Too much background? A light touch in historical novels

People ask about the background to novels, or at least some do, and in some ways it is easy to sketch in. There was a war, people were caught up in it, some were unsure of where their loyalties lay, women in particular could do little to affect the outcome of the conflict, but were threatened by the violence and desolated by the loss of loved ones. An all-too-familiar picture, which we dread being repeated, and fear for those who are subjected to its traumas.

But how much more detail do people want to know about an historical war? For my part, I care about characters who are aboard ships if I am drawn to them: I shall follow them through a storm or down below, and be absorbed in the atmosphere. But to be frank I do not share the fascination with the details and intricacies of naval life with the jargon and technical language, which sets me apart from quite a wide readership of recent decades. I remember my dad getting caught by Hornblower, and reading through the whole series by C.S.Forester, so much so that I recall the paperbacks lying there by his chair even now. I tried them out myself, but like those of a later author, I could never really say I was caught by them in the same way as my father was, and with him countless others.

So it can be with history. I have read some novels where the author was so keen on imparting an authentic background that the historical detail became a protagonist, and it seemed that everything had to stop for a while until the next piece of information was communicated. Yet, on the contrary, I have found myself irritated by daft evocations of historical periods that might as well have been set in Bromley or Milton Keynes, Burbank or Dallas, or by characters who jumped like frogs from beauty patches and Georgian duelling to Victorian bustles, stovepipe hats and London fogs.

Of course, some fictional characters will have an interest in current affairs, and perhaps even a close involvement. This will be true of the late eighteenth century if they are gentlemen, officers, landed gentry, and justices of the peace, and women in urban or rural life may well share those interests, or advance forthright and independent views. All may be opinionated, captious and contentious, holding forth or contradicting those who annoy them. Some will have strong principles, which may be contested, and many will be prepared to advance causes such as patriotism, and not a small number show to lasting commitment to abolitionism or suffrage. After all, these reforms were ultimately made in Britain because many people had committed to them over a very long time.

It is also the small, incidental details of everyday life that may demand to be seen, as a painter may carefully select objects to accompany a sitter, regarding costume and dress too as indicative of wealth and standing. Yet in an historical novel, the period and its defining actions, distressing or invigorating, distant or local, will create and shape the feelings and aims of its characters to a greater or lesser degree, and lend a distinctive quality to the story. It is as if we could say, when reading it, that these things might not have happened in quite this way in a different period – and so sense that, like these characters, we ourselves carry the pathos of our lives, which will seem so moving and so strange to our children and their children’s children.

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