How subversive is detail in historical fiction?

At the beginning of this week, I shared a library event with another author, J. David Simons, whose historical novel, An Exquisite Sense of What is Beautiful, is published by the same company as my own Unfashioned Creatures. The talk had turned to the question of 'detail' in historical fiction, and David read out a letter written by a woman to the family planning campaigner Marie Stopes, about her onerous child-bearing obligations (she'd had numerous children, too numerous to manage). He asked us first what detail in this letter might catch the eye of a novelist looking to fictionalise - and he alighted on the reference in the letter to a commemorative plate, handed out by the News of the World no less, to mothers of ten children or more.

What struck me most about this exercise, though,  was that that wasn't the detail that stood out for me! The detail I jumped on was about a whooping cough epidemic that the letter-writer makes a passing reference to - I immediately thought, ooh, now that was going on, was it? How many people were affected by that? How would that fit into a story? It wasn't directly related to the issue of too-many pregnancies but I could see how it might be.

Which just goes to show that details are mighty subjective - as we kind of expect they might be. What sparks one writer's imagination isn't necessarily what sparks another's. What we can agree on, though, is that detail is important. But subversive? How exactly can detail be subversive in fiction?

In Naomi Schor's book Reading in Detail, she explores the history of the 'detail' in art, showing that detail was long considered 'feminine' because it was extraneous, it only filled in the background, and it could be thoroughly frivolous (all things associated with the feminine). But, she argues, this 'feminine' can be subversive, too - when the detail is foregrounded, when something that should be in the background comes centre stage, when the extraneous becomes the most important thing in a painting.

I've long wondered how this might relate to fiction-writing, and with historical fiction it seems particularly important. How often have we read a historical novel where details seem to have been shoe-horned in, just for the sake of it? To demonstrate the author's expansive research? After all, do we really need to know the exact process of making cider in the seventeenth century, for example? Do we need to know, say, the right mixture of herbs and potions that make up a life-saving poultice? (One of the the things I love about the way Hilary Mantel uses historical detail in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies is that she uses it doubly - when we hear Thomas Cromwell reflect back on his time in the kitchens in Belgium, say, she doesn't just name all the different foodstuffs he used to give it an authentic 'feel', she also tells us something psychologically important, and to the story as well, by the way she does it).

At first glance, these details might fit the conditions that make up the 'subversive' category - they've been brought in from the background (someone from that era wouldn't need to spell out these things or make a feature of them as they'd be part of their everyday lives). And knowing them usually doesn't advance the plot in any way (the poultice saves a life, not knowing what goes into it) or change our perception of a particular character, so these details could be considered extraneous.

But what might they be subverting, if that's indeed how they're working? It seems far more likely that they're working to establish authenticity. These details have been brought centre stage to convince the reader of a story's essential reality. It's an easy way - some might say a lazy or obvious way - of establishing that reality, of convincing a reader to suspend disbelief.

Perhaps then they could be considered subversive - they're telling the reader that this isn't a story at all, it's true (when the reader knows, of course, that it is a story). But what if all this 'authenticity' is too centre-stage, too noticeable? What if the cider-making process distracts us from the other events taking place? Is that a mistake on the part of the writer, an example of details being subversive by challenging the author's authority?

The late Angela Carter once pooh-poohed the idea that an author's characters could take on loves of their own, run away from their creator. Nonsense, she said. The author is always in control. Or should be. In a similar way, the author should be in control of the details he or she is using, they shouldn't run away with the story. Because then they really are being subversive.



  1. I enjoyed the subversive duality of historical detail you bring out--it can "trick" the reader into stepping into that world as if true and real or it can subvert the author's intent by taking over and slowing everything down and hence dumping the reader out of the world. Historical author's alert: don't let your details subvert you.


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