Must Fiction Accurately Reflect The Past? Part Two

Reading & Writing, The Arts
imagesI’ve read some hilariously dreadful books set in period, including one Texan novel that began with someone paying a London coachman with a ten pence piece (tender introduced in the 1970s). Probably the best answer is to keep it honest, plain and simple, but to throw in a few surprises; we are all much more squeamish about health now – Joanne Harris writes a superbly revolting story in her collection ‘Jigs & Reels’ about what’s going on under the crinolines.The timeline of the past is filled with traps. For example, if you were asked the place these three items in order of invention – 1. fountain pen, 2. tube train, 3. lawnmower, it might surprise you that the order is 3,2,1.

That sort of thing can be checked but dialogue is trickier.If you’re writing about the late 18th century, I’d suggest starting with the English satirist Thomas Love Peacock. His novels are so rambling, vague and peculiar that it’s best to stumble from one page to the next and merely enjoy the juxtaposition of words. Peacock’s tales usually consist of people sitting around tables discussing the intellectual topics of the day. They’re a window to the past, and we feel we are eavesdropping on the kind of drunken, heady conversations English intellectuals have had in pubs for centuries. Obviously, there are no poor people.

In the past, the gap between the classes was almost unbridgeable. Military, Indian and naval slang entered ordinary life. The best way of hearing spoken Victorian English now is to talk to older people in Rajasthan. But you can make up language, too, if it gives you a genuine flavour of what you’re trying to convey.

In the film ‘Plunkett & Macleane’, the titular thieves attend a ball danced to pounding club beats instead of a string quartet, to convey the excitement of the guests – and why not, if you can  make it work? Mimesis is a fundamental literary tool, but there are many ways to apply it.

12 comments on “Must Fiction Accurately Reflect The Past? Part Two”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    Mimesis is an excellent word. And it is not French meaning Mime’s sister. Sorry, sorry. I have a cold.

  2. Gary says:

    Reading THREE MEN IN A BOAT for the first time was a bit of a shocker. It was published in 1889, but for most of the book it feels like it’s written in modern, colloquial English. Bits of slang are different, of course, but Jerome could almost pass for a modern writer. I know that the book initially took quite a hammering from ‘serious’ critics. Could one of the reasons be that it was too close to the way that people actually spoke?

  3. glasgow1975 says:

    The ballroom scene worked very well in Plunkett & Macleane in the way Wallis Simpson dancing to The Sex Pistols really didn’t in Madge’s recent film . . .

  4. Ken Murray says:

    I recently heard a story from my home town of Dumfries about how Robert Burns’ brain had been removed from his tomb in the 19th century. Apparently academics at the time wished to study it as the couldn’t believe how a peasant farmer living in poverty could possibly write such great works. I guess it’s probably the same thinking about the past being so vastly inferior, that continues to produce doubts about Shakespeare’s work?

  5. John Howard says:

    Good point Ken. As you say, even now something is taken out of the past and our ideas, insights, attitudes are applied to it. “The boys couldn’t have done it cos they didn’t go to university so they must have been unable”. OK to be an engineer though. Just not literary.

  6. Bob Low says:

    Ken-19th century attempts to study the human brain produced some howlers. It was believed for a time that the intelligence of a dissection subject could be assessed by the weight of the brain. As men tend to be physically larger, and so heavier than women, this was also used to support the myth of the mental superiority of the male. However, some anomalous results kept occurring, based on which, the most ”intelligent” dissection subjects were deduced to be prisoners executed by hanging-hanging of course engorging the brain with blood at point of death, and adding to its weight! Back to the drawing board…….

  7. Mike Cane says:

    Just a reminder that you can get very old books for free at Google Books ( Well, at least we in America can. A correspondent in Switzerland is constantly frustrated that my links don’t work due to regional rights — being applied to *public domain* books!

  8. keith page says:

    I reckon the finest writer of historical fiction was the late Patrick O’Brian.He can be a little heavy on nautical detail and the speech patterns take a little getting used to, but he was really able to convincingly recreate this vanished world.The comment about Jerome K Jerome is dead right; late Victorian slang and speech is surprisingly modern.

  9. Ken M says:

    One of my favourite details is from The Two-Headed Eagle by John Biggins: the crew of an Austro-Hungarian spotter plane communicate by passing notes in latin – the only language they have in common.

  10. Ken Murray says:

    Furthermore… I studied Anthropology at university and one of the first things we learned was about the ‘armchair-anthropologists’ of the 19th and even the 20th century. Many of these learned men wrote lengthy and detailed reports of peoples, places and cultures they had never actually experienced first-hand. Many based on second or third-hand accounts from returning traders. Perhaps the modern equivalents are more likely journalists than authors?

  11. John Howard says:

    Yes Ken. The type that can google for information and then write about it to fill some column inches. Maybe that’s what they teach in Media Studies these days. “Media Studies 101 – To get background for your article these are the variations on search one needs to put into your search engine…”

    By the way – Thoroughly agree about the style, music, action of Plunkett & Macleane. It has its place on my DVD shelves. Taken down and enjoyed every few years. Watching it on release in the cinema was a joy as it seemed to be in a niche all of its own at the time.

  12. Bob Low says:

    John-Plunkett & Macleane was great. It reminded me, stylistically, a bit of Ken Russell, in a good way.

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