27th September 2012 - Lloyd Shepherd
Lloyd Shepherd's debut novel, The English Monster, revisits the infamous Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811, brutal crimes which have invited as much speculation as the identity of Jack the Ripper. Here he explains how reading Patrick O'Brian, Hilary Mantel and Neal Stephenson taught him when it's appropriate for writers of historical fiction to fill in the gaps with their own ideas.
Uncertainty stalks the novelist - the debut novelist, even more so. Underneath the main question - is this any good at all? - lurk dozens of others. One particular question I asked myself while I was writing The English Monster, over and over: how close can historical fiction get to the reality of the past?
To begin with, a confession: I hadn't read a huge amount of historical fiction before I wrote this book. In fact, I'd only read two significant bodies of work: the novels of Neal Stephenson, including Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Trilogy, and some (but not all) of the very fine novels of Patrick O'Brian.
My book, The English Monster, tells the story of the Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811, in Wapping, East London. These were two particularly brutal sets of killings, ten days apart. Two families were slaughtered - and I do mean slaughtered - and the crime was never satisfactorily resolved. Many suspects were taken into custody, and one of them - a man called John Williams - hanged himself in his cell, which was taken by the magistrates as evidence of his guilt. But whoever did kill these families could not have been acting alone, and there is a good deal of doubt that Williams was involved at all.
The only unavoidable facts of the case were the murders themselves: their brutality, and in particular their apparent motivelessness. Some accounts say money was taken, others deny it. But even if money was taken, this is a thin explanation for what happened; the murders were so terrible that they acquired the status of myth, 75 years before Jack the Ripper stalked onto the national consciousness. Thomas de Quincey used the Ratcliffe Highway murders for his famous essay On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts, which is an early attempt - perhaps the first attempt - to discuss the aesthetics of murder, and to begin to establish a template for much of the crime fiction we read today.
So one can, if one was so inclined, make a case for the Ratcliffe Highway murders being the root source of today's panoply of detective fiction. But I found myself obsessing about the murders as being almost inexplicable, as if demons, not humans, had been involved. There seemed to be something very other, very odd, very fantastical about these killings. It's why they stayed with me.
Which forced me to confront that key question, if I was going to write this story. What is the relationship between historical fiction and reality?
Hilary Mantel, while giving some tips for those writing historical fiction, gave this rule, among others:
"Don't rearrange history to suit your plot. Make a virtue of the constraints of the facts, or write some other form of fiction."
Patrick O'Brian, in the introduction to his book Master and Commander, the first in his series of Aubrey-Maturin novels, said this:
"When I describe a fight I have log-books, official letters, contemporary accounts or the participants' own memoirs to vouch for every exchange. Yet, on the other hand, I have not felt slavishly bound to precise chronological sequence; and the naval historian will notice, for example, that Sir James Saumarez' action in the Gut of Gibraltar has been postponed until after the grape harvest ... with a context of general historical accuracy I have changed names, places and minor events to suit my tale."
I love that quote of O'Brian's, at least partly because of what he doesn't say. That line about "postponing until after the grape harvest" seems a very elegant way of saying "I've done my research. I know what I'm doing. If I've changed a date, it's always knowingly." It's particularly resonant when you consider the extent to which O'Brian's own life seems to have been invented, his own personal history changed.
Mantel's instruction not to "rearrange history to suit your plot," looks on the face of it to be in direct contradiction to O'Brian's readiness to change "names, places and minor events". But one must remember that O'Brian was almost certainly being a little cheeky, and I think Mantel's word "rearrange" here is important.
For what can we really know of the past? We know dates, though even these slip about - for instance, we talk about "the 18th century" both as a description of the 100 years beginning with 1701, but also as a cultural construct - for instance, the phrase "the long 18th century" to describe the period from 1688 to 1815.
But dates do stick. Things did happen on certain days. So that's one thing to hang on to.
Then there are people. People existed. Their births and deaths and actions are recorded. Novelists do invent people - Neal Stephenson does something interesting in his Baroque trilogy. He lists the main characters in his story at the end of each volume, and italicises the ones he's invented. Mantel, on the other hand, lists a Cast of Characters. It's as if she's saying "these things are real, because these people are real."
The third reality is ideas, but this is where things get slippery. Revolution. Slavery. The Enlightenment. Romanticism. Empire. Industrialisation. All these things exist in books and documents, but it's fair to say, I think, that our modern understanding of them depends at least as much on the subsequent description of them as it does on the contemporary reality for those experiencing them.
Without wanting to drag myself into an existential debate, it seems clear to me that the events of the past - even the events of yesterday - are changed in the telling. I can tell you about what I did yesterday, but your experience of it will be at best a facsimile of my experience. It won't be real. But it will have created something new, I think - the story of what I did yesterday. And that story does, I believe, have its own life.
The describing of something from one to another creates a new perception of reality. And this is what the very best historical fiction does, I would contend. It uses the power of storytelling, image and characterisation to create a depiction which is both fictional and, by its own lights, accurate. But would a contemporary person recognise the depiction? Often, almost certainly, not.
Note I am not talking here about the re-enactment of the past. A great deal of very popular historical fiction is interested in the detail of the past: what people wore, the smells they smelt, the taste of the food. Of these, clothing seems to be particularly lavishly described; there are whole websites dedicated to describing, in minute detail, what a Regency gentleman would wear. And a lot of people want to read that. But it's not necessarily the type of fiction I'm trying to write.
Writing historical fiction is, I think, almost analogous to writing fantasy fiction. Good fantasy relies on rules, because a world where anything's possible would make for terrible stories. Stories require conflict and resolution, which requires characters to be faced with situations they cannot resolve by flicking a wand. Fantasy fiction builds entire worlds created by these rules. I suppose I'm arguing here that 'Regency London' is as much a fantasy world, in terms of fiction, as Middle Earth, only the rules are historical events and personages. If you play with those rules - as I have in The English Monster - you have to do so carefully and, crucially, you have to take the reader along with you. If you're going to cheat, cheat well.
The Ratcliffe Highway murders happened. They're a fact. They happened on certain days. Certain people were arrested, most of them were released, one of them killed himself and had the killings hung around his neck. But they were never explained. There remains a gaping hole where the facts of who, when, why should be. P D James, with her collaborator T A Critchley, wrote a magisterial book on the murders in the 1970s, The Maul and the Pear Tree. She went over the facts of the case, she read the documents that existed, she pored over the newspapers - and she reached a conclusion which, if I may, doesn't really stack up. Motive, for one, is oddly absent from her case. Her book is accurate, is full of detail, but it cannot penetrate the central mystery. The history is closed.
So, I took that as a starting point. A closed book. A mystery. A series of murders which were horrific, unusual, seemingly motiveless. I looked at the period - before the establishment of a police force, in a country at war and changing beyond recognition, at a time when scientific knowledge was being pushed further and faster than at any time in human history, and culture in all its forms had been upended by the Romantics - and I decided I wasn't going to write a straightforward detective story. I decided this was something darker and stranger - a kind of horror story. And that's what I wrote.
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