Twentieth Century Blues

WENDY ROBERTSON on historical fiction set during the 20th century

As I was to give a workshop at last year’s HNS Conference I emailed my resumé to the excellent Towse Harrison[1], who had very kindly offered to introduce me to the audience. At the end of my email I added, tongue firmly in cheek, that one day I might write a series based in the Celtic dawn. When she introduced me at the conference this ‘fact’ was highlighted as some reassurance that I had aspirations as a ‘proper’ historical novelist, not a scribbler who messed about in the muddy shallows of 20th-century history.

This was a genial enough incident and I am not one driven to protest too much, being rather busy writing novels that have, give or take a decade, the twentieth century as their context. I do like to get on with this magical task of writing. I have met too many writers who talk a good novel rather than write it or who blame the publishers because their period is not ‘in fashion’.

However, this incident tickled my interest and I began to take some note of the snobberies around 20th-century historical fiction which may or may not find some expression here in Solander. This time span does have a place in the Historical Novels Review – indeed it has its own extended section encompassing a full range of 20th- century fiction. However the rhetoric in Solander, excellent though this journal is, has begun to give me the feeling it may reflect the view that fiction set in the broad reaches of the 20th century is somehow inferior to the more distant delights of The Middle Ages, The Age of Enlightenment, The Sea Under Sail, or the essentially male romance of the battlefield before the ungallant evolution of tank warfare.

This is despite the fact that the course of the 20th century has witnessed not one, but a series of vivid, exciting, revolutionary changes in industrial and military technology as well as in political, social and personal attitudes and values. Arguably, each decade following from 1895 has in itself rendered as much change in these matters as have whole centuries previous to that date.

For good or ill, certainties of the past have been replaced by relative values. The individual, rather than the family, tribe or group has emerged as the signifier of the century. In this time we have moved from warfare dominated by group traditions and loyalties and institutional hierarchies – occasionally personified in such hero-figures such as Wellington or Napoleon – to the point at the end of the century where an ideologically motivated suicidal individual can tip the balance of national events. This same time span has seen the evolution of the penny post and the weekly paper to email and mobile texting, to Big Brother[2] style media intrusion, and information as a commodity rather than a communication.

All this is exciting stuff to be explored, analysed, and expressed by novelists from across a wide spectrum who, whether or not they call themselves historical novelists, use the historical context as the prism to refract their understanding of the individual human dilemma. The very uncertainties implicit in this dynamic century are an opportunity for fine, sensitive writing and great storytelling.

One problem with coming to grips with all this is what some might see as the lazy English desire for literary stratification. The first fissure is on the line of ‘literary quality’. Sarah Nesbeitt[3] makes an interesting argument regarding the controversy and contradictions between fiction which is ‘out’ as ‘historical fiction’, and so-called ‘literary fiction set in the past’ – a sub-genre that dare not speak its name: as though to be labelled an historical novelist is to be cast into the outer literary darkness.

She quotes Margaret Attwood and Peter Carey. I would add Helene Dunmore, A.S. Byatt, Pat Barker, Sebastian Faulks and Sarah Waters. It could be that, as Sarah Nesbeitt says, this move (into the past) indicates that historical fiction is getting the respect it deserves. This idea does have its problems, however: alongside this new respect, it engenders further elaboration of the snobbery that beleaguers not just historical fiction but the broader field of UK fiction.

A more subtle point may be emerging: in the matrix of snobbery, respect and contempt in the field of historical fiction we find that it is OK if you are a ‘literary’ novelist to take the 20th century as your ground. But still, if you use this century and you are a popular, widely-read novelist writing about an ‘ordinary’ family in Manchester in the 1930s, your work may be dismissed as ‘trivial’ or, astoundingly, you may be accused of being a ‘cardboard chatterer’[4]. People who have never penetrated your novel deeper than the cover, ejaculate words like ‘nostalgic’, ‘sentimental’, ‘romantic’ , and ‘trivial’ in a flush of non sequiturs that bring down any intelligent protest to their own trivial level. Your many readers are relegated mindless consumers who gain little insight and no knowledge from their enjoyment of your work.

Then, from inside the field of acknowledged historical fiction, we have another fissure emerging. Here the ground settles around a tacit understanding that the novels set in the 20th century, focusing on the complex, varied lives of working people, are less historically significant than some novel about a detective priest in Rome or a foot soldier in early 19th-century Spain.

