The best fiction provides its own social and cultural context. Plots unfold and characters engage one another against a background more alive than would be possible even in the most detailed nonfiction study of a particular era. This is the level akin to time travel, where we can step into the sights, sounds, moods, and attitudes of the past and measure that past against our own fleeting present moments. Fact is one thing, experience another.
Most fiction, of course, is grounded in period and setting; but I have recently read three unrelated novels which struck me as particularly evocative of earlier times and places, and it is on these I would like to focus.
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The Emperor’s Children, by Claire Messud
This novel of character and manners is set in a recognizable recent period that seems already to have passed into the historical. When some books first appear, I skirt around them for a while, aware of their existence, vaguely wondering if I should take the plunge. And then one day, as with this novel, first published in 2006, something serendipitous occurs--a mood, a twinge of interest, a curious glance at the first page--and I discover a work dazzling in its scope, complexity, wit, and penetration.
The lives of three friends in their late twenties--each wanting to achieve something important (but all starting to realize they are simply marking time)--intersect in a vividly evoked New York City at the start of the twenty-first century. Other characters include the father of one of the young women, a noted journalist and social activist leading a life of privilege on the Upper West Side, who contrives to seduce his daughter’s best friend; and his nephew, a college dropout who has escaped a drab existence with his mother in upstate New York and aspires to an intellectual life in Manhattan.
This is not a novel which offers the simple pleasure of identifying with likable characters--some even behave quite despicably; however, while not necessarily sympathetic, these people are always recognizable, understandable, and very much creatures of their time, culture, and social milieu. We know them, have probably encountered their sort in our own lives, and might even contain some elements of their personalities within ourselves. The story is set in 2001, and it will not be giving anything away to note that the last quarter of the book revolves around September 11th and its aftermath. That warm, sunny nightmare of a day is presented with devastating clarity. I discovered that certain images, like the “dust-covered, bewildered people, some crying, drifting up the avenue, lots of them, like refugees,” were already locked inside me, waiting to be released again. When the events of that day erupt into the lives of Messud’s characters, they disorient some, transform others, and in some instances change nothing at all.
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The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins.
It’s been said that you can learn all there is to know about the Victorian era by reading Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens, and George Eliot. To that list I would add Wilkie Collins, who provides a fairly comprehensive portrait of an age as seen through the prism of sensation fiction.
This novel is noted for its place in the development of the crime and detective genre, being, as T. S. Eliot described it, “the first, the longest, and the best of the modern English detective novels.” The stolen Indian gem, the Moonstone, is brought to London by the despicable Colonel Herncastle, who leaves it in his will to his cousin Rachel--a gesture of contempt towards the family which has rejected him, as it will surely expose the young woman to the danger of those who will stop at nothing to reclaim it. The unusual situation is summarized by Betteredge, the old family retainer:
“. . .here was our quiet English house suddenly invaded by a devilish Indian diamond--bringing after it a conspiracy of living rogues, set loose on us by the vengeance of a dead man. . . . Who ever heard the like of it--in the nineteenth century, mind; in an age of progress, and in a country which rejoices in the blessings of the British constitution? Nobody ever heard the like of it, and, consequently, nobody can be expected to believe it.”
Some critics have called The Moonstone a mainstream work of class and customs which only happens to revolve around a crime. Its story is told by a number of narrators drawn from all levels of society, from lords and ladies to butlers and maids. These characters include a lawyer, a doctor, an evangelical Christian woman, and the three Indians who are pursuing the gem (and are drawn more sympathetically than other Indian characters in works of the same period). From our later-day vantage point, it is fascinating to note how modern Collins’s attitudes towards his characters can appear, particularly in his treatment of women. The Moonstone’s Rachel Verrinder is one of his characteristically dominant, self-contained, and independent young women. Mr. Betteredge describes her as being:
“. . .unlike most other girls of her age, in this—that she had ideas of her own. . . She judged for herself, as few women of twice her age judge in general; never asked your advice; never told you beforehand what she was going to do; never came with secrets and confidences to anybody. . . In little things and great. . .Miss Rachel always went on a way of her own, sufficient for herself in the joys and sorrows of her life.”
