Monday, August 12, 2013

The Temptation of Historical Fiction

Dan Allosso

So I’m thinking very seriously about getting to work on my story about a British radical named Charles Bradlaugh (1833-1891).  Bradlaugh is the British equivalent of America’s “Great Agnostic,” Robert Ingersoll, only more so.  Unlike Ingersoll, Bradlaugh was extremely political—he was even elected to Parliament and prevented from taking his seat for six
Charles Bradlaugh
years by the conservative opposition because he could not take the religious oath of office.  I’ve been researching him, off and on, since about 2006.  In that time, I’ve tried on the idea of writing a straight biography of Bradlaugh, but Londoner Bryan Niblett recently wrote a very good account of Bradlaugh’s adult years (especially the Parliamentary struggle), called Dare to Stand Alone.  I was thinking of writing the story of Bradlaugh’s youth for a young adult audience.  Bradlaugh was thrown out onto the streets of East London by his parents at age 16 for declaring himself an atheist.  He participated in Chartist riots and got clubbed over the head by the police.  He joined the army and was shipped to Ireland where he had to evict starving peasants from their homes during the famine.  The story of Bradlaugh’s youth is like a set of instructions on “how to make a radical.”

And he lived in very interesting times.  Bradlaugh met everyone!  And this is the part that makes him so attractive as a subject for fiction.  In a biography, I could observe that young Charles and Charles Dickens were at the same Reform demonstration in 1868.  In a novel, I could give them dialog!  Same with many important historical characters: John Stuart Mill, Charles Darwin, William Gladstone, Karl Marx, Giuseppe Garibaldi, Giuseppe Mazzini, Charles Sumner, Ralph Waldo Emerson—Bradlaugh actually knew all these people!  Rather than simply telling why Marx and Bradlaugh couldn’t stand each other, it might be much more fun to show it.

It’s no secret that historical novels are widely popular, and I think it’s because most people prefer to be shown than told.  What I lose in authenticity, I can make up in immediacy.  Good historical fiction is based on lots of real research, and seems to try to maintain the reader’s interest by being plausible.  The characters have to stay “in character,” or else it’s just anachronistic fiction using some names from history.  The ultimate model of this kind of writing, for me, is Neal Stephenson’s Baroque series beginning with the novel Quicksilver, which I’ve just been rereading.  Although some elements of the story are completely fantastic, the characters generally behave as you’d expect them to (if you had studied them to the degree Stephenson did), and they always show up on cue at the times and places recorded in real history—although often with slightly different motivations and mental states than they really had at the time.

Freedom to speculate about the interior lives of the characters is one of the attractions of fiction, for the writer.  The other big attraction is the ability to "fill in the blanks," and tell the story as you believe, but can't quite prove, it must have happened.  Several people who read An Infidel Body-Snatcher and the Fruits of His Philosophy said they’d wished there would have been more about Charles Knowlton’s wife, Tabitha.  Problem was, there was no data I could use to expand her role.  I suppose I could have said more about women’s work, and drawn some type of outline of a typical 19th-century wife, but that wasn’t what people were asking for.  They wanted to know how much Tabitha was a catalyst for Knowlton’s thinking, and how she felt about her husband being hounded and imprisoned for his ideas.  I had nothing to hang my hat on, in a biography.  In a novel, I could have told the story as I’m almost certain it happened—but not certain enough to call it history.

So in any case, I’m outlining Bradlaugh’s story as a novel, and planning on including fictional (but plausible and “in-character”) dialog with the many important real people he meets.  I’ll also introduce a few completely fictional characters who will exemplify the world in which Bradlaugh lived.  The point, I think, is to give readers a way to understand the time, place, and story, without reading the background I’ll have to read to produce it.  A way to touch these people and understand something about their lives, times, and legacy without reading thousand-page biographies of each.  Readership numbers suggest historical fiction is one of the main ways many people gain an understanding of history.  And, if done well, it can be based on the same type of information (mostly, authoritative secondary source material) that goes into (much less popular/readable) textbooks.  This is suggested in Stephenson’s Acknowledgements at the beginning of Quicksilver, where he says, "Particular mention must go to Fernand Braudel, to whose work this book may be considered a discursive footnote.  Many other scholarly works were consulted…Of particular note is Sir Winston Spencer Churchill’s six-volume biography of Marlborough, which people who are really interested in this period of history should read, and people who think that I am too long-winded should weigh."  It was Stephenson’s series, incidentally, that got me started studying history and drove me to grad school.  So, big circle completed, I guess—except, of course, I’ve still got to finish that dissertation!

