) - readers recognise the individual details of a characters life, but inevitably place them within a broader historical context, 'of geology, weather, economic forces, social classes, culural references, wars and plagues and such big public events'

- Atwood also acknowledges a writer layers in, not only the character's time but his/her own historical circumstances (every reader and writer comes to a piece of fiction with their own story, their own construction of understanding/knowledge/meaning).

- Atwood argues that just as a novel is constructed from indivdual particulars (character memories - this is what she thinks a novelist works by, images and fragments rather than grand themes/schemes), so history is constructed from banal details of life, 'history may intend to provide us with grand patterns and overall schemes, but without day-by-day foundations it would collapse' (1505)

Historical Novel

'(Scott) Grandaddy of the form' (1508)

Atwood notes that all novels are somewhat historical, concerned with setting the stage in a certain past. As soon as a reader finishes a book it too is past.

'But there is the past tense...then there is The Past, capital P, capital T' (1508)

- Makes an interesting (qualitative?) distinction between romantic bodice rippers and, 'novels set in the historical past' (1509)

'when is the past considered old enough to be historic?...I suppose you could say it's anything before the time at which the novel writer comes to conciousness' (1510)

Sees historical novels as less about big historical events than about human nature in that context (1516), they reflect what the writer and audience need from the past. They infuse meaning according to the re-telling, the construction of memory.

'the past belongs to us, because we are the ones who need it' (1516)


'memory, history and story all intersect, it would take only one step more to bring all of them into the realm of fiction' (1505)

- Historical fiction is engaged with challenging memory (a reflection of a modern era when all memory, including the widest memory of all, history is called into question), asking WHY we remember certain things over others (ie her example that we never remember bad mothers on mothers day). And why do we think memories are authentic, where does this confidence and knowledge come from?

'there can be no history, and no novel, without memory of some sort; but when it comes down to it how reliable is memory itself - our individual memory or collective memory as a society?' (1506 - in other words, memory is not just an object, and unchangable penny, it changes from person to person - see Fergus/Pearce conversation)

'the novel, above all else, concerns itself with time,' (1506) - a plot has to concern itself with temporality (one thing occuring in relation to something else)

As a novel is character driven, the temporal history found in its pages comes in the form of memory. However, in the 20th century huge amounts of energy have gone into forgetting, into focusing on how suppressed time forges identity (ie Freud's unconcious theories). European art seemed to lose it's faith in the reliability of memory.

Atwood sees memory and history (The Past) constructed of paper, thoughts and opinions wirtten down that proliferate throughout the ages. These papers are as multiplcitous and unreliable as writers are now. What's more, they tend to only record big events rather than the banal details of life (why would we need to record banal details? people live them in their everyday lives, they don't need to be told about them)

'if you're after the truth, the whole and detailed're going to have a thin time of it if you trust to paper, but, with the past, its almost all you've got' (1514)

Twentieth Century Historical Novel

- Why then (in all this forgetting) has the historical novel becomes so popular at the turn of the century (Atwood notes that in Canadian fiction the genre was practically abandoned until the 1960s/70s)?

- One theory is the lure of the unmentionable. Even as history became something to ignore, novelists were picking away at it's presumptions, holes and constructions (why were the spaces of history where they were, why was a certain form of history being fed to the reader?)

- Like Wallace, a recognition of the way in which the past can be used as a reference point for the present. Similarly a recogntion of the way in which an author's vision of the present shapes their preoccuption of the past (authorial intention in historical novel? - basic account, reconstruction, re-interpretation, new stories)

- Another theory - a greater preoccupation with self. A need to know where we have sprung from, rather than to forget it/accept it blindly (a world movement linked to ex-colonies looking towards their colonial history with an historically crittical eye. For example, subaltern studies within last 20 years)

- A form of escapism, a balm to worries about the future as when a book is set in the past we KNOW it's resolution, it's immediate future (again this relies on an idea of past as static facts). Basically an illusion.

