Sunday, June 18, 2006

The voice of the past: God and grammar

A few years ago, David Marr gave a public lecture, 'The Role of the Writer in John Howard's Australia', expressing his earnest wish that more Australian novelists would write fiction about the conditions and the values of contemporary Australian life; that they would engage more directly with its daily texture and its political questions, and the way that the latter shape the former.

Where, he more or less asked, was the Australian Coetzee or McEwan? (Of course Coetzee is the Australian Coetzee now, but I don't think Elizabeth Costello and Slow Man were quite what Marr had in mind either.)

In the last decade or so there have been several good novels of the kind Marr meant: Amanda Lohrey's Camille's Bread and Elliot Perlman's Three Dollars are the first that come to mind. Such historical novels as Moorhouse's Grand Days and Kate Grenville's The Secret River are also profoundly political, but I think Marr meant something more specific, something more like the direct critique that realism can deliver: something with a narrower gap, if you like, between the metonymic and the mimetic.

The discussions about art and politics and propaganda have been had to death, in great detail and at high levels of complexity, and people are never going to agree about them. But having read first The Secret River and then James Bradley's The Resurrectionist over the last half-year or so (and before I go on, both books are recommended; this is a quibble. A biggish one, but no more), I've been thinking about a more specific question raised by the writing of historical fiction.

Isabel Wyly was penniless orphan when she emigrated alone, at 18, from Dublin to Adelaide in 1851. Writing to her sister-in-law Matilda back in Dublin on July 2, 1856, she began her final paragraph like this (all errors are sic):

'Bein limited to time, as the Mail starts tomorrow, I must bring thiss cribble to a conclution, leeving you and your deer little ones to the care of Him who will never forsake, tho all friends may. He will never if we do not forsake Him, and if it should Please Him that we should not meet agen in this World may we all meet in the next where all truble shall be at an end ...'

That is the authentic voice of the mid-nineteenth century. You can hear it in endless diaries and letters. Isabel may not be able to spell 'dear', but she knows it's 'care of Him who will never forsake', not 'care of He who will never forsake'; and she believes utterly in God as the moral, spiritual, even emotional centre of the world in which she finds herself.

How then is a contemporary novelist, unarmed either with Christian faith as a matter of course or with a thorough grounding in grammar at an early age, ever properly to replicate an individual voice from the past?

Kate Grenville wisely avoids first-person narration; her story is mainly channelled through the POV of her hero, and 'free indirect discourse' -- third-person narration, but seen through his 'thoughts' -- is her chosen narrative mode. She uses phrasing that delicately suggests and echoes, without attempting to ventriloquise, the speech patterns of the period.

James Bradley takes on the far more difficult task of creating period speech and thought patterns in the first-person narration of his protagonist Gabriel Swift. This book has some very good things about it, and the school-of-anatomy and grave-robbing stuff is absolutely gripping, but the narrative voice is an inexact, over-insistent pastiche of 'the past' in its rhythms and usages, and Bradley lost my readerly suspended disbelief with Gabriel's very first ungrammatical pronoun. No young man in London in 1826 who was sufficiently well-educated to speak in Gabriel's mannered and articulate voice would have said 'a habit which will often bring Robert and I to tears of hilarity', or 'knowing it was her of whom we spoke'.

Bradley dismisses the question of religion very early on when the master anatomist dismisses it as 'superstition' and claims 'We are men of science'. God barely rates a mention from then on. It might be a neat bit of authorial problem-solving but it would never, ever have happened. Unbelievers there were many and their numbers rose as the century wore on, but faith and the loss of it were always an issue to be taken seriously; you simply cannot extricate your subjectivity from your times (which is the one thing that made me uneasy about Gail Jones's 19th century heroine in Sixty Lights and the ease with which she negotiates illicit pregnancy and single motherhood).

I'm not sure whether Grenville's hero concerns himself with God at any point either, but I don't remember any instance of it except perhaps briefly in passing, and a remark about the way God seems, to a small ragged London boy, 'foreign as a fish'.

Yet Christianity was the linchpin of (western) people's lives pre-20th century in a way it's almost impossible to imagine now. Religion trumps romantic love at the turning point of Jane Eyre, itself written at the hinge of the 19th century and again in first-person narration: the moment when Jane, having discovered that Rochester is married to the mad Bertha, resolves to resist becoming his mistress and to tear herself away from him and from Thornfield:

'I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man ... Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be.'

Melbourne historian Greg Dening, reviewing Roger McDonald's Mr Darwin's Shooter on the radio a few years ago while I was struggling myself with ludicrous efforts to write good fiction about 19th century characters, said something I've never forgotten about the difficulties of attempting any kind of historical accuracy. Authenticity is, by definition, unrecoverable: the past really is another country and they really do do things differently there, and some things about it and them are forever made strange and mysterious by distance. 'The past,' said Dening, 'is more than just us dressed up in funny clothes and speaking funny speak.'

Cross-posted at Sarsaparilla.


  1. You are of course absolutely right, and I could name other recent oz novels where illicit pregnancy was depicted with today's values...and also dodgy grammar.

    Where did you find the nice C19th quote?

    Lucy S.

  2. Hi Lucy! (Now here's a person who would never make any of these mistakes in her historical fiction.)

    The Wyly letter is in the David Fitzpatrick Oceans of Consolation (the big lush book of Irish letters, Cornell UP 1994 -- was it you or Sue M who noticed that he'd clearly been using Nudist to manage the material, which is very strangely arranged?), which I should have pointed out in the post, and probably should have put in a link to the pic as well -- a mid-19thC cartes de visite site.

    Have you found your way to Sarsaparilla yet? Will email you re that, actually.

    And don't you just love the Greg Dening remark?

  3. I didn't have the same problem as you with Gabriel's voice in Bradley's The Resurrectionist. I took it as having been written from the viewpoint of the character well after the events as depicted. So he was a old man looking back on his young life. He shows later his capacity for education and this may explain the usage.

    In addition it's probably a question of how far you push the "authentic voice". Too much and it becomes over-bearing, too little and it reads false. Do you trade off the compounding sense of menace for a lighter approach?

    I think the conversations between Bradley and his editor would have been very interesting indeed. It's a book where you can imagine arguments over almost every sentence. No wonder he took so long to finish it.