Lisa Joyce critiques the rash of historical fiction by women, circa 1996.
Memory and Oblivion: The Historical Fiction of Rikki Ducornet, Jeanette Winterson, and Susan Daitch
Memory and Oblivion: The Historical Fiction of Rikki Ducornet, Jeanette Winterson, and Susan Daitch
It is impossible to recover our own past. It is a labour in vain to attempt to recapture it: all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile. The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) which we do not suspect. (Proust 34)
Marcel Proust’s intense focus on the vagaries of memory has surfaced again in a number of contemporary novels as a way to reshape traditional forms of history which had become increasingly inadequate to explain the past. Recent historical fiction includes Madison Smartt Bell’s All Souls’ Rising, a retelling of the 18th century slave rebellion in Haiti; Julia Blackburn’s Daisy Bates in the Desert, a description of a middle-aged Irish matron who spent thirty years in the Australian outback; Blackburn’s The Emperor’s Last Island, a chronicle of Napoleon’s years of exile on St. Helena; Pat Barker’s trilogy on World War I, of which The Ghost Road just won the Booker fiction prize; Elizabeth Arthur’s Antarctic Navigation, a reenactment of Robert Falcon Scott’s Antarctic exploration; and Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda, a rewrite of Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son. As positively as I regard this historical revision, because for female novelists in particular, it allows them to recast history in terms of the social repression of women and to reject the rational methods of traditional historical narrative in favor of the supernatural, I am yet hesitant to endorse it fully, for it is yet an act of appropriation which bears the taint of too much compliance - with the oppressions intact in contemporary culture and with how historical events have brought them into existence.
Contemporary novelists rely increasingly on history for the infrastructure of their work, with the intention to rely no longer on the traditional historical form of linear, sequential lists of events and facts, but instead to recuperate those aspects of history which have been neglected by this approach. Just as Proust weaves through the tangle of his memory to reconstitute the past, Rikki Ducornet, Jeanette Winterson, and Susan Daitch, among others, use the memories of their characters to bring the historical past to life. These novelists emphasize, therefore, the inconsistencies of the memory to show that rational, sequential, event-driven history is at root just as illogical in its granting primacy to certain features of the past as are these contemporary rereadings of history. Ducornet’s narrator, Memory, explains the uncontrollable nature of the memory and its refusal to conform to logical sequence by saying, “I beg my reader’s indulgence. I am no writer, yet intend to tell my story as best I can, to be as ‘linear’ as possible… Yet this morning it seems to me that the story webs and nets about. It is a fabric, not a simple thread. My father used to say: ‘The memory is an anthill. How it swarms!’” (63). The narrator, Memory, denies here the possibility of forcing true and complete history into a timeline; it is a complex of interwoven events, times, places, and figures.
This is why I have chosen to name this essay after the art historical symposium occurring this year in Amsterdam. The historian must decide what should be remembered, and so codified, and what should be sent into the oblivion of the forgotten. Historical novelists are trying to recover from oblivion gleanings from the past which historians have determined to be irrelevant to an understanding of it, but as these essentials have long since dissipated through the course of the forgetfulness of time, novelists are forced to rely on techniques of the fictional imagination to bring the lost past back to life. The change of attitude toward history by many contemporary historians may be feeding into this preponderance of historical readings. In a recent issue of Lingua Franca Daniel Samuels notes the “elevation of stories, historical and personal, over the often-grim elucidation of facts” in professional historical narration (36).
I am going to make a gross generalization here about the distinction between much historical fiction written by women and much of it which is written by men (I am thinking here, especially, of novels such as Don DeLillo’s Libra and Norman Mailer’s recent contributions about the CIA, the Kennedy assassination, and the life of Picasso), and that is that male historical novelists tend to be more literal in their approach to history than female ones. Mailer and DeLillo embellish historical facts in order to speculate on the reasons behind particular events; they remain rooted in and tied to real events. Female novelists, such as those who I will be discussing in most detail here - Ducornet, Winterson, and Daitch - focus on the subordinate and powerless position of women in the past and draw in aspects of history which have been hitherto denied - the emotional, the illogical, the feelings behind the events rather than the events themselves. These women also often deviate from a mere recording of events to the extent that they use the supernatural as an avenue of escape from the repressions of the culture which history describes.
