Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The Queen is Dead, Long Live the Queen

Someone somewhere (probably the Guardian) was complaining about the lack of high-quality historical fiction for children these days... Leaving aside the narrowness of a definition that wouldn't include The Golden Compass as historical fiction (after a fashion), it made me reflect on my own childhood love of books about 'real' events and people by authors such as Rosemary Sutcliffe and Geraldine MacCaughren, whose A Little Lower Than Angels is one of my favourite books (and still in my library, twenty years on). I was a fanatical collector of a kids' magazine called Discovery: each issue covered a different historical period, and included a tape with 'as if you were there' eyewitness accounts of events and places, and some sort of project (I remember building a cardboard astrolabe and developing a code based on Mary Queen of Scots' secret communications). History was rich and fascinating -- if frustrating. I was never one to quest for a single truth, but I did want more than kings and queens. And more than anything, I think I wanted place.
Growing up in London inevitably had a lot to do with that. But London is such a palimpsest of eras - yes, there's the thrill of walking the old East End after reading an Iain Sinclair novel, or the immense excitement of the first season at the Globe - that you need to get out of the city to see landscapes as they were, rather than as they are. Most of my memories of place are bookish: Dartmoor seen shortly after reading Lorna Doone and Hound of the Baskervilles, for example. And, after a phase of reading Arthurian novels, Tintagel and Hengistbury Head. Sea, stone, sheep droppings: these are the smells and sights of historical fiction.
So it was almost uncannily tempting to see a review of Kate Mosse's Labyrinth, a new historical novel of the (sort of) feminist revisionist variety, set in the French Pyrenees, the Langue D'Oc, where I spent one of my favourite ever summer holidays, reading Montaillou and looking for signs of Cathars. Heretics appeal to me: fiery beliefs (including sexual equality) and fiery ends. The use of Cathar hideouts by French and Spanish Resistance fighters struck a resonant note as well, of the landscape repeating its stories, offering protection as a covenant. I stayed with my friend Mark and his family in Barrere, near Carcassone, where his dad had bought a house to paint in. There was a lot of drinking of cheap wine (pumped, like gas, into big canisters at roadside stations), lying round people's swimming pools, making food, eating, making food, monitoring the septic tank, observing the mountains and cheering on the French football team in the world cup. And, of course, reading. I can remember fairly precisely what I read on that trip: Jane Urquhart's The Underpainter (part of my secret addiction to CanLit); Robert Drewe's The Drowner; Montaillou; a Gillian Tindall book about France... Place stains the pages.
Mosse's descriptions of landscape and its stains of blood, violence and religion are powerful, calling up a medieval world that is still absolutely present in Carcassonne and environs. I found myself skipping the banal and tortuous details of the plot (Grail blah blah, handsome American blah blah, people getting beaten up rather repetitively blah blah) to take the adrenalin hit of being there, feeling the heat of the plains and the cool shadow of the mountains. Perhaps it would be better to call it geographical fiction? Mosse's liberal sprinkling of Langue D'Oc phrases from a phrase book inscribes place rather than time (although it is, of course, always useful - should one find oneself in Toulouse - to be able to ask "Where is your siege engine?").
Historical discourse is a tricky one: Elizabeth Kostova fails the test badly in her otherwise competent novel The Historian, which loses me on the place associations (never been to Cold War Hungary) but is a cracking, well-plotted thriller with a fascinating historical sweep (and absolutely nothing to do with the Grail). But an epistolary novel from multiple perspectives demands a writer who is brilliant at voice -- differentiating one from the other, and periodising as well. She oscillates between stilted and anachronistic at moments, and it's very obvious that the details of the novel were obtained by the author - as by the characters - from books. It's the kind of thing that my supervisor, Linda Hutcheon, would call "historiographic metafiction" if it were being done with irony and verve, rather than a strange combination of being an earnest MFA student and wanting to be the next Dan Brown.
Harrumph. I was really quite absorbed by The Historian, although its main effect was to make me want to reread Dracula, which is its source text in many ways (or should I say, read and finish Dracula, which I've never managed, although I can see Bela Lugosi on the cover of the Oxford World Classics edition as if it were here with me and not in London). And, despite my impatience with Mosse's prose, I enjoyed her feisty female characters and their sensual appreciation of the world, especially Alaïs, her medieval heroine. Some claim that it's anachronistic to write contemporary politics back into historical situations (Mosse has religious tolerance, sex out of wedlock, cross-dressing, and strong women) but I think that's unfair to historical situations. Just because the narratives of the victors have always read so smoothly ("And lo, the white man triumphed and everyone else was rubbish") and monotonously doesn't mean that those accounts have to be accepted. As more and more documents emerge from archives, and more people listen carefully to oral texts such as songs and stories, it seems likely that, while it may be anachronistic to talk of women's liberation or feminism in previous periods, it's stupid to imagine that 53% of the population have spent all the time since the end of matriarchy twiddling their thumbs at home and dying in childbirth.
Susan Carroll's The Dark Queen takes exactly this perspective. Expectations for women in Renaissance France are constricting, and both biological and social risks attend their every move, but within any society - given money and/or power, it has to be said - women have educated themselves as healers, thinkers, artists, advisers, and self-managers. In Western Europe that often lead to them being labelled "witches," a term that is in its - what - fifth age of reclamation? ("It could be witches! Some evil witches! Which is ridiculous 'cause witches they were persecuted, Wicca good and love the earth and woman power and I'll be over here," as Xander puts it so eloquently in "Once More with Feeling.") Carroll, in a twist on the revisionist history model, suggests that a number of powerful women were actually witches (some evil, some Wicca good and love the earth) and that their magical battles shaped historical events such as the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre (rendered in loving detail in La Reine Margot, if you need visuals).
While Mosse's novel is a pseudo-feminist Dan Brown (complete with real locations for tourists to go overrun), Carroll's - which is less likely to be reviewed in the Guardian because it's shelved as historical romance (ie: trash) - doesn't bother with that whole flashy double time sequence, linear detective car chase thing. Mosse is going for a labyrinth structure, I'm pretty sure, but comes up straight as an arrow. Carroll is more leisurely at twisting the screw, without the obvious dream sequences that are so clunky in Mosse. I'm in danger of sounding all Helene Cixous here (women's fiction should be circular and soft, like cotton puffs, because men's is all pointy and fast and in love with bullet time) but I prefer the Ursula K. Le Guin take: the handbag theory of fiction (in Dancing on the Edge of the World). Carroll wears her learning lightly - no quoting Langue D'Oc here - and couldn't give a crap about religion. A fair few bodices get ripped (isn't that one of the temptations of historical fiction? the bodices and ripping thereof?) and all women are beautiful and queenly with long hair.
So what exactly is my argument here? I enjoyed Mosse's book because it brought back to me one perfect summer and the complex fabric of place, making me yearn to revisit not just the landscape but a particular time. Kostova's mammoth tome kept me awake at night, and made libraries seem scary and exciting again (I'm a sucker for any text in which research is a glamorous pursuit -- one of the charms of Buffy, no doubt). The Dark Queen was a cracking read - an airport purchase, the least redolent of 'real' bookishness (not even bought from a real bookstore, just a newsstand in the hell that is Pearson airport), and nowhere near as fat or wordy or decidedly pleased with its own cleverness as the other two (Mosse offers a reading list!). All three prove something indubitable: historical fiction is a genre where women writers excel (Mary Renault, Rosemary Sutcliffe, the author of the Arthurian books). It's time Dan Brown got booted off his perch & we anointed the queens in his stead.

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