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On historical novels and hitching a ride into history

For lovers of history there is nothing quite like an historical novel.  Hitching a ride to someone else’s imagination has to be the fastest way to travel back in time.  And the better the imagination the more amazing is the ride.

The genre seems to bring out the best in novelists.  Watching an historical novelist at work is like watching a tightrope walker.  ‘Look,’ says the novelist, teetering out ahead, ‘in my hands you can imagine anything.  Trust me and I’ll take you’ and at that – because historical novelists are nothing if not show-offs – she will throw in a few moves, like taking you to the guillotine with the hero, or startling you into falling in love with a murderer.

The past is a great playground for writers.  It is in fact good for daydreamers of all kinds – because it gives you room to imagine.  Writers go where they have most freedom.  In Marco Polo’s day that was probably to the ends of the earth.  Now it is more likely to be back in time. Because the more our own world feels familiar and predictable the more the past feels wonderfully and refreshingly peculiar.  Nor over time will it ever get less peculiar.  Because the past is a continent that for each new generation feels miraculously fresh and unexplored all over again.

And where writers go readers follow.

The current king of the genre is, without doubt, Hilary Mantel.  But over the years there have been others who have been, in their different ways, as good.  Ask an ancient historian what got them into history and quite a few will mention Mary Renault.  She wrote about ancient Greece with a trance-like, truth-telling conviction, as if she had somehow managed to time-travel and then had simply recorded the events that unfolded before her eyes.  I first read her at fourteen and was so mesmerised that I went out and bought a book on ancient Greece and – being an intense and geeky teenager – tried to teach myself how to read it.  What I liked about her books was that she never pretended that her characters were anything like us – her heros think that slavery is fine and women are lesser beings – why would they think anything else?   Reading her feels like falling into very cold water.

Another novelist that historians sometimes mention is Rosemary Sutcliffe who lived through the second world war and wrote in the 1950’s.  She so convincingly captured the grief and the chaos at the end of the Roman Empire that I find it very difficult to believe any other version of events.  There is surely a connection between the times she lived in and the novels that she wrote.  There is nothing like living through war and social collapse to make you feel a bitter, poignant sense of history.

But my own favourite historical novel is Wallace Bream’s ‘The Eagle in the Snow’ – a book that is bafflingly out of print although you can still get it second hand.  Like Rosemary Sutcliffe Bream lived through the second world war and also like her wrote best about the ends of empires.  When he was still at school he got it into his head that he was going to fight for the British Empire in India but by the time he was twenty Partition had come and the Empire was ending.  After many adventures he became a librarian and from the safety of his desk he wrote a great novel.

The hero of his book is the soldier Maximus who, with a handful of other old men, has been ordered to guard the frontiers of the Empire where the barbarians are massing, Maximus on one side of the Rhine and the barbarians on the other.  Summer passes into winter and back into summer again and still Maximus holds the line until a winter comes that they’ve been dreading – a winter so cold that the Rhine freezes over and the barbarians need only walk across to take the Empire.  The book is suffused with a sense of hopeless, helpless heroism – again and again Maximus is given a way out but doesn’t take it – and weeks after you have finished it you will find its melancholy tones are creeping into your everyday life and colouring your everyday existence.

Which brings us to another question, not about writers but about readers – the connection between the times we live in and the novels that make the most impression on us?  I am just back from Taiwan and Singapore where society is buzzing and the economies are flying along. Back home in the West  it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Bream’s novel is so powerful because, what with the rise of the East and the decline of the West, we too fear that we are living through End of Empire times.   By Rachel Morris