The reconfiguration of history is, then, the central focus of Ducornet’s novel, as well as of Winterson’s The Passion, and Daitch’s L.C. Ducornet’s historical touchstone is Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) while Winterson’s is Napoleon Bonaparte, and Daitch’s is Eugene Delacroix. These historical figures resurface repeatedly in each novel, and while they occasionally come into direct contact with the novels’ characters, they remain for the most part in the background. Dodgson, Napoleon, and Delacroix are not in these novels to provide biographical or traditional historical interest, but rather to place the novels’ actions in a re-imagined historical context which is in the process of revision. None of these writers is trying to encapsulate the past by writing in the style of the time, either; each is attempting to restore to the present memory those important pieces of the past which, rather than being stored in the public and generic repository of history, have been dissolved into the oblivion of time.
This new approach to history overtly acknowledges and even embraces inaccuracy and beyond it, the supernatural, in order to view less rational aspects of the past as equally important as the ever-present historical descriptions of battles. Winterson’s character Henri, for instance, accounts for the reason that he has been willing to follow Napoleon for so long and through so many hardships by expressing his strong emotions for his leader: “He stretched his hand towards the Channel and made England sound as though she already belonged to us. To each of us. That was his gift. He became the focus of our lives… He made sense out of dullness” (20); and later, “I should admit that I wept when I heard him speak. Even when I hated him, he could still make me cry. And not through fear. He was great. Greatness like his is hard to be sensible about” (30).
Henri does briefly describe Napoleon’s fiascos in Boulogne and his campaign against the Third Coalition, but only to explain how Napoleon’s hold over his men continued through unbelievable hardship: “We fought at Ulm and Austerlitz. Eylau and Friedland. We fought on no rations, our boots fell apart, we slept two or three hours a night and died in thousands every day… We believed him. We always did” (79). Only such an overwhelming love for a leader could have driven these soldiers to tolerate such extremes of adversity. This is the type of emotion that is neglected in traditional history.
Even though Winterson’s character Henri serves in Napoleon’s army for eight years, he provides us with precious little in the way of typical historical detail. Instead, he discusses at great length Napoleon’s passion for chicken, and what it was like to kill the birds for him and to put on his boots in a hurry to serve the Emperor his chicken. Henri describes twice in the novel how the cook keeps the parsley for garnishing the poultry in a dead man’s helmet. These artifacts from the past are important to Henri and establish the importance, therefore, of seemingly irrelevant detail in recreating the past in its entirety: its feel, its textures, its tastes, its smells.
Henri emphasizes, in fact, that he does not care to be an accurate historian, but that he wants to represent emotions. When defending his intention to keep a diary to his fellow soldier, Henri explains, “I don’t care about the facts, Domino, I care about how I feel. How I feel will change, I want to remember that” (29). In contrast to the words of the diary are the words of the historian, words which deflect the true punishment experienced by the participants; as Henri says, “Words like devastation, rape, slaughter, carnage, starvation are lock and key words to keep the pain at bay. Words about war that are easy on the eye” (5). Through the voice of Henri, Winterson wants us to relive the misery of Napoleon’s wars, rather than merely to know about them from the distance of emotionless history.
This diary, as a tool for reconstituting history, contains more than just the minor details of Henri’s life or a standard record of battles. He also writes down what Napoleon says. When Henri is in Napoleon’s presence, everything he says sounds “like a great thought.” But when Henri rereads his diary he “only later realized how bizarre most of [Napoleon’s aphorisms] were” (30). What this indicates is that Henri was a reporter of his time, someone who met Napoleon and listened to him. What it also indicates, however, is that Napoleon sounded wonderful when he was speaking but was not really saying anything of importance. It required personal contact to fall under the spell of his charisma. What is important about this diary, therefore, is that it explains not just what happens in Henri’s life in terms of factual events, but what happens to him and his fellow soldiers in terms of their fervent regard for Napoleon.
Henri admits the power of any historian, fictionally motivated or otherwise, over his subject: “I invented Bonaparte as much as he invented himself” (158). This type of history encourages the interference and incorporation of fiction into a form that had been attempting to be accurate and objective.
