Fact, Fiction and the Longue Durée
Fact, Fiction and the Longue Durée: Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner that Held Them and Jane Smiley’s The Greenlanders
As a text is transmitted over time its reception alters: humour, pathos, style, tone and even genres themselves shift with the passage of decades to settle into new patterns for succeeding generations of readers. One of the most unfixed of these patterns is that which encompasses literary and historical texts; my paper explores this liminality between fact and fiction and examines the interstitial location of historical novels, glancing at the changing labels applied to texts such as Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (once read as a work of history, now often labelled with Truman Capote’s term of the “non-fiction novel”) or Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (now, generally, read for its literary merits rather than its insights into the past).
In particular I discuss the impact of postmodernism on critical approaches to the narration of the past, focusing on the work of Hayden White. White’s most famous study is Metahistory (1973), in which he argues that historical works are verbal fictions, the contents of which are as much invented as found. Drawing upon White’s approach, my paper suggests that the historical novel is as valid a means of narrating the past as is “official” historiography. The swelling debate during the 1980s and 1990s over the nature of historiography has pointed to the many similarities between a historian’s and a novelist’s use of narrative; as a result, to use historian Stephan Bann’s phrase, the straitjacket of the genres is coming apart at the seams. My exploration of this generic uncertainty is focused on historical novels – Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner that Held Them (1948) and Jane Smiley’s The Greenlanders (1988). These novels are roughly chronologically contemporaneous – Warner’s work follows the fortunes of a Benedictine convent in Norfolk from 1345 to 1382, while Smiley’s text depicts life in a Greenland community from 1345 to 1415. More significant, however, is the shared approach to the presentation of the past. Both novelists abandon histoire événementielle for the longue durée and forsake plot for story; each novel resembles the historical chronicle in its unhurried transmission of the fortunes of a community. Characters grow from childhood to adulthood and pass out of the focus of the text, while larger historical events such as the Black Death are glimpsed only as they impact upon these particular societies. I argue that works such as these are indeed histories; in their focus on mentalité they follow the approach made popular by the Annales historians. Warner wrote to a friend that she intended to call her novel “People Growing Old,” adding that it has “no conversations and no pictures, it has no plot, and the characters are unnumerable (sic) and insignificant.” This description, which also fits The Greenlanders, could well be applied to a work of “authorised” history – it is as accurate a description of the past and of our attempts to represent it as could be given by any historian.