Friday, 25 October 2013

The history girl

As an historian, this is an odd book to review. Although Daisy Hildyard is clear in her author's note that this is fiction, it's difficult not to read it as a mix of memoir, methodology and anecdotal history, and to engage with it as one would with an academic text, not with a novel. While this didn't affect my admiration for her remarkably clear writing, it did affect my enjoyment of the narrative, as I wanted so often to stab pencils through the narrator's grandfather's pronouncements on history, forgetting that he is a fictional character serving a fictional purpose, and not an actual historian. This fictional grandfather is both radical and old school. While his focus on single historical figures, or 'great men', is traditional, his selection of individuals such as ex-slave Olaudah Equiano is not. His assertion that the historian's job is to reduce events to a simple sequence of cause and effect is so conservative as to become radical today. He also flies against postmodernist concerns about individual bias by suggesting that by looking far enough back into the past we can remove our own perspective: 'He didn't think that first-hand experience was very helpful for an historian.' Quite often, his pronouncements are completely random: considering his own eczema and that of his granddaughter, he says 'Many of the best historians, of course, have dry skin.' The text follows the relationship between the unnamed narrator and her grandfather alongside a selection of his historical stories, focusing on figures ranging from Edward IV to Peter the Great.

It's impossible to agree with much of this methodology, but of course that isn't the point. Hildyard glosses the novel when her narrator reflects near the beginning that 'My grandfather was a historian because he loved these details, not just some details, but every detail and each for its own sake.' However, she also notes that Herodotus - 'father of history' and 'father of lies', as every undergraduate historian knows - was most inaccurate at the points in his histories where he gives the most detail. So the stage is set for a conflict between complex academic theorising and the living detail of popular history - a kind of Hector-versus-Irwin debate that goes on and on. But rather than resorting to dry arguments, Hildyard lives this conflict throughout the pages of her novel. Recalling a trip made in her childhood, the narrator tells us: 'We passed a Little Chef with a playground in which there was an orange elephant that had a slide for a trunk. Then we switched lanes and sped up past Tadcaster brewery...' The detail of this bothersome orange elephant somehow goes beyond the usual suspension of disbelief we grant to novelists, perhaps because there's no reason our narrator should have remembered it; the pair don't even stop at the Little Chef, and nothing significant happens as they pass it. But at the same time, we recognise the truth of the detail (I'm only a couple of years younger than Hildyard, so much in her account of 1990s childhood was familiar to me). In the grandfather's histories I was reminded that those who seem most enthusiastic about history, most in love with communicating it, are often not professional historians - although the grandfather is supposed to have had a career as an academic. Irwin plays with essay structure, but Hector tells stories, and the stories last longer.

Hildyard is fully aware of the problems with the grandfather's approach, and uses a conspiracy theory about the death of Herbert Kitchener to illustrate this, ending with a good note on invented narratives, that they tell us something about those who wrote them even if they don't tell us much about events themselves. But in the narrator's grandfather's obsession with the gaps in the historical record emerges a sketch of a more interesting point, echoing Robert Darnton's assertion in his wonderful history, The Great Cat Massacre: 'When we cannot get a proverb, or a joke, or a ritual, or a poem, we know we are on to something. By picking at the document where it is most opaque, we may be able to unravel a hidden system of meaning... I do not believe there is such a thing as a typical peasant or a representative bourgeois. Instead of chasing after them, I have pursued what seemed to be the richest run of documents'. In this way, we cannot write off the grandfather's approach as entirely hopeless and amateur, the work of a man who, as an ex-colleague confides near the end of the novel, 'didn't even have a PhD.' Indeed, his enthusiasm for the minutiae of history may be important as well as refreshing. With this in mind, it is ironic that engaging with Hunters in the Snow feels more intellectual than joyous. Hildyard is deliberately blurring the lines between the conventions of fiction and the conventions of history here, and while I think this is a brave and worthwhile thing to attempt, I also think that no novelist I've read has managed to pull it off yet - AS Byatt's The Children's Book included. For this reason, I hope that Hildyard's next work has a bit more story, and a bit less debate; a bit more Hector, a bit less Irwin.

[NB. This was meant to be a Farthest North and Farthest South post, but I thought the scattered references in this novel to ice archives and icebergs weren't really enough to justify this. I'll make up for it next month with a post on a classic Antarctic travelogue.]

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