Winterson emphasizes the intentionally illogical state of this type of history by repeating four times in the course of the novel, including in its last line, “I’m telling you stories. Trust me.” Though history is a story of the past, it claims not to be fiction. By saying that this narrator is “telling stories,” however, Winterson makes us suspect him or her as a historian, so that even though the “trust me” tries to establish reliability, we are sent into an endless oscillation between faith in and distrust of the narrator. We can no longer merely take what history says as the truth, but must treat it as if it is our own memory and sift through its convolutions for traces of the real past, and we must acknowledge the relativity of that past. Daitch reinforces this mistrust of history, of the eyewitness, of the diary, by having Lucienne Crozier say in L.C., “Collective memory is an unstable element, and to rely on it is to rely on something whose longevity is questionable. I could be accused of writing fiction. It will be said she wrote what she claimed was true but the history books fail to provide corroboration” (138). Also, the apparent inaccuracy of the translation of Crozier’s diary sets up mistrust for anything that she writes, for any events that she recounts.
Ducornet uses a surprisingly similar interweaving of history in The Jade Cabinet, but she embellishes it with a lot of attention to the function of the memory in recreating the past. Like Proust, who thinks that it is possible to recapture the past through the actions of the memory, to re-member the past, Ducornet believes that, indeed, the memory can reconstitute the past. She begins the novel with a quotation from James Beattie (Elements of Moral Science, 1790) which indicates the tangibility of the past which memory produces: “Memory presents us with thoughts of what is past accompanied with a persuasion that they were once real” (9).
Ducornet emphasizes this reliance on and belief in the reconstructive powers of the memory by giving her narrator the name Memory. Memory is a Proustian figure: much of her remembrance is based on the sensual. She remembers her father’s study through its smell of “keeping medium” (formaldehyde); she remembers times with Charles Dodgson through the smell of his photography chemical, collodion; and she remembers the evil Radulph Tubbs through the aroma of his favorite Stilton cheese.
Memory’s memory also provides details of private lives which typical historical accounts do not indicate, even those relying on first-hand accounts. Memory mentions the existence of chamber pots three times and finally stops her narration to explain why she keeps talking about them: “The pot was there (a bold-faced reminder of mortality) and my readers sophisticated enough, I should hope, to have accepted their and mine own corporeality” (78). The implication here goes beyond the mere recognition of the Victorian treatment of excretion by acknowledging the human body, a body which is finally as ephemeral in nature as is the memory itself.
Ducornet presents memory as inconsistent. Memory describes the action of the memory by saying, “There are those who say that the memory is like a collector’s cabinet where souvenirs are tucked away as moths or tiny shells intact. But I think not. As I write this it occurs to me that for each performance of the mind our souvenirs reconstruct themselves. The memory is like an act of magic” (15). The memory, then, is not a repository of fixed images, impressions, events, from the individual’s past. Instead, each time we reach into our memories for an item out of our pasts, we need to recreate it, causing it to change according to the shifting context of the present. To emphasize this, Memory later refers to the artifacts of the memory as a “cabinet of chameleons,” as a series of “chimera,” items which transmute each time we have recourse to them (92).
The primary historical touchstone in this novel is Charles Dodgson, the author of Alice in Wonderland. Dodgson spends a great deal of time with the Sphery girls, Memory and Etheria. He takes them to country fairs; he photographs them nude and in costumes; he goes boating with them on the Cherwal river. Memory asserts her jealousy of Alice Liddell for becoming the star of Dodgson’s book. And it was Radulph Tubbs, Memory’s brother-in-law and later husband, who finally made public Dodgson’s habit of spending so much time with naked little girls. Dodgson’s name, like Napoleon’s in The Passion, surfaces frequently in this novel, serving to unify the novel, but also to reiterate the relationship between history and memory. Each historical figure interacts directly with the novels’ characters, but never actually enters or impinges upon the narration - they are outside characters.
The focus in these novels on the role of memory in historical recapitulation causes each of these authors to use first-person spokesmen, narrators who compose their own diaries or use those of others in order to compile their histories. This creates a more personal feel in these histories than that of traditional history, which uses a detached third person observer, yet it also develops the impression that this type of history is too emotionally invested to be trustworthy. Memory says late in the novel, “My special intention is to tell things as they were, as best I can. And yet, and I admit it freely, hindrances abound. There is so much I do not know or do not recall and so must imagine” (125). These novelists are trying to establish, however, the validity of this elusive quality of the memory, that its very intangibility and emotiveness are essential to true historical accounts.
