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Posts Tagged ‘historical romance’


Ford Madox Brown’s famous The Last of England (1864-65)

Friends and readers,

I’ve been working away on my paper for the coming ASECS conference in Denver, Colorado, on Winston Graham’s historical fiction; its now 19 minutes long and all ready, the title: “‘After the Jump:’ Winston Graham’s uses of documented fact and silences,” and I’ve been reading Caryl Phillips’s Crossing the River, the second historical novel by this Afro-Carribean man brought up in Leeds, England, and listening to Diana Gabaldon’s fourth Outlander book, Drums of Autumn, which is about Jamie and Claire Fraser’s settlement of themselves, & family in North Carolina. I was riveted by Phillips’s equally immensely sad and political Cambridge before this and mean soon to read his European Tribe. I find Davina Porter’s reading aloud of Gabaldon irresistibly entertaining and at heart a woman’s romance. This and other reading, and contextualizing Graham’s achievement and tracing the changes over the course of six decades of writing, and how these mirror both the era he was writing in as well as the changes in historical fiction during each era — all prompted me to come up with a CFP for the next EC/ASECS:

Crossroads in Historical Fiction

The evolution of historical fiction as a capacious creative genre in the last half-century is astounding (especially when you consider how far it had sunk as a genre in the early part of the 20th). Prestigious prize-winning, breaking with all sorts of conventions of verisimilitude (time-traveling anyone?), its politicization encompasses post-colonialism, identity politics, overturning previous historical consensus from seemingly crucial central events and agents to analyses of peripheries; life-writing, gothic and spirituality trajectories, fictionalized biographies; post-texts (sequels, prequels, rewrites), while carrying on delivering the usual traditional art, fictional & learning history pleasures. Authors themselves nowadays stand at cross-roads so it’s no possible to call a book say Afro-Carribean if the author grew up in Leeds, and now lives in the US and writes for an international market (Caryl Phillips); or even pronounce its text as securely in one or another language different, say from English if it’s mostly known in English translation or originally written in English by someone from a non-English speaking culture. I invite papers on authors who stand at such crossroads in an 18th century imaginary in books or films

It has (to say nothing more) become increasingly difficult to know where to catalogue or place in a library recent transformations in historical fiction and romance. What do you do with fictionalized biography? Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy has influenced directly all biographies of Cromwell since Wolf Hall. What about post-texts which are historical novels in their own right: Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly out of R.L. Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

I had joined the Historical Novels Review site some weeks ago and have now received my first paper issue: it is fascinating, its theme theme Australian HF: indigenous origins, colonialism, and diaspora. The novels are organized by country or period set in – and within that the central world-historical figure. And I am now at long last receiving one a month paper copies of History Today. It was a difficult subscription to achieve because negotiating the online website was beyond me. I am just getting paper copies the way I just get paper copies of Times Literary Supplement. Well the new (it is much changed since I last got it) periodical is much improved with its reviews addressing modern concerns more. One of the columnists is still Mary Beard. Last month had Suzannah Lipscomb’s review of the movie Mary Queen of Scots where she compares what the movie showed to what is factually agreed upon. This month an intelligent an intelligent article by Lauren Johnson on the mental illnesses of Henry VI as the result of his traumatizing experiences.


Sam Heughan as James Fraser (he resembles both Aidan Turner and Kyle Soller as Ross and Francis Poldark – same posture)

Last I’ve been keeping up with historical films and adaptations of historical novels, and got myself (at a ridiculous price) an anthologies of essays on the way protagonists are recently presented in popular film TV serial dramas (BBC, Netflix, Amazon Prime): Conflicting Masculinities, edd Katherine Byrn James Leggott, Julie Anne Taddeo.

