Historical Fiction, Then and Now

I love historical fiction.  A writer takes what is known about a place in time or a character from the past, and then transports the reader further and deeper into what are the blood and guts of the past.  And I mean blood and guts: people and moments in time are brought back to life, bumps, lumps, warts and all.  And, of course, heart and soul.  Any great novel has to have heart and soul.  When a novel of historical fiction succeeds, history becomes as real as what we see out our window, or read in our newspapers, or experience on the street, every living day. We are offered insights into the past that not only deepen our understanding of history, but also of ourselves, the present time, and the promises (or threats) of the future. History does not repeat itself, not entirely, but great historical fiction allows us to repeat history, and what we gain from our time travel can be profound and lasting.

I am not talking about simple approaches to famous figures from the past, like Jennifer Chiaverini’s one-dimensional presentation of Mary Todd Lincoln and her dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley in Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker.  I am talking about vivid, complicated, and even disturbing portraits of real life characters, such as found in Peggy Horan’s Loving Frank Loving Frank rendered Mamah Borthwick Cheney in such exquisite detail of internal substance that her awful death hits us almost as hard as it hit Frank Lloyd Wright (and, of course, poor Edwin Cheney); we anguish over the risks, financial, social and familial, taken by Mamah in loving a man not her husband, and mourn the awful price she, and everyone around her, had to pay.

But even more, through Loving Frank, we understand, in a whole new way, the patterns of a paternalistic society that controlled and confined women, and we appreciate the advances forged over the past eighty years to ensure women’s ability to decide for themselves in matters of career, marriage, and divorce.

Searching for a deeper presentation of Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley, I turned to Tazewell Thompson’s play, Mary T. and Lizzie K., which offers multi-dimensional characters who debate and discuss the nature of friendship, loyalty, and identity.  Thompson creates a rich portrait of the two women and also a profound exploration of what it means to be alive in times that perplex, confuse, and provoke; in other words, in the times we are living now.  When Mary Todd laments the soldiers coming back from Civil War, maimed by the experience of killing and fear of being killed, and confused over why the war was fought in the first place, we understand the trauma borne by today’s veterans. And when she damns the man who invented the first slingshot, we join in her curse and feel stronger in the cause to end wars — for what better way to get a grip on the present madness than by understanding a sliver from the past?  And what better way to do that than through the might of great historical fiction.

I am excited to read Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, and look forward to the insights Therese Anne Fowler offers not only into Zelda’s character but also into the complicated relationship she had with her husband. Zelda has been an object of fascination for me since I was sixteen-years old and first read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night.  I wondered then, and I wonder now, what Zelda’s life might have been under different, less demanding circumstances – how much was her mental illness caused by being married to Fitzgerald, and how much of it was inevitable? Tender is the Night is a kind of historical fiction; after all, Fitzgerald based much of the novel, both its plot and its characters, on himself and Zelda, and the complications and sorrows and joys of their years of courtship and marriage. Tender is the Night is both fiction, and a history, but it was a contemporary history of his own reality. Does that count as historical fiction today?

I wonder if Jamaica Kincaid’s See Now Then, a novel of fiction based on her present day reality, will lead, in some way, to a novel written forty years from now about the relationship between this writer from the islands and her husband from the Northeast establishment, who meet, fall in love, and fall out again.  Kincaid claims her novel is a work of fiction but she draws deeply from her very real life marriage to Allen Shawn and the life they built together in Bennington, Vermont, which was torn apart by Shawn’s leaving Kincaid for another woman.  See Now Then is, like Tender is the Night was, a kind of historical fiction written in the present.

I read many mysteries set in the past, including the works of Anne Perry, Stephanie Pintoff, and Caleb Carr.  I also read mysteries set in those same time periods (late 1800s and early 1900s) that were actually written in those time periods, including the delightful Father Brown mysteries written by G.K. Chesterton and the classic whodunits penned by Burton Egbert Stevenson, such as The Mystery of the Boule Cabinet.

Those mysteries were written as contemporary fiction but have become historical fiction.  Another favorite collection of mine, the Travis McGee series written by John D. Macdonald, is set in the 1960s and ’70s, and I first read them in the late 1970s.  Rereading them now, the behavior of the characters, and their surroundings — including a southern Florida just starting to be developed — are dated and fascinating, and thought-provoking: where have the past four decades brought us?   In other words, the works of MacDonald have  begun to seem historical….Who knows what the future will bring?