The plot of these novels is more or less tangential, as well, to represent the erratic operation of the memory, but also perhaps to indicate that we are as little able to “predict” the past as the future. While Winterson’s novel remains consistently focused on the two main characters, Henri and Villanelle, however, and Daitch’s is primarily the diary of Lucienne Crozier, Ducornet’s novel not only strays from its primary figures of Etheria and Memory, but follows Etheria’s abusive and unimaginative husband Radulph Tubbs to Egypt and finally focuses on Tubbs’s lover, the Hungerkunstler, and on his architect, Prosper Baconfield. In doing so, Ducornet effectively denudes the memory of its reconstitutive capabilities. We receive scarcely a flicker of an impression of Memory herself, and in order to attain her freedom Etheria has to lose her corporeality, and so must disappear literally into thin air. The only escape from the subordinate role of wife appears to be through magic and the supernatural. Perhaps what this troubling loss of the main characters indicates is our own loss, since Proust, of faith in the act of historical reconstruction through the repository of the memory, yet we feel compelled to continue to try to do so.
We are left with the body of Tubbs which does begin to shrink towards the end of the novel when he develops an obsession for Dodgson and stalks him, but yet, because Tubbs becomes central to the novel, we lose sight of the ostensibly primary figures of the Sphery sisters. Memory admits that “nowhere is the inherent contradiction of corporeality more evident than during the act of remembering” (126), but the novel’s increasing attention to those who are supposed to be peripheral distorts the revision of history and takes it back to its corrupted roots, the traditional history based on the actions of males. This does not mean that postpostmodern historical fiction must always redress the failure of history to account for women, but by dissolving the women and turning the story away from them, Ducornet dismisses their power.
In some respects, for this very reason, Susan Daitch’s novel L.C. provides the fewest solutions of these three examples to the 19th century subordination of women. Also set in France, but in the mid-century, this novel presents the “diary” of Lucienne Crozier, a woman who married wealth for the financial well-being of her family. Daitch never stops reminding us of the sorry position of the 19th century bourgeois woman. “Marriages were often arranged by families for economic reasons,” she says. “Women were considered part of their husbands’ accumulated property” (3). “The family needs money, they send you to Paris to marry into a rich family,” Lucienne Crozier writes in her diary (13). “Bourgeois women don’t work and…their slot in society is a position of determined parroting” (105), and “Without the right to vote, own property or be educated, wives, mothers, mistresses, daughters play the role of sweeps to history, as much a part of an anonymous support system to men of the left as to men of the right” (150).
While Winterson’s Villanelle has complete autonomy - working in a casino as either a man or a woman (or sometimes, apparently, as both), or escaping from her oppressive roles as wife or prostitute, or raising her and Henri’s child while maintaining her social status as a respectable widow - and Etheria at least flees the fleshly entrapment of her abusive husband, Lucienne Crozier only transgresses her stifling marriage by having affairs with other equally dominant men. Not only that, but these men are famous figures of history - Eugene Delacroix and Jean de la Tour.
In Daitch’s novel, then, there is no escape for women from patriarchal restriction. Things become, in fact, increasingly repressive for Lucienne - from the suppression of the Paris uprising of 1848, to her exile in the Muslim country of Algeria (as de la Tour’s mistress). Periodically, she and her best friend in Paris, Fabienne, dress as men so that they can go out in public with comparative ease, but it is never with the ease of Winterson’s Villanelle, who uses cross-dressing as a sexual device rather than as an entré to social freedom.
What perhaps imbues the Winterson and Ducornet novels with more respite from the inadequacy of the social roles of women is the ease with which they integrate the supernatural into their novels. By making the magical real (à la magical realism) these novelists make the possibility real for women to attain fulfillment on a social level. While I have expressed here my quibbles with Etheria’s escape from the body, she at least does so, through her devotion to the skills of the magician. Winterson’s Villanelle, too, consistently maintains autonomy through her manipulation of gender, whether through mere costume change or real transformation. The other supernatural instances in The Passion - the theft of Villanelle’s heart by her lover, Patrick’s ability to see details in the extremely far distance - serve to reinforce the freedom of magic.