It is important to note that an appreciation of a novel based in another time than ours [5] varies with the reader’s experience of the balance between the learning of facts and insight into human motive and experience and the reader’s own history, life experience and personality. On the one side of the balance there are enjoyable facts to learn such as, for instance, the strategy for a documented battle, the conditions of life after ten days under sail, or the layout of an Elizabethan knot garden. On the other side we enjoy the apprehension of the subtlety of human motives from the very darkest to the brightest, and recognise mirror-selves in other times, a recognition which can lead to some enlightenment of our own lives in our own time.

A recurring problem is that, for some people, the 20th century is not an ‘other time than ours’; rather it is some fuzzy taken-for-granted ‘present’ which, it is assumed, we all unquestioningly share. For such people the grasp of their own century as history is shaky and they find it much more comfortable – and pleasurable – to get to grips with a ring-fenced period like the Restoration or the Celtic Dawn.

Such people often also like their history picked clean of 20th-century perceptions and nuance, muttering furiously about ‘revisionism’ and ‘anachronism’. I would argue that it is impossible to write novels in this arid fashion and conjure up a living, vibrant world for your readers to share.

One could equally challenge the notion that a brilliantly executed re-enactment of a civil war battle bears more than a passing resemblance to the real thing. The filth and smells, the blood and the screams of pain, the perils of sickness and disability, the sheer boredom, the grunting endurance: these require the magic of fiction to be rendered true. A modern writer cannot avoid bringing modern sensibilities and sensitivities to the interpretation and expression of this truth through her or his fiction.

Perhaps one problem with taking the 20th century as one’s period – and refusing to assume its fuzzy general reality – is just how much we now know of the subtlety and the complex individual human reaction to the great events in this time. To this end it is absorbing to research the acres of letters, diaries, public accounts, political treatises, contemporary press, fugitive literature, film, video, the art, even the fiction and illicit literature of a particular decade of the 20th century. In writing about the 20th century we enjoy phenomenally more resources than those for any previous century. But then, from this massive resource it is inevitable that we conjure some fresh human insights which are not there at all in the source documents. In this way we make a new accessible truth which is not a lifeless, nostalgic re-enactment. And – as with the best of fiction set in other centuries ­– this new truth is predicated on the modern perspective we bring to it.

However, in order to escape from the overwhelming weight of given events which are part of our cultural knowledge, we must home in very close, feel our way into the nuances of human identity and interaction which make the public events live. Such fresh and communicable insights can only come from writers with a shared 20th-century cultural history. Pat Barker famously did this with Regeneration, where she took the claustrophobia of a hospital asylum as her arena and placed within it historical and invented characters to present a late 20th-century morality play on the reality of World War One. In doing this, Regeneration gives fresh insights into the absolutes of war which challenge the received attitudes of her own and earlier generations. This is not because this is a fine ‘literary’ novel – although it is – but also because it is a very fine historical novel.

For me this – and its greater emotional depth – makes Regeneration superior to Sebastian Faulks’ much lauded Birdsong, both in literary and historical terms. Birdsong, however, is a good read and does get brownie points on the ‘information’ side of the scale, as more than one reader has told me that they had never heard of the soldier miner-tunnellers out on the battle field and how very interesting this was. Perhaps above all Faulks deserves praise for putting this significant fact out into the wider public arena.

I do admire such writers but I also have a soft spot for those novelists who lovingly excavate, with very little document and trace evidence, the reality of the lives of those almost without an historical voice. Among these I would include writers such as Freda Lightfoot, whose novels bring working-class Manchester within touching distance and Elizabeth Gill, whose favourite focus is ‘men in works offices with mud on their boots’[6].

To get to the point where you can ‘hear’ these earlier 20th-century voices, and can walk in the footsteps of the speakers, needs a particular approach. The public histories, facts and information are easy to access. Using the British Library, the Internet and one’s local library, one soon comes on the research cycle where the salient facts begin to repeat themselves. Then is the time for more specific enquiry. Freda Lightfoot: I walk around the place I intend to write about, take photographs, do sketch maps, note such things as what is in bloom if it is the Lakes, or the remnants of old buildings and rows of back-to-back houses if I’m in Manchester. Most fun of all, I talk to a great many old people. They always say there’s ‘nowt much they can tell me’ and then talk.

