Monday, August 11, 2014

Following In The Footprints of Giants...

Hello, everyone!!  It’s Louise here again, and believe it or not, this post marks my final contribution to the Heroines of Fantasy blog for the year.  Where has the time gone, I wonder?!

After scratching my head and wondering how best to mark the occasion, I’ve decided to go back to basics and look at the roots of the historical novel.

I’m sure I’ve confessed previously that before I started writing historical fiction, I hadn’t really read much when it came to this particular genre. It was only when I started work on Fire and Sword that I started exploring the genre and it was then that I finally discovered what exactly I’d been missing through the years!  In 2004, I became a great fan of Hilary Mantel’s work when I read her novel of the the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety,  and it was around the same time that I discovered the work of Linda Proud, who writes about Renaissance Florence.  

But there remained a yawning chasm in my ‘Have Read’ shelves, and that was the classic works of historical fiction written by my fellow Scots.

This is, perhaps, a bit of an exaggeration.  Through the years, I’d read a bit of Tranter.  I’d read a bit of Dorothy Dunnett’s list, too (her work is top of my ‘To Read’ list for 2015).  I’d read some of the classic Scots historical novels like Robert Louise Stevenson’s Kidnapped and John Galt’s Ringan Gilhaizie.  And I'd really enjoyed the historical novels of Reay Tannahill.  But I’d never read the classic Scottish novels penned by the father of historical fiction writing himself:  Sir Walter Scott.

So over the summer, I’ve been reading Scott’s first novel Waverley.  

I’ll admit it right now.  I’m a modern reader, with modern literary tastes.  Though I find a lot of contemporary writing a bit too fast for my liking, I find big, heavy 19th century novels quite difficult and – dare I say it! – too tedious to be what I’d call a fun read.   

Soon as I opened it, I realised that Waverley was precisely that kind of novel.  Reading it soon became a chore: I found the hero exasperating, and the level of description exhaustive.  Despite this, I persisted.  Before long, I found myself relating to the book not as a reader, but as an archaeologist. I found Scott's picture of mid-18th century Scotland incredible for the amount of detailed information it gave about the times Scott himself lived in, and about the Jacobite Rebellion, which was a period still considered to be in the recent past by his reckoning.  

Scott’s depiction of Scotland’s past still resonates in the present, colouring the way in which our native country is viewed both at home and abroad.  As I chugged my way doggedly through, there came a point when I realised that it had shaped Scotland’s literature, too, to the extent that when I looked with a critical eye at Waverley, I can see its resonances echoing even in my own book, Fire & Sword. The relationship between the hero of Waverley – Edward Waverley – and the anti-hero, Fergus Mac-Ivor, paved the way for a juxtaposition between hero and anti-hero which is more familiar to us all, I think: the dynamic between the upright, honest Davie Balfour and the swaggering, charismatic Allan Breck Stewart (who was based on a real historical figure) in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped.

When I wrote Fire and Sword, it wasn’t my intention of continuing this tradition.  If anything, I wanted to react against it.   But when I look afresh at my own novel , I see that one of the key themes is the way in which  the young, inexperienced John Sempill of Ellestoun (who tries hard to do the right thing and uphold the chivalric code he values so highly) finds himself allied with Hugh, 2nd Lord Montgomerie –  a man whose morality is dubious to say the least, and who can at best prove unreliable and at worst downright treacherous. With this relationship underpinning the story,  I can’t help thinking that somewhere along the line, my muse must have tapped into this long-standing tradition and created something which pays homage to it.

As writers, we strive to be original, to create something completely new and unfamiliar.  But we’re just the latest in a long line of literary craftspeople, and however hard we try, we can’t escape the past entirely.  It shapes us, makes us what and who we are.  Sometimes it’s good to just sit back and take stock, and to realise where exactly we fit in with those who have gone before.

1 comment:

Terri-Lynne said...

I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who has a hard time reading the classics as a modern reader. It's so hard to get into that headspace when our own is all we have. I think those who stick with it, like you, find the flow, become accustomed to those things we don't experience in modern fiction. I'm still trying, now and then, to catch that flow. I read The Great Gatsby and, try as I did, I could not find the greatness and awe with which it is regarded. I've tried Virginia Wolff and Harriet Beecher Stowe--blrgh. Maybe the same gene that makes me like only wine that tastes like juice also gives me an "immature" reader-sense.