Even so, these efforts to recuperate what has been lost in the oblivion of the unrecorded past are essential to a redefinition of history. While these novels recover details of the past which traditional history would obviate, they also reveal the decadence of late twentieth-century fiction in their very adherence to that history, for their use of history is a form of appropriation. Appropriation has its merits in its humor, although none of these novels contains much of that, but it is also important in its ability to take on something from the past and reshape it. However, appropriation is also a dangerous symptom of decay, for it recalls Walter Benjamin’s theory of allegory; these historical novels use history to represent the present in a way that legitimizes the oppressive aspects of contemporary culture.
It is no surprise that Benjamin turned his attention to the decadence of German drama, as his treatment of it in essence explained the decadence of his own time and place. Benjamin saw death and decay in allegory’s treatment of history. “Everything about history,” he wrote in The Origin of German Tragic Drama, “which from the very beginning, has been untimely, sorrowful, unsuccessful expresses itself in a…death’s head… This is the core of the allegorical way of seeing, of the baroque, secular account of history as the Passion of the world, a world that is meaningful only in the stations of its decay” (343). Briefly, while Benjamin found the allegory of the baroque to be a more realistic view of history than the idealistic symbolic system of classicism, he yet found it to be melancholic and depressed. The recent upsurge of critical interest in Benjamin’s work reinforces the sense that contemporary fiction is once again allegorical in its return to history, and that we, too, are experiencing a decay like that of the German baroque period and postwar Germany with their accompanying depression (note the current extensive use of Prozac).
Even though historical novelists are trying to revise history, to bring it into accordance with the full experience of previous lives, they keep falling into the trap of what the art historian Benjamin Buchloh refers to as “historical secondariness” (60). The act of appropriation makes the historical experience less fresh, less direct a response to the past. This “specter of derivativeness,” as Buchloh calls it, taints the novelists’ efforts to recover history because by addressing history so closely, they uncritically accept their own culture and how history has brought it to this state. Daitch, for instance, essentially reinforces an acceptance of the subordinate position of women by tying women’s historical roles to their relationships to famous men. Appropriation tends to venerate the past rather than to criticize the present institutions of repression.
This emphasis on depression and lack of resistance is apparent in these novels through the fates of the central characters. Henri loses his mind because Villanelle cannot or will not reciprocate his passion for her; Villanelle becomes a wealthy woman who leads a relatively (for her) conventional and not introspective life; Etheria loses her body into the vapours of magic in order to escape the physical and emotional abuses of her husband; Memory never really exists physically or emotionally at all, a virgin until Etheria’s husband takes her on late in life as his second wife; and Lucienne dies (possibly) in Algeria of consumption. These characters are, then, either crushed by the status quo or conform to repressive convention.
Winterson’s and Ducornet’s fiction reflect this acquiescence, for while they enlarge the definition of history to include more than mere dates and events, they perceive history as codified and therefore appropriate in the confirmation of the current power structure. Winterson reinforces this when she has Villanelle describe the present in terms of the past: “The future is foretold from the past and the future is only possible because of the past. Without past and future, the present is partial. All time is eternally present and so all time is ours. There is no sense in forgetting and every sense in dreaming. Thus the present is made rich. Thus the present is made whole” (62). It is, of course, essential to remember the past and to see how it has shaped the present, but the idea that the present can be made whole through the memory represents a too ready acceptance of the imperfections in what the present continues to hold for us. Don’t forget: in re-membering the past, we are also re-membering our present and our future. “I’m telling you stories. Trust me.”
>>–> Joyce writes the prologue to the (Post)Feminism thread.
Benjamin, Walter. The Origin of German Tragic Drama. Intro. George Steiner. Trans. John Osborne. London: Verso, 1977.
Buchloh, Benjamin. “From Detail to Fragment: Décollage Affichiste.” October 56 (Spring 1991): 98-110.
Daitch, Susan. L.C. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1987.
Ducornet, Rikki. The Jade Cabinet. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1993.
Proust, Marcel. Remembrance of Things Past. 2 vols. Trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff. New York: Random House, 1934.
Samuels, David. “The Call of Stories.” Lingua Franca 5.4 (May/June 1995): 35-43.
Winterson, Jeanette. The Passion. New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987.