Bringing History to Life
"History leaves so much out. It leaves out the most important thing: the detail of what being alive is like." So said the novelist J.G. Farrell, when asked why he wrote historical fiction.
I want to reach for these words whenever I try to explain to others and myself the messy pursuit I have undertaken: my attempt to write a novel set in neutral Ireland during the 1940s. As I begin to explain my story, to stumble through the obligatory 'blurb', I always foreground the historical context. I do this, even though I become frustrated when people, inevitably, want to know what political stance my novel will take. Was Ireland right to be neutral? Coward or rebel nation? No, I reply. It’s a novel, not a political analysis, not an academic commentary.
The solution, of course, is to recast my blurb. Place the characters first. Frank and Aidan: brothers whose close relationship is tested by the politically troubled world in which they live. And Veronica, the young woman who, like Frank, wants to escape the suffocating conditions of her life. Only then, perhaps, should I introduce those historical conditions, only then explain that I mean to explore the experience, the detail of 'what being alive' was like in those unique set of circumstances. The pressures. The conflicts. The opportunities. The desires.
How, though, do I set about knowing how it felt to be alive in 1940s Dublin? I wonder sometimes if it is possible for someone looking back across this distance of years, someone who grew up in Scotland and who has no direct experience of war, to know ‘that most important thing’. I turn firstly to a rich fund of family anecdotes. And research, of course: newspapers and academic histories and biographies. I thoroughly enjoy all the information, all the rich detail, I glean. From men and women’s fashions to cigarette brands, from cinema-going to dancing, from rationing to De Valera’s policies. This information, however, is not enough. (Most of this information will lie beneath the surface of the story, felt but untold.) It is only when I turn to characters, fully imagined characters, that all the detail comes alive, that the history has urgency and import. Many young Irishmen, for example, spent up to two years working in England during the war, taking up the jobs left sorely vacant by English men: they built airfields and worked in munitions and laboured on farms. After those two years, they then had to leave or they too would be conscripted to fight in the war. 'The two-year rule'. A fascinating dilemma, political and personal. It is only by imagining how a character—my Frank—reacted to his two years working in England, living as a 'profiteer' of Ireland's neutrality, that I feel that dilemma alive inside my skin.
To know that, to feel that, I need a pair of eyes, a mind, a heart: a character that lives the history for me and, hopefully, my readers. And not just one character, but many characters. Frank's dilemma, after all, is not his alone. His decision, as the novel opens, to return home affects others and is variously interpreted by others, people both close to and far from him. There is no one definitive experience of a historical period, no one accurate version of lived events. And so I have Frank’s brother Aidan; I have the 'posh' neighbour Veronica and her brother Tom—Tom who takes an opposing path to Frank’s and voluntarily joins the British Army. And when Tom walks out the front door to enlist, Veronica stands behind him in the hall and watches him. She understands better than others the complexity of his motives; and she sees the midday sun lie in spears across the blue carpet as his shadow fades. Veronica always remembers that patterned sunlight whenever anyone asks her how she feels about her brother’s act. Was he right? Hero or traitor? This, I think, is how people live history. Close-up. And clear political analyses, abstracted judgements, are something we do from a distance. After the events. Once we can preserve them in glass cases and label them with chapter headings and appendices. Once no longer alive.
So yes: my characters live in a political world and they make political choices—in the narrow sense—but those choices are also motivated by the politics of their individual lives. Relationships with parents, siblings, friends, lovers, and themselves. And they inhabit too a world of the senses: tastes and colours, music and touch, sunlight on hall carpets. To them, in fiction as in life, the detail is as momentous as the larger, more visible historical brushstrokes.
I aim to tell Frank's story, Aidan's and Veronica's. I dare not attempt the story of neutral Ireland, if there is such a thing. I tell my characters' stories and I venture to do so because they are stories not so different from stories lived today. My characters experience what is common to us all, just differently framed, uniquely framed: they know loneliness, disappointment, love, friendship, joy. Historical fiction, like all fiction, is ultimately born from the desire, the need, for empathy.