My short story for the TCWG June competition is on a theme of ‘Heaven Sent.’ This was a hard theme for me as I don’t like stories with a ‘deus ex machina’ type of plot. ‘Out of the Blue’ is a story about a brief passion and its consequences. The rosebay willow-herb symbolises for me a brief flowering that comes out of nowhere, and takes root in the most barren ground.
#Rally4LoB Protest at Library cuts on 13th June! http://wp.me/P4alwm-9z Birmingham Libraries Campaigns @FoLoB_ @FoBAH_org
Nicola Gauld is the Co-ordinator for Voices of War and Peace: the Great War and its legacy. She is a historian, outreach worker and curator based in Birmingham. You can follow her on Twitter @nicolagauld or on her blog.
In December 2014 Birmingham City Council announced drastic cuts to its budget for 2015 and beyond. The Library of Birmingham, opened in September 2013 at a cost of £189m and the biggest public library in Europe, did not escape and a saving of £1.3m is currently being implemented, resulting in around 100 redundancies to be made in 2015 and a reduction in opening hours from 73 to 40 per week. Further cuts to the service are likely to be made in 2016-2018. The city’s Archives, Heritage & Photography department, housed in the Library, will be dramatically affected. This will inevitably result in reduced access to documents and photographs…
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Ali Smith wins Baileys Prize – historical fiction is on the up
The runaway success of Ali Smith’s How to be Both signals a new and original approach to 21st-century historical fiction. Its shimmering linguistic audacity has been rightly celebrated. Her Bailey’s award scoops a hat trick of prestigious prizes – she has already won the Costa and the Goldsmiths – and the novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker.
Split into two halves that can be read in either order, it evokes the passing moment with passionate intensity, and questions our ability to recall or understand such moments. It’s exciting to see such a playful and audacious novel given such accolades.
But Smith is not alone in experimenting with the past. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies aren’t conspicuously experimental in the manner of Smith. Mantel’s territory is familiar: the terrible Tudors and their predilection for the block. Yet her revisionist portrayal of Thomas Cromwell – the courtier formally known as a Machiavellian torturer – is powerfully subversive. Not only is this a reappraisal of his character, but a formal experimentation with point of view. Time is slippery and disorientating in her novels, as it is in Smith’s, though in a more conventional context. Mantel conveys the consciousness of Cromwell as she darts forward and backwards: recalling, assimilating, plotting.
Out of time
Conventional historical novels are fundamentally anachronistic. Planting a modern sensibility in the past should stretch credulity beyond its limit, yet it’s one of the tropes of realist historical fiction that readers accept almost without question. “Factual accuracy” is highly prized – but how is this defined? All sources are biased, all experience is partial, even our own memories are flawed and confused. Facts aren’t reliable blocks of certainty that form the basis of true knowledge – historians know this just as novelists do. The past is malleable and mysterious.
Historical fiction also falls within the Venn diagram of literary fiction. (Historical novels have been awarded the Man Booker prize for the past three years.) It’s also fertile ground for experimentation – as demonstrated by the Goldsmiths prize for experimental fiction. The inaugural 2013 shortlist included historical novels by Jim Crace (Harvest); Philip Terry (tapestry) and David Peace (Red or Dead), while in 2014 Paul Kingsnorth was shortlisted for his first novel The Wake, which is set in 11th century Lincolnshire and has its own invented language.
How to be Both is a meditation on the passing and layering of time, and the way in which experience is lost or preserved in our consciousness or in the (perhaps misleading) artefacts we leave behind. Smith suggests in the novel that history is an energy rather than an accumulation of facts: “That shout, that upward spring.”
Novels like this are asking questions about history, but also about the nature of reality itself. How do we interpret external information, the partiality of human perception and the ability of language to engage with what is felt and lost in the passing moment?
Smith, Mantel et al are part of a tradition in experimentation in historical fiction that goes back to William Godwin and Walter Scott. In 1797, Godwin suggested that history is “other” and that even contemporary human experience is so inchoate that all attempts at clarification must fail. He was convinced that the deliberate artifice gave a “truer” account of lived experience than attempts to capture solid facts.
Scott’s Waverley – published in 1814 – is playfully self-referential and pokes fun at received versions of history. Edward Waverley, its naïve and misguided protagonist, owes much to Cervantes’ ageing buffoon Don Quixote. Both Cervantes and Scott had a sophisticated take on myth and chivalric romance.
Just over a century later, Virginia Woolf staked her claim for women’s place in experimental historical fiction. The eponymous protagonist of Orlando strides through the centuries unfettered by age or sex, and is a forerunner of Jeanette Winterson’s Villanelle in The Passion – and indeed Ali Smith’s Francesco del Cossa in How to be Both. Woolf mixed vividly deployed research about 16th and 17th-century England, her obsession with Vita Sackville-West and her experiments with the rendering of thoughts and consciousness to surreal effect.
History is not a finite resource. It is looming behind us: growing and morphing and consuming the space age and glasnost and Blairism; Britpop and 9/11 and the Arab Spring. The future experimental historical novel might attempt to encompass the millions of Facebook-users in 2015; the looking-glass world of celebrity and structured reality; YouTube executions and Islamic State. It may be digital; it may be post-digital; it may be unmediated by elites; it may be atomised or seek to give the impression of being atomised.
No doubt there will always be a market for tales of romance and derring-do and the cosy pleasures of heritage fiction. But the necessity for experimentation in this genre is the one certainty we have. The past is “other” and the future is unknown: historical fiction will need new modes of falsification to address this.
I used to think that history before 1900 was written by men. But to quote from this piece: “It is common for women’s autobiographies from before the 20th century to be published even centuries later by an editor whose purpose and agenda is different from the woman author’s.” The letters and memoirs are there, if we can only find them, and will give us a broader perspective on the way people lived, and the beliefs and cultures of the day. I have found when researching historical fiction that it is often the memoirs and letters of women – Elisabeth d’Orleans, Madame de Stael, Fanny Burney, Jane Carlyle – which are the richest source.
The American Lady improved as went on — but still the same faults in part recurred, 11 Jan 1809 … I made my mother an excuse & came away; leaving just as many for their round table, as there were at Mrs Grants, 19 Jan 1813 … I have disposed of Mrs Grant for the 2nd fortnight to Mrs Digweed; — it can make no difference to her, which of the 26 fortnights in the Year, the 3 volume lay in her House, 9 February 1813 (Jane Austen)
The cover and one of the sketches of the 18th century Scots woman artist, Lady Anne Barnard (1750-1825)
Dear friends and readers,
A couple of months ago now I reported that I had submitted a panel proposal for papers on Forging Connections Among Women for the November 2016 EC/ASECS conference at West Chester. The due date for paper proposals is fast approaching…
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Next time you sign a petition on Change.org, reflect on the history of petitioning, which was a popular means of campaigning in Victorian England.
My article, ‘Popular petitioning and the corn laws, 1833-46’ has just been published in the August issue of English Historical Review, vol. 127 (2012), pp. 882-919. The article sheds new light on one of the most important political campaigns of 19th century Britain, on the development of free trade and the culture of petitioning. The research reflects my interest in popular economic debates in this period and I will shortly be writing a blog on the 19th century roots of quantitative easing.
Article summary. Historians have increasingly emphasised the intellectual influence of Richard Cobden, the leader of the Anti-Corn Law League. But it remains a commonplace that the League was essentially an agitation of textile manufacturers and lacked popular support from the working-classes, who preferred to campaign for Chartism and radical political reform.
Popular apathy or indifference towards the League, however, should not be mistaken for support for the corn laws. A quantitative and qualitative analysis…
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