'some might say, the past is safer...(when) sense of self is literally torn to piece, it feels comforting to escape backwards...with the past at least we know what happens' (1511)

- However, as Atwood notes, the past of Historical novels is rarely safe and cosy (even Lukacs placed the historical novel as a dialectic zone of tension)

Cultural Anthropology

- Perhaps now the central importance of the historical novel is the oppertunity it offers to investigate mankind and their proliferation of memories. Atwood describes culture itself (ie self awareness of individuality) as middle aged, like a 50 year old looking back through the family tree. The revolution has come (nb again linking historical novel to retrospective processing of huge historical flux - see Lukacs and his idea that the French Rev birthed the classical historical novel), now socities ask what next?

'by taking a long hard look backwards we place ourselves' (1512)

'here we are, right at the back end of the twentieth century with our own uneasiness about the trustworthiness of memory, the reliability of story and continuity of time' (1515 - why not express that through historical fiction? Each novelist can investigate a different version of the past. Each reader can construct a different story from the memories represented in a book)

'truth is sometimes unknowable, at least by us' (1515 - contrast to Fleishman's universal truth)

The Nightwatch Reviews

The Guardian - Justine Jordan (

- Structural engine is reverse chronology from 1947 ('exhausted present') - 1944 - 1941

- Notes the book is in dispassionate third person rather than the intimate first person experience of her previous novels. Sees the beginning as, 'curiously unrooted,' - a mass of fragments (ie artefact of headscarf with tanks and spitfires) and foreshadowing dust with little exposition. First section is also noticably banal (ie interior settings, vernacular lang, picnics etc). Link to Atwood's idea of day to day life of history, individualised past in order to receive universal historical truths.

- Middle section (1944) is the narrative/explosive heart of the novel. Note this is when actual historical events happen also. Look at blitz section (how wider time prompts action - lesbian romance founded on explosions at St Paul's, language of exposure and bloody progression) "So many impossible things were becoming ordinary, just then," as Helen remarks of her first relationship with a woman' - a fluidity to both identity and time in this section of the novel?
- Many descriptions/fragments of the past ar provoked by individualised, sensory descriptions.
'Waters brings such a clear-eyed honesty and fresh interest to the everyday that she could probably make drying paint a lively read.'
'we leave her characters as we meet them; and it is we, not they, who feel older, wiser and sadder at the novel's end.'
- Waters preoccupation with unearthing the causality of the past is aptly expressed by Kay's penchant for entering the cinema halfway throgh a film in order to see the second half before the first.
'Waters is a mystery writer, and here the mystery is the jigsaw of identity, amassed piece by piece.'
- These constructions of identity inevitably hinge around gender (Kay the masculine girl, Duncan the infantile, effeminate man, the sexual struggles of Viv, the public face of Helen at war with her interior insecuirites)
The Independant - Michele Roberts (
- Waters calls her own novels 'faux,' historical fiction, blending sexual politics with historical settings.
'An ex-academic who knows that writers, however committed, must also be voracious readers, she writes in the feminist tradition that draws on both male and female writers for inspiration. She is a sophisticated storyteller who enjoys playing carnivalesque games with plots, and with readers' expectations.' (the whole concept of multiplicity. Roberts also goes onto a not particularly interesting rant about how Waters appropriates genres according to her portrayal of sexual politics. So Tipping the Velvt used the pennydreadful margins to promote the other of lesbian. Why then is she using the historical novel genre - in a much more relaistic sense than she normally does - here? Is it to convey some form of universal truth?)
- Roberts sees this novel as much more realistic (ie in the genre of realism) than Waters previous, 'carnivalesque,' work. Men and women are now intertwined into a tapestry of historical realism. (a total mix of 4 main characters, gender, gay and straight relationships) 'emotions can be fluid and volatile' - each choice the character makes is an action of identity in a time of upheaval.
'this is a tremendously confident foray into realism' (although the male characters are criticised for being more thinly drawn than the female, the long conversations on lesbian politics sometimes seem too didactic - a revelation of authors time layered into conceptions of historical novel?).
'Waters is a very generous writer, who seems to want to give and tell us everything,' - she lets the reader see everything (look at her descriptions, the style of observation in her writing) and construct from that point? Or does she guide the reader to a particular historical persepctive?
' Waters described these effects on her naturally lavish style as a drying-out and paring-down, with the result that "the lushness slipped away". Indeed, the prose in The Night Watch is as smooth and clear as a pair of nylon of Waters' strengths is the way she lightly pins her novels with period detail (talc on the windows, gin gimlets), while avoiding the cliches of so much historical fiction.'
- Heavily reearched novel - she visited musesums and the locations in her book, she listened to 1940s recordings to get the tone and idioms of her dialogue correct (pressue of upholding a sense of reality when writing about the recent past?)
- Began working on novel in Sept 2001 after looking at pictures of the blitz, then the planes went into the world trade centre and a parallel chaos was born (AUTHOR CONTEXT)
"I was looking at pictures of the Blitz, images of people trapped in buildings, and I came out and there was another sort of blitz going on, and from that point on there seemed to be blitzes all over the world. I can't honestly say that I've brought any big musings on war to the novel. I didn't. I was much more interested in finding new stories to tell about the people who lived through it."
- On the narrative structure - calls it an, 'emotional detective story' (symbols proliferate of passions and losses, an undestanding of what went wrong by going back to when it was right. Feeding into quite fatalistic historical determinism or more postmodern concepts of the fragmentation of time and self?)
'with The Night Watch, she felt she was "working in the dark, very, very close to what I was writing'
"It's precisely the difference of the past that makes it exciting for me. I think we always need to be reminded that the moment that we live in is very temporary. Historical fiction at its best can remind us of that".

