Historical fiction grapples with a Hubble’s universe turned inside out – the things closest to us slip away most rapidly, our perception of them changing at bewildering speed; the most distant times are fixed in Ptolemaic eternity, immoveable and unchanging. One task of fiction should be to bring those distantly unexamined events rushing towards us, blue-shifted up close urgent, vivid with all the immediacy of lived experience.
What ferrymen can we hire to guide us on the crossing into the undiscovered countries that lie beyond barriers like 33AD, 1789, 1917? Tolstoy (War & Peace) and Hardy (The Trumpet Major) both write historical novels looking back across the gulf of 1815 & the Congress of Vienna into one of the authentic lost worlds. Walter Scott does a similar conjuring in Waverley. Gore Vidal achieves it repeatedly across continents, civilisations and ages. And Cervantes begins the whole form by looking backwards.
For writers looking back from 2023 where is the first great imaginative void that we peer into, knowing only that on the other side they did things differently there? Fun fact: the Historical Writers’ Association defines an historical novel as one set at least 35 years before the present day – yes, that really is 1988. I recently put up a poll on Twitter asking people how far in the past ‘historical’ fiction started. The consensus surprised me – 25 years and / or the author’s lifetime.
But personal experience and its vicar word-of-mouth are unreliable witnesses of this event horizon. As a youth I sat at my grandfather’s knee hearing stories of his own youth when he crewed the last tea-clippers alongside old salts who had, in their youths, crewed the last slave-ships. Walking in Charlottesville in the 1990s an American friend pointed out an old man on a street corner. That guy, he told me, is the grandson of a man who was president of the USA – before the Civil War. These moments blue-shift history with all the re-aligned perspective of an acute panic attack. So here’s a modest proposal: to paraphrase Virginia Woolf, Sometime between 3rd May 1979 and 12th August 1981, human character changed. Those dates mark the election of Margaret Thatcher and the launch of the IBM personal computer; the end of the post-war contract that underwrote social cohesion, and the start of the transformation of our social selves, and the re-imagination of consciousness, by information technology. To look back beyond that time is to sense signals from a world incomprehensibly alien to those who did not experience it, forever lost to those who did. Somewhere among those 832 days lies the event horizon beyond which any fiction we choose to make today must, of necessity, be historical. Our task as reverse-engineers of the human soul is to make that historical fiction real and now.