Among the central TV texts (films) they discuss are a group I’ve watched obsessively: The Crown, Victoria, Downton Abbey, Poldark, Outlander. Banished (except for this last where I had the stomach to watch but once). The interesting central thesis of the volume is that recent TV dramas mirroring the undermining of men’s roles in the neo-liberal order as men and placing a new emphasis on “self-making and self-management” for men and women has resulted in a very different portrayal of lead male characters. You could call this a feminization (they are soft emotionally), but that’s not true if you look at what they do: they are endlessly at work, they are themselves a work in progress; those who don’t behave this way are stigmatized as drone, inferior, useless. They are themselves violated (downright raped sometimes). At the same time in the new colonial order it’s their job to resist, not comply with, the economic and social order they find themselves in. What the females do is support, adapt and show resourcefulness in helping them

Physicality is intensely valued, so nakedness; an ability at warfare or being a good breaker of law and rescuing people; they are haunted by the demons of war, often scarred – nakedness is curious though because they are not completely naked (only the chest)) and the males whose penis is shown are those who are suspect, inferior, not masculine enough (like Francis Poldark). The worlds these men live in are uncivilized or inhospitable to women or they are centrally hostile to them in some fundamental way. They are partnered with an active, desiring and strong pro-active females. All round the different programs swirl issues of power, identity, territory – the man is seeking a place to be powerful from, whether criminally or not.

Online I found this essay on why academics supposedly are paying attention to nakedness in male icons of Poldark and Outlander:

There is a problem of complicity in enjoying the spectacle of the ruined, raped, frightening body — the colonialist power through some individual has left its mark on the person. I think of all the cruel marks through burning irons placed on enslaved black people. I saw backs in the African-American museum — of women – just as terrifying as Jamie Fraser’s back (a point of deep shame).

All these shows are associated with colonization but also specific landscapes we long to be in — I remember when in The Crown Philip (Matt Smith) went round the world and asserted his masculinity, it was always in colonized non-white places. When he and Elizabeth (Claire Foy) honeymoon it is in the very British Malta where the dominant culture has become white, Anglo. Philip goes to the Olympics which are taking place in Australia, and this becomes the raison d’etre for a long journey round the world with all males on deck and him in charge; we see a much freer and more comfortably and probably sexually promiscuous Philip. Elizabeth is confined to places like Malta, where her activity in hunting is more in the taking photos vein, including at least taking photos of an elephant. But we do not see evidence or memories of the centuries of harm that produced the control over the native peoples these royal British have in either case.


On Safari

I’ll end on this: my feeling is that Andrew Davies’ film adaptations (one of the best film-makers, script writers, adapters of our era) have not moved to this kind of conflicted masculinity at all — nor nostalgia over landscape.  The characters may be sad in a landscape and the landscape used symbolically.  And sure, Davies in say The Way We Live Now makes sure that the very ambiguous hero, Paul Montague, works and is seen to work hard, but it’s not central to what makes him a sufficiently exemplary male; he is not a rebel against the going regime necessarily. It is more he’s a man of integrity and truth — which all these other heroes are not necessarily. OTOH, he can be sexually unfaithful to the heroine, nay love another woman over a weekend at the seaside and still find himself accepted, covered-up for. This is not held against him as it is say Philip in The Crown.


Maxwell as Henry VII (“The Power in the Land”)

I will be putting my paper on Graham on line later this month and will be blogging a review of an astonishingly superb older BBC serial drama, The Shadow of the King, featuring James Maxwell as a man whose strength is in his intellect and wily amorality. It deserves to be much better known and watched again avidly for it speaks to us again today in an more adult complicated, dare I say Shakespearean way.


Philip Glenister as a subordinate male who rescues Mary Boleyn (2003 Other Boleyn Girl)


Claire Foy again, this time as Anne Boleyn, as aggressive as any male (Wolf Hall)

It is fair to say that emigration, colonialism, and refugees are not at all or only marginally the subject matter of Davies’s chosen books or this older BBC serial drama. The same holds true for the other brilliant and serious Tudor film adaptations, say Wolf Hall and both The Other Boleyn Girl films: masculinity is undermined but from a locally powerful corrupt point of view (all is for sale, including women, one’s head, whatever). See my Overturning Gender Stereotypes. This global political slant is new in its omnipresence, everywhere in the new historical fiction at the crossroads with male and female roles transforming themselves. Whence my opening image.

Ellen

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