The Historical Novel - Lecture 11

Middlemarch (1871-3) and The Nightwatch (2006) are both case studies of novels that use historical fact (reality?) as a framework for their fiction. Both novels are framed by modern time (see previous lecture - Anderson's concept of clock and calender time, newspapers and the spontaneity of action), allowing the novels narrative to take place at the same time as historical events

- Middlemarch's historical time frame takes places within the 18 months in 1831/2 when parliament debated to reform voting in the British Isles. The Great Reform Act.
- Nightwatch takes place during WW2, from 1941-47 (although it is a backwards narrative, jumping from 47 to 44 to 41)

The Historical Novel

Is seen as a literary genre, combining strong dramatic plots with historical events, rather than a type of (accurate) writing about history.

All novels are set in some sort of time period (another type of space), how long ago must a novel be set to make it an historical novel? Sir Walter Scott (first real historical novelist?) said the perfect time was 60 years, long enough that the reader was not famaliar with the events/the writer was not giving a mere account of remembrance (something Middlemarch could be accused of, Elliot was 12 during the reform act and still living in Coventry), short enough to provoke some sort of nostalgia, a feeling of capturing the recent past (ie Nightwatch, written precisely 60 years after its setting)

The subject of the historical novel is one seeped in questions of time. Of real time and manipulated time, how historical facts can create a time structure for someone who is not a historian. How time is used in an imagined reality.

