Eamonn Griffin: The Challenge of Historical Fiction

Eamonn Griffin discusses historical fiction, and some of the challenges in setting a work of fiction inside a well-known event such as the 1666 Great Fire of London

The Prospect of This City begins in the days immediately prior to and continues into the first few hours of the start of the 1666 Great Fire of London. Having the Fire be a setting for a novel-length thriller narrative was not an idea that I had come across. This was both surprising and pleasing to me as the Fire seemed like an obvious event to use to structure this kind of story. This apparent lack was enough in itself to assure me that there were stories here; stories that had not been told before.

That’s not to say that the Fire hasn’t been a feature of much fiction, occasionally conjoined in story with its immediate predecessor in terms of a nationally-significant event, the bubonic plague outbreak of 1664 – 5. Harrison Ainsworth’s 1841 historical romance Old St Paul’s is a melodramatic yarn of obsession, thwarted love, prophecy, destruction and redemption across the two disasters. GA Henty’s 1895 When London Burned covers similar terrain. This linking of Plague and Fire is also an organising feature of Mary Hooper’s At The Sign of the Sugared Plum and Petals in the Ashes (grounding their narratives in Plague and Fire respectively), and continues to the present, as indicated by CC Humphreys’ two – book deal for novels entitled simply Plague and Fire.

The Fire, though it appears as backdrop in novels as diverse as in Rose Tremain’s Restoration,Edward Rutherfurd’s London and Tom Holland’s vampire saga Deliver Us From Evil, has often been confined in writing as a subject for younger readers. Children’s novels set in and around the time of the Fire such as Pippa Goodhart’s Raven Boy may be also considered here.

            I felt secure, however, at the project’s outset that there was a space for a Fire-set novel and that this wasn’t over-worked ground, particularly as I had no interest in conflating Plague and Fire. That’s a position that hasn’t since altered.

As the Fire was not ended by human agency, but rather by the prevailing winds changing and by the exhausting of the fuel supply of London’s goods and property, there was the challenge and opportunity to invent a climax that was not tied to a fixed historical conclusion.

            The Fire has been used in more allegorical ways. Peter Ackroyd’s first novel and Jacques Roubard’s non-fiction memoir, both titled The Great Fire of London make reference to the symbolic power of the destructive event, though neither are concerned with the history. The use of the Fire for its symbolic potential was something that I was interested in exploring from the beginning of the project.

            The use of an event of national or wider significance to echo / refract a protagonist’s dilemma is a standard fictional ploy. One significant recent strand of this concerns 9/11 and in particular the destruction of the World Trade Centre towers, referenced in novels as diverse as William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, and Jonathan Safran Foer’sExtremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

            I wanted Prospect to use a historical event to make some kind of commentary or at least allusion to recent happenings. In Prospect, the faith-driven terrorist Challis plots to engineer the destruction of a major city landmark in ways paralleling those of Mohammad Atta and his cohort. Prospect, I thought, could consider the contemporary world. But it would not site its drama in the aftermath of 9/11, as in the novels mentioned above. Instead, Prospect would prefigure the present day in the past.

I was interested in the idea that history repeats itself. Indeed the Fire was rumoured at the time to have been a revisiting of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot against James I in which the destruction of Parliament by dissident Catholics was barely averted, and so we should perhaps not see occurrences like 9/11 as necessarily unique, but merely the most recent and vivid iteration of a pattern of events played out before and will doubtless be re-enacted again.

             For a novel to go too far in the direction of the factual/historical, the effect might well be akin to an animated textbook. Go too far in the other direction though, and the end result might well be pastiche, romance, or maybe fantasy. That may not necessarily make for bad fiction, but unless the genre boundaries are understood by author, the publishing profession and readers alike, the possibility of a text being rejected because it does not align itself in a genre-appropriate fashion is raised.

            Thus, authors who are associated with historical fiction are keenly aware of the need to be identifiably, if not authoritatively, persuasive in their genre credentials. At one end of this spectrum, the author might be a recognised historian and/or have a parallel career in academia.

Contemporary British examples include Roman scholar Harry Sidebottom and the above-mentioned Mortimer, who publishes Elizabethan-set thriller fiction under his middle names James Forrester.

The title The Prospect of This City is derived from a map. The phrase appears in an inset picture and accompanying description of London of The Prospect of This City as it appeared from the opposite Southwark side in the fire time’ within Wenceslaus Hollar’s 1667 diagram of the extent of the damage to the city.  I’d bought a print of the map as one of my first acts of the project. Those words stuck, and so became the title and, over time, provided me with the book’s climax.

Historical fiction is undergoing something of a commercial and critical renaissance, Hilary Mantel’s back-to-back successes with Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies being perhaps the most conspicuous example of the turn in making historical fiction respectable again.

That said, the historical in itself does not necessarily lend itself to accuracy in terms of genre identification; the temporal location of the (or indeed, any) novel’s events doesn’t necessarily provoke a kind of novel in itself.

            The concept of genre is usually bound up with that of with questions of narrative. Genres often indicate plot archetypes – romance, thriller, science-fiction, and horror – though may not always communicate much by way of specifics. The term ‘historical novel’ doesn’t necessarily do this in quite the same way, though it may suggest an approach that the author might take in telling their story. Jerome De Groot in The Historical Novel  focuses on the ways which the genre ‘fundamentally challenges subjectivities, offering multiple identities and historical story lines’ (2010: 139). This definition was where I was headed, though in the early parts of the project I was burdening myself with the assumption that there was an imperative to deliver history and fiction rather than fiction that was in some way historical.

The Prospect of This City is out now, and is available in ebook and paperback here:getBook.at/prospect

Why I Looked Forward to Teaching Batman and Wimpy Kids

It doesn’t happen often, but tomorrow I will probably be teaching Batman, Harry Potter and Katniss from the Hunger Games. The noise level will be higher than end of term but it will be fun and worthwhile. I can’t wait.​

Tomorrow is World Book Day and for the first time (for me) secondary school children will have the chance to dress up as their favourite fictional character. Younger children have done it for years as their lack of self-conciousness allows them to dress up to their heart’s content. So we see Bob the Builder, the Gruffalo, pirates and princesses, rats and cats and bears. But teenagers?

The students in my area are, surprisingly, really looking forward to dressing up. I have heard them chatting excitedly about who they will be for the day and how they will make their costume. I find it bizarre: I thought all teenagers were concerned about their street credibility and being cool. But this is as cool as it gets.

Children have the opportunity to be as creative as they want to be in becoming their favourite character. They reacquaint themselves with great stories. And, above all, they are encouraged and want to read a book again. Or a series of books. In our house that series isHarry Potter, so those seven books are coming off the shelf again.

On 8 March it is International Women’s Day and it would be fitting to remember some of the great women storytellers, starting with JK Rowling, author of all that is Harry Potter. My initial interest was in the mythology Rowling utilised during her tales of the mysterious Hogwarts, the creatures that had dwelled in the ancient tales of Britain.  I also liked how she created a fantasy world that was a curious – but successful – blend of Medieval and Victorian artefacts and charm. Rowling has the ability to make Harry Potter’s world enchanting and credible. And I’m an historian.

After my initial temptation I became involved in the story and quest of Potter and his friends and read the series to the end. I can remember how sad I felt when it was all over. But like all good stories they can be revisited again and again without losing any of their appeal. They can be viewed with wise eyes and a familiarity that is comforting without destroying the allure. Stories that do not possess these qualities quickly fall by the wayside and are forgotten. And rightly so.

Another time I will recall some of the other great women writers from history. But for now I will relax with my latest discovery: butterbeer.