The Changing Notion of the “Historical Novelist”: An Interview with Tracy Chevalier
Those who’ve read Tracy Chevalier’s novels will know that setting, period and subject matter vary considerably from book to book. That said, Chevalier points out that her two most recent novels – The Last Runaway (Dutton, 2013) and At the Edge of the Orchard (Viking, 2016) – do share some similarities. Both are set in Ohio during the 19th century, and both are about migration between England and America, and what it means to move countries. Chevalier has shared in the past that her inspiration for stories often arises from places she’s not expecting. She reminded me that she doesn’t have a “big plan” for her books, and mentioned that because of this, it was something of a surprise to find that she would be setting her recently published novel in the 19th-century United States as well.
“[The reason for this is] because I had the idea [for At the Edge of the Orchard] while researching The Last Runaway. I was reading about Johnny Appleseed and how the real man was very different from the myth, as many of the trees he sold would have produced sour apples for making alcohol with,” she explains. “I got the idea of a pioneer couple fighting over whether to grow sweet or sour apples and thought, ‘There’s my next novel.’”
It’s inspiring to hear that the idea determines what she’ll write about, rather than some preconceived formula. When I spoke to Chevalier in 2007 for another HNS feature, she told me how she’d stumbled upon the idea for the novel she was then working on (Remarkable Creatures, Dutton, 2009). While on England’s south coast, she happened to visit a small museum in Dorchester with her son on a rainy day, and came across a display about Mary Anning, who, in the early 19th century, discovered fossils in the cliffs of Lyme Regis, fossils that would greatly influence the scientific thinking of the day. Chevalier knew instantly that she needed to write about Mary, who became perhaps one of her most memorable characters to date.
One thing that draws me to Chevalier’s work is the knowledge that I’ll be rewarded with unique characters like Mary, and quality storytelling, no matter the setting or time period. She has anchored her stories in not only the 19th-century British fossil-hunting of Remarkable Creatures, but also 17th-century Dutch painting (Girl with a Pearl Earring, Dutton, 1999), 15th-century Flemish weaving (The Lady and the Unicorn, Dutton, 2004), 18th-century English poetry and painting (Burning Bright, Dutton, 2007), turn-of-the-20th-century funerary customs (Falling Angels, Dutton, 2001), 16th-century French religious strife (The Virgin Blue, Penguin, 1997), and 19th-century USA quilting (The Last Runaway) and tree-planting and plant-collecting (At the Edge of the Orchard).
All of these novels are obviously historical, but back in 2007, Chevalier was reluctant to call herself a historical novelist. She admitted to being attracted to historical themes, and even went so far as to say that she can write a little more objectively about people and events of the past. But she seemed reluctant to associate herself with a genre. She wasn’t alone. During the HNS’s early days, I encountered a similar reluctance from at least two other novelists who could clearly be identified as “historical.” I suspect that Chevalier also didn’t want to rule out the possibility of something more contemporary. (And in fact, her first novel, The Virgin Blue, is set partially in the present day.) Since she’s agreed to speak at the HNS conference in Oxford later this year, I wondered if she’d changed her views on the term “historical novelist.”
“I am still not fond of labels, as they can be a little limiting,” she told me. “However, I think the notion of a ‘historical novelist’ is changing – we get a little more respect [than we did a few years ago], and also what we do is more varied than the stereotype. Thank you, Hilary Mantel!”
The recently released At the Edge of the Orchard is the epitome of a great historical novel, with fictional characters mingling with ones who actually lived against a backdrop that has been carefully constructed from details of the period. It begins in 1838 in a fledging family apple orchard in Ohio, but follows its principal character, Robert Goodenough, across the United States to California where, post gold rush, he encounters the plant collector William Lobb among the sequoias in Calaveras Grove. Robert went west to escape a family tragedy, but once he reaches San Francisco and the ocean, he, of course, can’t go any farther unless he gets on a ship.
