Hemingway, 'Truth' and historical fiction

My friend, Moira McPartlin, recently drew my attention to this famous Ernest Hemingway quote: "Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know" (A Moveable Feast).


It sounds self-evident, and Hemingway the journalist goes on to criticise the 'elaborate' writing of lesser novelists, the effects of 'ornament', writing 'like someone introducing or presenting something'. It's clear he's talking about voice (he also talks about writing in Paris when "I would invent not only from my own experiences but from the experience and knowledge of my friends and all the people I had known", a lovely mixing of 'invention' and 'experience'). The writing voice must be 'true', must be 'real'. But it got me thinking about all sorts of 'truth' in writing fiction, and especially historical fiction, and what they might be, and what they might mean.

There's one way to be 'true' when writing about the past, of course, and that is to accumulate as much concrete detail from the period as possible (the state of the roads, houses, how long it would take to get from A to B in a hansom cab, when boats changed to steam,when we stopped using quill pens). This is the kind of 'truth' we can get at most easily, perhaps, the kind of research most historical novelists enjoy. It fails when it's obvious, when it becomes precisely the kind of 'ornament' that Hemingway deplores, used simply to show off the novelists's learning. It works brilliantly when it's connected to character in a psychological way.

Which brings me to my second 'truth', which is the 'psychological truth' of a character: how would a person react in pre-Darwinian, pre-Freudian times? What would be his/her thought process? How would he/she view good and evil? How would she/she view their sexuality? How do we connect to someone from two or three hundred years ago when we don't know what they sound like (we may have letters, diaries and novels but there's nothing like hearing someone speak)? Is it possible to be psychologically 'true' (beyond merely being 'true' to the character you have created) when you can't 'know' what this person really thought and felt?


A third response to Hemingway's injunction to truth is to question the notion of 'truth' at all, as great postmodern historical novels like John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman did, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. The former gave us parallel stories and alternative endings; the latter said simply, "Before reaching the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled form the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more...."

Before either of these publications, of course, Virginia Woolf's Orlando had brought us the historical novel as a fluid time-slip narrative, a shape-shifter where Orlando himself changed sex. It was modernism's answer to history, every bit as much as Hemingway's injunction to "write the truest sentence".

It would seem from this last point that historical fiction, every bit as much as contemporary fiction, says something about the times in which it is written. At the moment, we are fascinated by character-led historical fiction, especially when it comes to the Tudors, that era dominated by larger-than-life figures. Postmodern lessons about the insecurity of the 'truth', that there are many versions and we don't know them all, might initially seem to be superfluous here,when such figures take control. But that's not quite so - these lessons have not been forgotten by the likes of Hilary Mantel, for example, who has used that fluidity to make her anti-hero, Thomas Cromwell, more vulnerable than scholarship has led us to believe, his power more compromised.

So we can still ask, does this depiction say something about how we feel about our political leaders today? Why are we responding so much to this kind of character-led historical fiction anyway, if it's not tapping into what we feel about being led by individual forces, who seem stronger than us as a collective body? Tapping into our anxieties about what may be happening to democracy itself?


Most literary-historical fiction I read still carries traces of that postmodern questioning of 'truth', to a greater or lesser extent. To me, that makes historical fiction a political kind of fiction, even when the author doesn't seem ostensibly to be writing about politics at all. My historical novel, Unfashioned Creatures, due out later this year, has unreliable narrators and is full of sexual politics and I link my real-life heroine's questioning of her sexuality to Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women, which I know she had read.

Both of these I see as the effect of modernism and postmodernism on my writing, on the way I view the world. In that way, it anchors my historical fiction in the present day - I can't hide the fact that I wasn't around in the 1820s, that I don't know how they 'spoke' to one another. All I can do is make it as 'true', with all the slippages and shiftings that word carries with it, as I can.      


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