Distant Echoes: Small Lives on the Fringes of Great Events
As writers of historical fiction we have so many choices to make: era, character, point of view, voice, whether to stick religiously to the facts or play with alternative interpretations and what-ifs. There is a constant reader-hunger for the so-called ‘marquee names’ whether in fiction, film or TV dramatization – witness the current popularity of the series Victoria.
However, HF writers care about more than royalty or great explorers or battlefield commanders or statesmen. We realise that history is not just created by the great, the good and the not-so-good. History is lived – and it is lived by the little people.
This has always fascinated me. What was it really like to live in a certain century? How would your attitudes to life be shaped by the society of your time? What were the practical ways by which you led your life? What were the trammels on your potential, simply because you were of that era, that social class, that level of income or education?
I never read a history book without that sense of the obscure stories of the minor players. Historical fiction writers address that – William Thackeray in Vanity Fair describes Amelia Osborne, in Brussels after the soldiers have departed, wondering how her husband George is faring on the field of Waterloo (answer – not at all well). Thackeray describes the chaos of the city, the difficulty of getting horses if you want to escape – we’re with the people affected by Napoleon’s escape from Elba, not with Napoleon himself. A few years ago I enjoyed Bernard Cornwell’s Azincourt for its pretty graphic insights into what it was like to be part of a late medieval army, harrowing the citizenry of a foreign country. I learned what it was like to stand in the mud – and worse – as a longbow-man and not know if you were going to win, or even survive.
More recently, the shoutline for Jo Baker’s Longbourn was ‘Pride and Prejudice from the servants’ point of view’. We learned what it was like to have chilblains from pumping icy water at dawn, to sprinkle tea-leaves to absorb dirt from the floor, to think jaundiced thoughts when Lizzy Bennett returned with her skirt knee-high in mud because you would have the washing of it.
Such immersiveness appeals as we can explore and interrogate the past using the power of our imaginations along with resources we consult. In my novel The Chase, set in 1989 (not quite historical yet but heading that way!) my central characters buy a house in France – and pretty soon discover that if you buy a house you buy its past too. Through vignettes I made forays into that past: the Roman era, the Hundred Years’ War, the Revolution, the Romantic period, the Second World War. I had a ball doing it – I could dart in and out of the flickering, transient lives of these people.
I also find the short story form really effective for these excursions. When I entered the HNS London 2014 competition with my story ‘Salt’, which went on to win, there was huge media focus on the centenary of the start of the First World War. I had racked my brains for a subject; now the subject came to me. My Scottish grandmother had been working as a herring girl in Great Yarmouth in 1914, gutting and packing the masses of ‘silver darlings’ the men caught. Decades on, sitting by the fire, her white hair in a bun, her cameo brooch at the neck of her black blouse, she told her young granddaughter about seeing the men board trains to go off to war. That image of a station full of partings, of innocent youth going off to the shambles – in both its senses of chaos and slaughter – stuck with me. I really wish I had asked her more about it.
I had my story, though, drawing on the poignancy of that event and the history of the fishing communities with which I was already familiar. I imagined myself into the mind of Ina, a young ‘herring quine’, far from her northern Scottish home, hard at work as the world turned and the giant wheels of history threatened to crush the lives and happiness of obscure folk like her.
I have rarely written a story so fast or so easily.
Two years later, as a member of the HNS Conference organising committee, I was one of the panel of judges assessing entries to the HNS Oxford 2016 competition. Not only was I struck by the quality of the entries and their incredible range of subject matter and historical period, but by how these stories homed in on the individual in the midst of large-scale change or upheaval. The wife whose husband capitulates to his religious leaders’ instructions for polygamy. The woman and her daughter, vengeful towards the brute men building a railway in the Florida Keys. The journalist horrified to learn how far civilisation breaks down into bestiality during the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. The embroiderer forced to make a shirt for a terrifying Nazi officer. The indigenous Newfoundland woman who is the last representative of her culture, far beyond her time. The woman whose husband has resisted joining the madness of the American Civil War and who sees her community turn against them. And more …
In each of these stories, the writer has locked on to the ‘little’ life and explored how powerlessness feels, how news of the greater world of war and politics filters through to affect the individual, how ways of life that seem eternal can be disrupted in a moment. Every writer used point of view, voice and small details to create resonance. We judges found those stories stayed in our minds long after we’d read them.
It is a delight now to see these stories from the 2016 and 2014 competitions gathered together in the anthology Distant Echoes, published by Corazon Books in ebook and paperback form. Read and enter those lives – you’ll be reminded that at the core of historical fiction is humanity and our common feeling with those who were so like ourselves in their needs, ambitions, loves and losses. History may the grand backdrop but we learn there is nothing small about any of these envisaged lives played out against it.
About the contributor: Lorna Fergusson was a finalist in the HNS London 2012 competition with ‘Reputation’, published in The Beggar at the Gate. ‘Salt’ won the London 2014 competition and appears in Distant Echoes. She republished her novel The Chase, originally published by Bloomsbury, in 2013. She runs Fictionfire Literary Consultancy, teaches on various Oxford University writing programmes and is working on a collection of historical short stories and a novel, the opening of which won Words with Jam’s First Page Competition.