Friday 27 September 2013

How NOT to Write Historical Fiction – A Master Class from Bulwer-Lytton

I’m not the first to criticise the writing of Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873). There’s even a writing contest in his name in which contestants attempt to write the worst opening sentence. And following on from two prose master classes (on first person narration and repetition) using the works of Charles Dickens, I thought it might be fun to take Bulwer-Lytton’s 1834 novel The Last Days of Pompeii as an example of how NOT to write historical fiction.

Pompeii (artist's impression)
1. Don’t lecture. Even if you want your novel to have educational value, there’s no excuse for making the writing dull. Take this discussion on Pompeian architecture, which is even framed as a lecture by Bulwer-Lytton. It begins:

‘Previous to our description of this house, it may be as well to convey to the reader a general notion of the houses of Pompeii, which he will find to resemble strongly the plans of Vitruvius; but with all those differences in detail, of caprice and taste, which being natural to mankind, have always puzzled antiquaries. We shall endeavour to make this description as clear and unpedantic as possible.’

Edward, I think you’ve already failed. Endeavouring not to be pedantic is not a good start. Telling us what ‘we will find’ renders the rest of the passage unnecessary. And, more than anything, showing any sign of uncertainty (‘it may be as well to…’) damages your credibility in the eyes of readers. If you’re going to be transporting readers back to another time period, being confident is even more important. The passage concludes:

‘The reader will now have a tolerable notion of the Pompeian houses, which resembled in some respects the Grecian, but mostly the Roman fashion of domestic architecture.’

Yes, we may know something ‘tolerable’ about houses but we may not be engaged in the novel.

2. If you’re going to lecture, at least get your facts right. This is a corker. Bulwer-Lytton provides his readers with an unnecessary aside about the two most famous ancient Greek writers:

‘Yet you are fond of the learned, too; and as for poetry, why, your house is literally eloquent with Aeschylus and Homer, the epic and the drama.'

Unless this is an unsuccessful attempt at reproducing a (very Latin) chiastic structure, this is sloppy and ‘epic’ and ‘drama’ should be swapped round.

3. Don’t quickly gloss unknown terms or facts. Either as narrator (‘'Bene vobis! (Your health!) my Glaucus,' said he’) or in the characters’ dialogue:

''She interests me, the poor slave! Besides, she is from the land of the Gods' hill—Olympus frowned upon her cradle—she is of Thessaly.'
 'The witches' country.'’

Any immersion in the world of your novel is destroyed in seconds by the acknowledgement of its inaccessibility.

4. Don’t turn critic of literature from the period you are writing about. This is like glossing but also comes across as writer-on-writer bitchiness:

‘it was the fashion among the dissolute young Romans to affect a little contempt for the very birth which, in reality, made them so arrogant; it was the mode to imitate the Greeks, and yet to laugh at their own clumsy imitation.’

Perfect your own prose first (or just write bitchy blog posts!).

5. Don’t get your characters to say things which seem ironic from a modern perspective. I’ve hated this ever since ‘analysing’ the Titanic references in my GCSE set text J.B. Priestley's An Inspector Calls. It’s lazy historical writing. It’s just too obvious. You can make these points in the body of your story. Just don’t write dialogue lines like these:

‘'What think you of this new sect, which I am told has even a few proselytes in Pompeii, these followers of the Hebrew God—Christus?'
'Oh, mere speculative visionaries,' said Clodius; 'they have not a single gentleman amongst them; their proselytes are poor, insignificant, ignorant people!'’


‘'Nay,' cried Glaucus, 'no cold and trite director for us: no dictator of the banquet; no rex convivii. Have not the Romans sworn never to obey a king? Shall we be less free than your ancestors?’’

Got any ideas for future writing master classes? Let the Secret Victorianist know below, on Facebook or on Twitter (@SVictorianist).

1 comment:

  1. "Bulwer-Lytton’s 1834 novel The Last Days of Pompeii " technically pre-Victorian.
    On the other hand, Bulwer-Lytton is said to have got worse as he got older so his faults would be aggravated when he became Victorian. Certainly, the only one I've read- The Coming Race, early SF and the inspiration for the name of Bovril- is not a masterpiece.