Contrast this description with the sweet, sentimentalized portrait of Charles Dickens’s Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop for a taste of the complexity and variety to be found in the Victorian era.
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The Rebellion of Jane Clarke, by Sally Gunning.
With Messud and Collins, I’ve discussed two writers who--although widely separated in time--have set their tales within a contemporary setting rather than recreate an earlier period. Other writers build historical backgrounds out of many large and small details gleaned from extensive research and develop characters whose thoughts and actions are appropriate to such backgrounds. But can the past be illuminated retrospectively, when filtered through a modern sensibility? Henry James seemed to think not. In a 1901 letter, he wrote:
"You may multiply the little facts that can be got from pictures & documents, relics & prints, as much as you like -- the real thing is almost impossible to do, & in its essence the whole effect is as nought. . . You have to think with your modern apparatus a man, a woman, -- or rather fifty -- whose own thinking was intensely-otherwise conditioned, you have to simplify back by an amazing tour de force -- & even then it’s all humbug."
The novels of Sally Gunning are a far cry from humbug. She creates a sublimely convincing historical background and populates it with characters who seem to grow organically out of their landscape. The opening of her latest novel, The Rebellion of Jane Clarke, which begins on May 6th 1769, is an excellent example of how to establish another place and a different time through purely fictional means. Consider this opening scene, set in the whaling village of Satucket:
"Jane Clarke stood in the sedge growth on the lip of the dune and looked out over the half-drained bay, the ribbons of sand rising up through the retreating water. Her cousin's sloop, the Betsey, had slipped in ahead of the falling tide and lay canted sideways in the channel, keel nestled in the mud. Already, the ox carts rumbled over the sand loaded with barrels and crates full of salt, rum, molasses, and other more worldly goods— most of them legal — come to Satucket from Boston, but Jane wasn't there for goods. Jane was there for letters. Even at her distance Jane could identify the mail sack in the foremost ox-cart, but she stayed where she was, half-camouflaged by the sedge, because Joseph Woollen was the one driving it shoreward. Was it worth facing Woollen's unblinking fish-eyes just to get to the letters first?"
When Jane refuses to marry the suitor her hot-tempered father has chosen for her, he sends her in disgrace from the family home to care for an infirm spinster aunt in Boston. There, she becomes involved in rising tensions between the townspeople and the occupying British troops and, finding herself on the fringes of the Boston Massacre, realizes that she can no longer remain uninvolved but must bear witness to this critical moment in history.
A few years ago, in another serendipitous moment of the right book turning up at the right time, I came across Gunning’s first historical novel, The Widow’s War, at the independent Main Street Bookstore in the town of Orleans, on Cape Cod. I saved her second (Bound) and third (The Rebellion of Jane Clarke) for return trips, since Gunning’s novels are all set on Cape Cod, and I usually try to seek out books of local interest when traveling. But hers is not the Cape Cod of beach umbrellas, SPF-45 sun screen, and fried onion rings. Sally Gunning’s eighteen-century landscape, in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, is a harsh, barren, and demanding place, and reading these novels under vacation circumstances is like seeing two eras simultaneously, one layered above the other. We read fiction to become acquainted with other people, to penetrate their minds and learn their hearts with a depth and clarity not always possible in real relationships. Through these characters, we experience times, places, and cultures outside the realm of our own limited experience. Where else can we find such detailed and telling evocations of the past? In movies, flashbacks often appear in black and white, sometimes through a hazy filter. My own memories often have this same monochromatic feel. Curiously, however, when I recall favorite novels and stories, those memories are usually in glorious Technicolor and sometimes even stereophonic sound. Fictional experience has the rough grain of real life on it and can be lived again and again, while real life slips too quickly into the past, melting into ghosts and whispers.