“Historical fiction is relevant today because it reminds us of [the] common ground [we share with our ancestors],” Chevalier says. “Moreover, we share with our ancestors that curious American desire to move around to escape problems. That’s really what this book is about…Reading that story may help make sense of our options now. Sometimes you just can’t run anymore, and have to turn around to face what you’re running from. That was the case then, and it is now, too.”
When asked what she hopes readers will take away from At the Edge of the Orchard, Chevalier shares that “part of me hates the thought of my work having a message. First and foremost, I want to entertain, and it’s enough for me if the reader cares about the characters and finishes the book! But I did write [this one] for a reason, and I suppose it is to ask readers to look at the landscape around them – especially trees – and ask how it reflects their lives. What choices do they make, to move or to stay, based on their surroundings? For American readers in particular, I want to remind them of our relationship to our physical country, and what happens when we move around in it.”
This deeper meaning is typical of a Tracy Chevalier novel because, although it is clear that she places storytelling first, she is meticulous about her research and portraying a period accurately, and inevitably, thought-provoking themes arise from this. In The Last Runaway, Honor, a young English Quaker who moves to Ohio in the 1850s, is drawn into the activities of the Underground Railroad, the network of people – many of them Quakers – helping runaway slaves from the South escape to safety. Honor gets involved despite the fact that many of those in her new community keep their focus firmly on harvesting their crops and going to Meeting. The novel is underpinned by the historical events of the time, but Honor is also growing and changing and learning and asking herself questions about wrong and right, and her desire for freedom of spirit is also a huge part of what moves the story forward. This intricate framework is mirrored by the quilts that most of the British and American women of that time would have made, incorporating into the final products so much of their literal histories through scraps of clothing and household fabrics.
Chevalier reveals that her next novel will also be set in the US. “I am working on a book for the Hogarth Press Shakespeare Project, where writers take a Shakespeare play and write a novel inspired by it. I have chosen Othello, and am setting it on an American school playground in the 1970s (when I was a kid). All the characters are 11 years old. So: another American book! After that I believe I will scurry back to England and write a novel about Winchester Cathedral.”
Some readers may be pleased to hear she’ll be eventually returning to that side of the Atlantic Ocean. Remarkable Creatures was her last novel set there; it is arguably one of her most impactful books, with its themes of a woman striving to make her way in a man’s world and, of course, the role of science in a world dominated by the theory of creation.
Another unifying feature of Chevalier’s novels is that the reader always learns something. I’m not referring here to deep themes or to history – although there’s much to be learned in these arenas, too – but to the practical skills her characters employ, such as button-making (Burning Bright), weaving (The Lady and the Unicorn), grafting (At the Edge of the Orchard) or bonnet-making (The Last Runaway). Chevalier volunteered at Highgate Cemetery, which inspired Falling Angels, to allow herself to really get a feel for the place, and took a painting class while she was working on Girl with a Pearl Earring. She learned how to quilt for The Last Runaway, a craft she’s continued as a way to relax after a day of writing and research. When I asked her in 2007 about her willingness to learn these skills she responded:
“On-the-job training I think of it. The buttons I really loved doing. And for The Lady in the Unicorn I found a tapestry-weaving studio in the south of England – it’s actually a college which has all these different classes in crafts and restoration. This studio uses medieval techniques and they had been commissioned to reproduce “The Hunt of the Unicorn,” which are the tapestries at The Cloisters at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York…for me it makes all the difference.”
The success of Girl with a Pearl Earring gave rise to a number of reviews and articles associating Chevalier’s writing with art, but although she admits to being inspired by art generally, her novels, in the end, tend to be sparked by an eclectic mix of tangible things, such as the William Blake exhibition at the Tate Gallery in London that led to Burning Bright. I think it’s safe to say we won’t ever be able to predict the period or the characters Chevalier might feature in future novels, but we can be certain that she will spin stories we can immerse ourselves in – and isn’t that what the very best historical fiction is all about?
About the contributor: CLAIRE MORRIS is the Web Features Editor for the Historical Novel Society. She served as the managing editor of Solander from 2004 to 2009, and helped to start the HNS North American conferences. She lives in Toronto.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 76, May 2016