Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Other times, other customs


I’m finding that writing a historical novel is quite different from writing a thriller. As noted in an earlier post here, you research a thriller to provide supporting atmosphere for an essentially preposterous plot. In historical fiction, the research is actually research: that is, it is a process of trying to find out the truth, and then you build your plot and characters on the truth so revealed. Or at least that’s what I’m trying to do.

Henry James’s opinion was that historical novels were all humbug. Authors could only legitimately write novels about the world they knew. Far be it from me to contradict the Master, but War and Peace is a historical novel and it is not humbug. Nor is the Scarlet Letter nor Moby-Dick, nor Les Miserables In fact, if fiction in general is about illuminating the human condition, (a by no means universal opinion nowadays) historical novels use one of the main sources of such light, the confrontation with the Other. Because the past is all Other. We dismiss here the historical novel that is mere quaintness and costumery--moderns dressed up in tights and talking funny--and refer only to those rarer works that make an honest attempt to recreate the lives and minds of people long dead and the physical and intellectual milieu that made them so.

This, I'm finding, is harder than what I've done previously, because while the contemporary world lies open to the novelist's observation (including the world inside the novelist's own skull), the past is dead. Yes, you can study history, read old primary sources, consult memoirs and the fiction of the period, but it's still dead, and only imagination and empathy can restore it to life on the page.

Empathy is the problem, because you need it to make characters live. You write characters from the inside out, and so you have to, in a sense, submerge yourself in values and beliefs not your own. This is particularly hard when it comes to the great bugbears of one’s own society. These are well-known not to be universal. We all recognize that slavery was okay some centuries ago and is not okay now. Still, slavery is so dead (despite the current existence of hundreds of thousands of actual slaves) that somehow creating a sympathetic character who accepts slavery is not that hard. Example: Gone with the Wind. But when you’re dealing with bugbears that are still, as it were, in play, the stuff we know is present and which we mightily despise, the case is different.

Pedophilia, for example. I’ve just finished reading Jacopo Casanova’s Histoire de ma Vie, a twelve-volume memoir of this man’s remarkable life. I spent the time on it first, because I wanted to use him as a character and because it presents one of the best accounts of what the life of an eighteenth century gentleman was like, at all levels of society, from the courts of princes, to the theater, to the demimonde of swindlers, thieves and whores. It’s a classical education all by itself.

Of course, Casanova is famous for One Thing, and that thing takes up a good deal of the twelve volumes, but as I read it I experienced just a little queasiness, because Casanova had no compunction about seducing girls as young as twelve. In one remarkable scene he procures the sexual services of an impoverished but gorgeous thirteen-year-old girl for Louis XV of France. Louis apparently had a whole harem of pubescent girls for his pleasure: he tipped C. generously, and bestowed enough gold on the girl’s sister to set her up for life. C. thought he’d done a wonderful thing; the sister thought so; and so did the girl, as witnessed by her later life, which seemed by all accounts, including her own, to be happy. She was Louise Murphy, the subject of the famous, delicious nude by Boucher.

Today, of course, selling a girl that age to a rich old man would not only be illegal, but most modern people would find it viscerally repugnant. The girl would announce that her life had been ruined, and sue. How come is that? Well, progress, of course, but it’s also true that Louis XV and Casanova would be appalled by many of the things we take for granted. An American city would seem like hell to Casanova: the noise, the stink, the lack of courtesy and interpretable manners, the fact that nearly all the women dress like prostitutes and nearly all the men dress like coal heavers; the speed; the ceaseless battering of images; the collapse of faith; the tasteless, stale food. Unless you believe in general progress—that everything about our present is better than every analogous thing in the past—then an honest account of the mentality of any past era is going to deliver some shocks, and stimulate some questioning of received ideas.

Why, in fact do we hate pedophiles so much? We don’t make killers register their adresses. We don’t out forgers or muggers on the web. And why do the children suffer such apparent damage to their psyches as a result of sexual contact when young? I suppose its because we define it as rape, which is a monstrous crime, and was even in Casanova’s time. (Casanova boasts that he never forced a woman in his life, although he knew plenty who did, and with impunity too.) We’ve decided that when any adult has sex with anyone under 18 (or some other age) it is rape, because people under that age do not have the mental ability to form consent. They have the mental ability to do nearly everything else, but not that.

I see I am approaching a defense of pedophilia, which I certainly don’t intend, but here you observe before your eyes one result of doing the sort of historical research I’ve been doing. It subtly changes your head. Spend your time among 18th century people, especially charming, witty, lovely ones, and you start looking at the world through their eyes. Sex with twelve-year-olds? Mmm, look at that one! It’s a little creepy, actually. And don’t get me started on racism, castrati, and the divine right of kings!

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