Thursday 31 May 2018

The Best and Worst Tropes in Historical Fiction

As part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series I’ve been reading a fair few novels set in the nineteenth century but written in the twenty-first. And in the process I’ve formed a lot of opinions about the tropes I love and those I don’t love as much when it comes to the historical novel.

Today it’s time to share my highly subjective list:

1. The protagonist ahead of her time 
This one’s a no from me. This character is prone to crying, “why can’t women vote?” She abandons her corset, making sure the reader knows she sees it as a sign of oppression. And she feels the wrongs of the world around her very keenly—is concerned about child labour, slavery, the plight of the poor.

Of course there were suffragettes and abolitionists in the nineteenth-century—many of whom would make wonderful characters in a novel. What I object to, and what makes this character so insufferable, is that she’s always on the right side of history and that her views are always too neatly aligned with contemporary norms. Writers, take note—give us nuance and characters that challenge as well as mirror our current values.

2. The dual narrative
This one’s controversial but I’ve rarely read a novel that switches between a modern and historical storyline where both halves are equally engaging and exciting. All too often the contemporary protagonist serves only to model the desired reader response to the imbed narrative, or as a near constant reminder that the older story is in the past, distancing us emotionally from the novel.

I read historical fiction to be immersed in a time period that’s not my own. If you really want to give some modern context consider a framing device instead.

3. Faceless servants
Servants, with some notable exceptions, get little page time in Victorian novels but that doesn’t mean that twenty-first-century novels need to follow this form. There’s so much drama to be had from the close proximity that servants and masters lived in—it’s a waste to write yet another faceless or stereotyped maid.

4. The marriage plot (with sex)
Now onto the tropes I love. One of the reasons we still read Austen, Gaskell and the Brontes is because of the perennial appeal of the marriage plot. And guess what? In neo-Victorian novels we don’t just have haughty heroes, dramatic proposals, unexpected elopements. We have all that plus sex scenes.

Historical fiction gives us the chance to learn the stories that were never told before—of nineteenth-century lesbian lovers, of the porn industry in the early days of photography. And, since works from the period are out of copyright, we can essentially enjoy steamy fan fiction in published form.

5. Literary cameos
Most writers of historical fiction are in dialogue with writers from the period they’re depicting and sometimes these literary icons turn up in character form.

This one’s a winning formula for me. Who doesn’t want to go back in time and meet Jane Austen? Or get to know Stephen Crane?

6. Genre mash ups
The novel was still young in the nineteenth-century. But today there is a host of developed genres with popular followings and tropes of their own. So bring on the historical novels with fantasy and sci-fi elements—clockwork octopuses, magical circus tents and all.

Do you agree with my list? I’d love to know what tropes you love (and hate to see) in historical novels. Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Tuesday 15 May 2018

The Secret Victorianist in 2018

It’s been a quiet few months on the Secret Victorianist blog, but a busy few months for the Secret Victorianist. Not only do I have an exciting new project in the works (more on that to come) but, as usual, I’ve been living my best nineteenth-century life, all while navigating a twenty-first century existence in New York.

Below is a snapshot of what I’ve been up to:
I watched…

The Eifman Ballet
Anna Karenina in ballet form:
This April the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg returned to New York with this moving dance adaptation of Tolstoy’s classic novel. The cast is pared back and the story simplified to put Anna’s love life at its centre, and the choreography mixes the classical with the more avant-garde. Anna and Vronsky writhe on separate beds, struggling with their feelings for each other, a toy train circles our protagonist who appears trapped in a giant snow globe, the power and momentum of the lethal train is conveyed by the rhythmic motions of the chorus. The production manages to capture the emotional heart of the novel in a way that transcends cultures, decades and language.

To Walk Invisible (2016):
This BBC TV dramatization covering the years 1845-1848 in the lives of the Bronte siblings, directed by Sally Wainwright, is a treat for academics and fans of the literary family. Much of the script builds on the words of the Brontes and their associates, taken from letters and other written records. Not only is it meticulously researched, but this costume drama comes with grit and a heavy dose of reality. Characters wear the same dress (shock!) more than once, the three female co-leads appear not to be wearing makeup, Branwell’s alcoholism rings true. Shot on location in Haworth, it’s a delight for enthusiasts and a great introduction to the Bronte myth for the uninitiated. If teachers aren’t showing it in schools, they should be.

Film poster for Lady Macbeth (2016)

Lady Macbeth (2016):
This movie adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District is beautifully shot and deliciously dark. The story now unfolds in rural England, where Katherine Lester (played by Florence Pugh) rages against the confines of her loveless marriage and unfulfilling life with ultimately murderous consequences.

I visited…

View towards the Bronte Parsonage Museum
Haworth—home of the Brontes:
After years of reading about the Bronte household and seeing it on film, I finally visited Yorkshire and spent two nights in Haworth, just round the corner from the parsonage itself. I was struck by how small the house felt when you consider how the family lived there as adults, the sheer number of nineteenth-century graves in the graveyard surrounding the house (testament to the poor sanitation and appalling conditions faced by many of the Brontes’ contemporaries) and by how unspoiled the surrounding landscape remains to this day. Enjoying unseasonably fine weather, I hiked across the moors and soaked in what felt like a spiritual homecoming.

I’m reading…

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (2013):
This Man Booker winning novel is set in New Zealand in 1866 at the height of the country’s booming gold rush. It’s a mammoth achievement, dealing with an intricate mystery. Full review to follow.

So that’s it, folks. I’m back to regularly scheduled programming, so let me know what you would like to see the Secret Victorianist—below, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.