Constructing a World: How Postmodern Historical Fiction Reimagines the Past

Article excerpt

In the mid-1980s, just as the new historicists, with their invocation of "the historicity of texts and the textuality of history," were transforming the way readers understood the English Renaissance, Umberto Eco's novel The Name of the Rose became both a critical success and a bestseller.(1) Widely celebrated as a postmodern historical novel, this dazzling mixture of thick historical research and popular detective fiction invited its readers to view historical fiction as an academically respectable genre and a vehicle for recovering and reimagining the past in unconventional ways. Four years later, Eco responded to readers of his novel in an eclectic text called Postscript to The Name of the Rose. An eighty-page mixture of short, fragmentary chapters, photographs, and illustrations of medieval architecture and manuscripts, the Postscript is partly a poetics designed to "help us understand how to solve the technical problem which is the production of a work." Eco explains how the historical fiction writer must become immersed in historical evidence: to tell a story, "you must first of all construct a world, furnished as much as possible, down to the slightest detail." In his case, this required committing himself to a specific date, reading architectural plans and registers of the holdings of medieval libraries, and even counting the steps in a fourteenth-century stairway. Eco's Postscript is also a manifesto proclaiming the authority of serious historical fiction: the characters in a historical novel may not appear in encyclopedias, he notes, but everything they do could only occur in that time and place. Made-up events and characters tell us things "that history books have never told us so clearly," so as "to make history, what happened, more comprehensible"(75). By reimagining the past, the novelist thus performs the analytical role of the historian, by "not only identify[ing] in the past the causes of what came later, but also trac[ing] the process through which those causes began slowly to produce their effects"(76).

In the years since Eco's novel appeared, a number of contemporary novelists who are not exclusively or even principally known as writers of historical fiction have been similarly immersing themselves in the language, the texts, and the material culture of the past to produce some remarkable works of fiction. What they share with the new historicists - and what distinguishes their novels from traditional or classic historical fictions and allies them with postmodern fictions - are a resistance to old certainties about what happened and why; a recognition of the subjectivity, the uncertainty, the multiplicity of truths inherent in any account of past events, and a disjunctive, self-conscious narrative, frequently produced by eccentric and/or multiple narrating voices.

The novels I have chosen are set mainly in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century London, a locale more familiar to readers of historical fiction than Eco's fourteenth-century monastic community. Both the Elizabethan age and the Restoration are frequent subjects of popular formula-fiction romances due to their distinctive, easily replicated atmospheres; both also have inspired much serious, traditional historical fiction and fictionalized biography as well. The new historical fiction writers that I will discuss have sought out these periods, possibly for the same reasons as the new historicists have: each offers instances of divided and destabilized societies, characterized by political and religious tensions, high ambitions, and rapid social and cultural change. These seven novels were written during the 1980s and 1990s, with the exception of Death of the Fox (1971), by George Garrett, whose Elizabethan trilogy also includes The Succession (1983) and Entered from the Sun (1990). All were published in the expensive trade paperback editions that distinguish "serious literature" from mass market fiction, although they have not all been pronounced serious enough to be routinely acquired by university libraries. …