Professional Historians, History Teaching, and Novels

Why do professional historians put a fictional work such as the Nightwatch on a university reading list? It does not offer reliable factual evidence or new intellectal arguments about the blitz. At most a novel can be said to add the the, 'cultural feeling,' of a historians awareness of a given time period. History then is not just about facts and events, but about a constant process of understanding the past, studying how past events are represented and written about (and why?) New social and cultural history treats the representation and memorialisationof history as part of the historical story.
Historians themseleves are writers of the past. As much as novelists, they have choices in how they tell stories: what they emphasise, and what they leave out.
For example, Boyd Hilton and EP Thomson are two very current historians writing about the 1830s reform act. Hilton ('Mad, Bad, & Dangerous People? England 1783-1846?') writes a political history of the period, only concerned with rural provinces in the extent to which riots (etc) influenced parliamentary action. Thomson (Making of the English Working Class (1963)) instead is a social historian who focuses his work and research on rural ribbon workers who rioted against the rising price of bread. Neither of these men takes a cultural approach and studies how the period was subsequently represented/represented in the immediate period (ie Middlemarch) In terms of time such writing is fixed in the boundaries of an historical timeframe, cultural history seems to be more fluid.
Novel Writers
The cultural history of an historical novel therefore can be said to reflect the authors time of writing as much as the time period they are writing about. Historical novels offer a complex palimpsest of time between novel, author and reader.
Interestingly, whilst Middlemarch creates a stepped structure of time, something like this:
- The novel represents the 1830s reform act period
- The author was writing from the 1860s 2nd reform agenda
- The reader steps back 180 years from the modern 2008.
Nightwatch offers a much more condensed time period (due, as much as anything, to it's recent publishing date). The author AND the readers share a time space, they view the war from the same 21st century perspective of, '60 years since.' Perhaps when reading a so called historical novel more attention should be paid to the question, 'Is the author writing from the same historical perspective that I am reaidng from?'
For example, did Elliot, writing from remembrance, use Middlemarch as a vehicle for cultural comment - and thus shape a modern readers view of the 1830s period? (In the story of Will Ladislaw, the intertwined history of capitalism, Protestantism and Judaism is writ large. That history was available to a highly educated reader of the 1860s - a reader like George Eliot - but it wasn’t available in the 1820s. By shaping a figure of the 1820s by its tenets, was Eliot making an original historical connection - actually `writing history’ in our modern sense?)
Does Waters writing infact offer a historial study into the authors background of gender studies and gay rights movements of the 1960s-80s. All novels offer a cornocopia of time and historical, 'reality.'
It also has to be considered towhat extent the authors approched the subject of history within their own novel. What importance does a novel writer place on history as compared to say characteristion or narrative thread?
Futhermore how do different authors reasearch history. Elliot did research in the British Museum Reading Room, yet couldn't photocopy (obviously) and had limited resources. Her research into 19th century medicine and physiology (for Lydgate) was extremely detailed, however her political reasearch was limited and fairly superficial. Moreover, as she could not return to Cov, she had no access to local records. When compared to the long list of sources Waters gives at the beginning of The Nightwatch, Elliot falls short.
If the success of a historical novel is measured on its accuracy of portraying a specific time period then authors are being subjected to a critera of only historical accuracy. Arguably it is more enlightening to examine the motivation for an authors presentation of history - to examine the time period of a book AND it's writer. Not least because it demonstrates the ideological and political circumstances out of which all history-writing, including the historical novel, is necessarily produced.
Authorial Motivation
`Destiny stands by sarcastic with our dramatis personae folded in her hand’ - Middlemarch
Examine how authors themselves approach history in order to understand their presentation of it. For example Elliot's narrator in Middlemarch compares him/herself to Herodotus, historian of classical antiquity and constantly refers to a female Destiny hovering over the lives of Middlemarch. This Destiny is an ironic, sarcastic creature and Eliot is approaching he acts as events that have already happened, recounted by the narrator on the page. In this case history is inevitable, the place of the men/women of Middlemarch are already determined, sarcasm is all they are worth and Elliot uses history as a device to judge?
In contrast Waters unravels time backwards. Whilst the narrator/author of Middlemarch knew what was coming next, it is the READER in The Nightwatch who held history (in the sense of a knowledge of the end, the deed already done) in their hand. We are - strangely - let in to The Night Watch, given permission by the writer - as a historian might give permission - to know what will happen, because it is already history before it begins. Waters unique relationship with history, her modern writing draw attention to the fact that the historical novel is not only concerned with a specific TIME period, but with an sequence of time.
The historical novel is inexorably connected to the chronology and layers of time, time running through novel, author and reader.

Undoubtedly fiction holds the ability to imprison characters and deprive them of autonomy. Gilbert and Gubar argue that the reproductive drive of the male Author, a simaltaneous urge towards creation and control, has dominated Enligh Literature in the modern era. In the wake of what they term, 'the metaphor of literary paternity,' the female character is imprisoned in an alternating mask of angel/monster, a dichotomous archetype that both freezes woman as an idealised vessel for the Phallic pen, and punishes any move towards feminine autonomy. That fairytales, such as Little Red Riding Hood, attempt to soldify th
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