They look to personal experience and the words of the non-literary. Liz Gill: I go for books written by local people about their lives. Old maps and newspapers, local photo books, small print memoirs, old houses, essays written about industries on Tyneside, my own knowledge of family and industry, my family’s history.

I don’t quite know where I am on this spectrum. I relish the large scale historical literature and scholarly document search as well as fugitive regional sources and images. And while I do have the historian’s caution about the absolute validity of such personal accounts as evidence, I enjoy the fact that as this history is so ‘near’ we do have the privilege of listening to the echo of actual voices.

I listened to many hours of tape-recordings of reminiscence of individuals who had experienced the Coventry Blitz for Land of Your Possession. For The Long Journey Home (about the fall of Singapore in 1942), I talked at lucid, fascinating length with a lady of 98. As a young woman she escaped the island on one of the last boats not to be shot out of the water. We drank tea made by her sixty-year-old daughter who had shared her experience as a toddler. I also read eighty letters written by a naval commander to his wife, as Singapore crumbled in the face of the Japanese invasion. These were lent to me by the elderly man who, as a boy, was the subject of the letters. His father, who died in the waters off Singapore the day after surrender, was one of the quiet heroes of that tragedy.

It is like a game of ‘touch’. I touched the son’s hand and he touched his father and mother’s hands. There is a line of communication here that is more than scholarship.

In my new novel, Honesty’s Daughter, Benbow Hall[7] has a walled garden close by, which is central in my novel. In researching this novel, as well as reading everything about the history and evolution of the walled garden and learning how to propagate roses, I talked at length to the man who has gardened that same enclosed space for 27 years. These close-in conversations helped me access the magic of that particular garden. As well as all this, I researched the history of the Hall itself, the development of armaments in the North at the turn of the century, the British in Colorado Springs in 1908, and conditions on the Somme in 1818. But it was talking to the gardener which was the key to the reality in this novel.

You might say that all this is no different to the great Bernard Cornwell spending a day with the resident longbowman at Warwick Castle, and I would agree with you. Perhaps it is neither so romantic nor so overtly colourful, but it is essentially the same literary detective work: how to walk in the shoes, and therefore create true characters, of people who lived in other times and then say something fresh about their lives which might connect it to ours.

But it happens that the people I create are nearer to me as human beings than is Bernard’s longbowman. They are the contemporaries of my mother and my grandmother and I feel that I have a genuine psychological connection with them. Here we have the procedure of reaching back, hand to hand: that game of ‘touch’ again. In the end it is not too difficult to hear the echoes of their voices.

This, you might say, should make the writing of a novel easy. But in some ways it makes it harder. Without a rigorous apprehension of the broader historical scene, and the placing the fugitive evidence alongside the more objective verifiable public evidence, one could slide away from this newly-minted truth into sloppy stereotype, from tight storytelling into mundane repetitive saga. This I avoid like the plague.

So we have it: in this as in all other parts of the wider fields of ‘literary’, historical and other fiction, it is necessary to mark out the fine from the dross, the true from the ersatz, the fresh from the wearily repetitive. And it is important to feel unapologetic about the fact that one is not embarking on a series of novels about the Celtic Dawn.

Not yet.

NB : HONESTY’S DAUGHTER (Headline 2003) takes place between 1905 and 1921

My website – – features 17 novels which collectively span the time between 1890 – 1991.

[1] Columnist and review editor for HNS Review

[2] Further complexity – I mean of the Orwellian concept, not the TV reality spin off.

[3] Conference speech March 2002, reported on HNS website

[4] A reviewer quoted by Nesbeitt in her talk.

[5] However you define these. I think a lot of energy is wasted in discussing whether ‘history’ ended in the 1920s, 1930s, 50s, 80s etc. It all depends on how one sees it. Here, of course, I am being a late twentieth century relativist. We are all part of history. Novelist Liz Gill says, ‘… perhaps it’s something to do with the romance of somewhere I have never been i.e. before I was born.’

[6] Conversation with the writer.

[7] Based on WhitworthHall, the home of Bobby Shafto, famous in British nursery rhyme tradition.

First published in Solander: The Magazine of the Historical Novel Society, Issue 14, Autumn 2003.

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