The best writers of the past are often conceived of as having anticipated the future, but most have preferred to put some distance between themselves and the inherent challenges of confronting either ‘tomorrow’ or ‘today.’ Writing is an act of reflection, and reflection requires the passage of time. Novels not explicitly conceived as futuristic or historical are most comfortably set in the writers’ immediate past, not to mention the past tense.
The novels in our developing canon routinely look backwards: The events of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1900) take place in the mid-1890s. Likewise, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) stalks the moor in 1889, and Joseph Conrad’s Secret Agent (1907) takes action in 1886.
Reaching into the past, however, is not the same as writing about it. Only Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale stands out as a bona fide, self-aware historical novel, one that doesn’t merely touch down like a butterfly at a short remove from the author’s present but consciously bridges the gap between 1862 and 1907 (the time of writing).
Bennett’s novel commits to a genuine engagement with the past and directly confronts the author’s present day, without losing sight of the immutability of human nature. (It is surely no accident that one sister’s name is Constance.)
Contemporary readers – today’s and tomorrow’s – can be sure that when Bennett mocks the 1860s’ residents of his “Five Towns” for their lack of foresight, he’s also mocking their 1907 counterparts:
Instead of being humble and ashamed they actually showed pride in their pitiful achievements. They ought to have looked forward meekly to the prodigious feats of posterity; but, having too little faith and too much conceit, they were content to look behind and make comparisons with the past. They did not foresee the miraculous generation which is us. A poor, blind, complacent people!
And aren’t we always the ‘miraculous generation’?
The most accomplished historical novelists, such as Bennett and Barry Unsworth, who passed away last week, reject this self-congratulatory myopia and they reveal to us the intimate ties that bind us with the past, the vital link between foresight and hindsight.
At first glance, Bennett’s Tale and Unsworth’s Pascali’s Island (1980) and The Rage of the Vulture (1982), appear to have little in common, but the plots of Unsworth’s novels play out in the year of the Tale‘s publication. At the very least, the more recent novels widen the scope of our vision as to the world stage on which The Old Wives’ Tale made its debut.
Unsworth’s vision of 1908 is certainly less proximate than Bennett’s, but Unsworth has greater freedom than his predecessor to candidly discuss the foibles of human nature. All writing about the past is shaped by the constraints of the present, a specific geographical, cultural present.
In The Author’s Craft, a nonfiction book published in 1914, Bennett acknowledges that:
[N]o first-class English novelist or dramatist would dream of allowing to his pen the freedom in treating sexual phenomena which Continental writers enjoy as a matter of course. The British public is admittedly wrong on this important point – hypocritcal, illogical and absurd. But what would you? You cannot defy it; you literally cannot. If you tried, you would not even get as far as print, to say nothing of library counters.
Hindsight, of course, encompasses more than just new freedom of expression. The title character and narrator of Pascali’s Island, a dedicated informant, longs to leave his island at the edge of the Ottoman Empire and go to Constantinople where he intends to gather together into a book the detailed reports he’s spent decades writing for Caliph Abdul Hamid II. He finds it almost impossible to conceive that after all this time – and the unceasing, regular arrival of his pay check – his reports have been neither read nor collected. It is the historian’s nightmare, and our own, to have fallen short of posterity, to mean nothing.
The informant can be viewed as a stand-in for the novelist, any novelist, who may or may not be rewarded for his message, no matter how wise or well-thought out.
Pascali is also the medium through which readers observe the period’s clash of earthshaking ideas and the tentative contact between our hindsight (what we think must have happened) and the characters’ foresight (what they think will and must happen), whether accurate or faulty:
“That is the big difference between our two countries,” Mister Bowles said. “Our policy, British policy, is shaped by ideals. We protested at the Armenian massacres, for instance. We lost trade as a result, of course. Germany said nothing… As a result, Germany got the Baghdad Railways concession,” he said.
Herr Gesing was smiling. “Ideals?” he said. “It was not about the massacres the English were protesting. It was the loss of the eight percent from the Ottoman Loan Company.”
“Nonsense,” Mister Bowles said. He was looking flushed.
“Listen to me. You must these moral categories transcend. We are moving toward the coming age. Like a great music. Like a symphony. You must hear all the music together. If not, you have only discords.”
Children bayoneted,” Mister Bowles said heatedly.
“That is discord.”