The contemporary relevance of the story is a bigger concern—certainly a more explicit
Richard Carlile
concern—for historical fiction than for academic or textbook history.  Luckily, some themes seem to be universal.  For example, if part of the point of a story about a nineteenth-century freethinker is to explore radicalism and allow readers to think about the one percent and the occupiers, consider the following passage written in 1819 by Richard Carlile (whose family young Charles Bradlaugh lived with, after being disowned by his own):

The question of reform is at this moment to be looked at from two points of view, the first is whether there is sufficient virtue to be found in the aristocracy and landed interest of the country to enforce it; or whether the unrepresented, and consequently, the injured part of the community, must rouse and bring into action their strength to bring about that which must finally be enforced.  I am of opinion that every opportunity has been afforded the former, had they possessed the virtue; and having neglected the opportunity, or rather having shewn a want of feeling altogether in the cause, the latter are imperatively called upon immediately to unite, to rally their strength; and I have no doubt but they will be found sufficiently formidable to carry the measure…

It wouldn’t take much to render these words in a way that would “work” for popular audiences, and they might like to hear the story of an agitator who, although he was jailed for six years for sedition and blasphemy after writing the words above, understood that the new technology of cheap printing would make him invincible.  “As this kind of business,” he wrote from the Dorchester Gaol, “depends on the periodical publications, we can begin anywhere with half an hour’s preparation, and laugh at the Vice society, and all the influence they can use against it.  If one web be destroyed, a few hours’ work will spin another stronger and better than before”  (from Edward Royle’s anthology, The Infidel Tradition from Paine to Bradlaugh, 1974).  I like to imagine a guy like Carlile living in the age of the internet and twitter.  I also like to think today’s agitators and radicals could gain some ideas and inspiration, knowing these stories.


Randall said...

This would be a fascinating subject for a hist novel. The connections to other luminaries are really surprising.

As far as writing about a subject for whom there is little doc evidence . . . I wonder how much other historical context can help? John Demos did this well in Unredeemed Captive, setting the scene and context when he lacked extensive doc sources. I also liked the ways that Paul E. Johnson and Sean Wilentz filled in some of the historical-evidence-gaps in The Kingdom of Matthias: A Story of Sex and Salvation in 19th-Century America.

Dan Allosso said...

Thanks, Randall. I hope it will be cross that line that separates readers looking for history and readers looking for a good story, who might benefit from a little history.

Didn't mean to imply there's little documentary material on Bradlaugh. Quite the contrary! He was the most famous radical "republican" and freethinker in his day. What I don't have, is evidence of the actual personal conversations he may have had with some of these folks (and although he left lots of published materials, Bradlaugh destroyed his letters). And other authors have been successful developing dialog out of things the characters were known to have said in print. So that's the type of thing I'm thinking about doing. Also, there's SO MUCH of the scene-setting material available (Booth's poverty maps of London, "Sanitary Ramblings," memoirs of the Irish famine, etc.) that it would be a shame not to show Bradlaugh reacting to these environmental influences...

Jeff Vanke said...

As the author of two historical novels, I support the cause! I have offer some notes of realism.

First, this is a very different kind of writing. I had to re-learn writing in order to add fiction as a writing skill set. I did this by reading widely in the fiction genres I was emulating, and by seeking out and reading all kinds of interviews with successful authors.

Two years ago, I self-published The Berlin Deception, about a British spy in Nazi Germany during the Rhineland crisis of 1936. The premise is real history. The story and main characters are fictitious. Through advertising, I still sell about 30 copies a day, about 97% ebooks, for a total of 27,000 sales to date.

Last month, I self-published Witness, a crime thriller set in Palestine twenty years after Jesus died. The same methods of advertising yielded zero sales. (I get a few sales from cross-over readers of my first book.)

The farther you move from established markets, the harder it is to find ANY readers. Unless you're already famous, or at least niche-famous (having your own so-called "platform").

Both of my novels were written primary for commercial gain, and only secondary as a method of writing history, or of writing about important historical questions, which is more my case.

That is, because we are not of Kevin Costner fame, if you build it, they will not necessarily come.

Nonetheless, good luck!

Dan Allosso said...

Thanks, Jeff. I was actually a YA (young adult) novelist before I became a historian, and I went back to to grad school for the PhD because an agent said he'd read any fiction I cared to send him, but if I wanted to send him nonfiction, he'd need to know I had a platform!

I'd love to talk more offline about your experiences self-publishing. My YA novel is still selling well after five years, and my recent foray into biography is taking off much slower than I had hoped (especially outside of its natural niche of secularist readers). Maybe we can compare notes and then I suspect others who read this blog might be interested in a post about self-publishing. I'm dan at danallosso dot net.

Randall said...

Sorry about that. I should've been more clear. I meant that remark with regard to Knowlton’s wife, Tabitha.

About sources that are no longer around, I'm reminded of what Bert Wyatt-Brown told me about one of the evangelical reforming Tappan brothers (must have been Arthur, not Lewis.) Arthur had his correspondence burned. So . . . goodbye to all that history in those pages!