Whilst doing some research recently about Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, I came across this fascinating article in The Quadrant from 2014.
This particular paragraph got me thinking –
Jewish scriptural writers have a tradition called midrash, which means writing about the present through the lens of the past. Writers of history run the risk of a sort of midrash in reverse—writing about the past through the lens of the present. Historians try as far as possible to avoid doing this—for novelists, the situation is not so clear-cut. Characters in novels are always hybrids, partly based on real people, but often stitched-together attributes of a number of different originals.
As a lover of history and historical fiction I have been exposed to oodles of midrash in reverse over the years.
Historical fiction is at it’s best when it provides a fresh, modern look at what went before. It cannot change what happened, but it can provide insight it the why and how it happened. It has a licence to play with the nuances, but not with the basic facts that the reader knows or has ready access to. It can bring to life a time long gone. It can makes us feel like we are there witnessing the events – with one foot in the past (where the characters are experiencing their version of now) and one foot clearly planted in our now (giving us the advantages of hindsight).
I’m also curious about how we apply midrash in reverse to our own life stories. Maturity and experience can give us remarkable insights into our past behaviours and actions, but we can never go back to change what happened or whisper words of wisdom to our earlier selves. All we can do is use our new hard won insights to help us move forward. We can apologise for our past wrongs and learn from our mistakes.
To my mind, truly great historical fiction illuminates the past in such a way that it makes us feel unsure of what might happen…even though we know exactly what does happen!
Historical fiction that allows its characters to inhabit their times, so that we can actually see it through their eyes as being the modern, new world that they’re living through, can be a difficult task and is often where writers of historical fiction come unstuck.
My current read is one of those books where the writer has achieved this incredible feat of making the past come alive. Which brings us nicely into the realm of Brona’s Salon.
However please feel free to discuss your current read or join in the conversation in any way that you see fit.
What are you currently reading?
The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore
New York, 1888. Gas lamps still flicker in the city streets, but the miracle of electric light is in its infancy. The person who controls the means to turn night into day will make history—and a vast fortune. A young untested lawyer named Paul Cravath, fresh out of Columbia Law School, takes a case that seems impossible to win. Paul’s client, George Westinghouse, has been sued by Thomas Edison over a billion-dollar question: Who invented the light bulb and holds the right to power the country?
The case affords Paul entry to the heady world of high society—the glittering parties in Gramercy Park mansions, and the more insidious dealings done behind closed doors. The task facing him is beyond daunting. Edison is a wily, dangerous opponent with vast resources at his disposal—private spies, newspapers in his pocket, and the backing of J. P. Morgan himself. Yet this unknown lawyer shares with his famous adversary a compulsion to win at all costs. How will he do it?
In obsessive pursuit of victory, Paul crosses paths with Nikola Tesla, an eccentric, brilliant inventor who may hold the key to defeating Edison, and with Agnes Huntington, a beautiful opera singer who proves to be a flawless performer on stage and off. As Paul takes greater and greater risks, he’ll find that everyone in his path is playing their own game, and no one is quite who they seem.
How did you find out about this book?
One of our regular customers at work mentioned a great review she had read about this book.
By the time she had finished telling me about it, I knew I would have to read the book myself!
Why are you reading it now?
This close to Christmas I have trouble concentrating and staying focused.
I either need to read quick, easy kids books or a book that will totally suck me in from page one.
I suspected that The Last Days of Night might be one of those.
And it was.
From page one, with its map of New York, I was hooked.
I’m now 38% through and I can barely put it down to write this post!
It’s entertaining, informative, engaging and fascinating.
I feel like I’m living in New York circa 1888.
Which character do you relate to so far?
Our narrator, Westinghouse’s lawyer, Paul Cravath was a good choice by Moore.
This was his first big case, so it almost reads like his coming of age story – full of the fumbling foibles of youth, and its arrogance as well.
It’s easy to feel for Paul as he tries to make his mark on the world, to become one of New York’s main players…only to discover that he may not like the game that everyone is playing after all.
Are you happy to continue?
This is a ripping yarn with some dramatic images and tantalising scenes.
From the opening scene of a Western Union electrician being burnt alive above the streets of Broadway to one of Marguerite Westinghouse’s famous dinner parties.
Where do you think the story will go?
We all know where this stories goes.
It’s what happens along the way that makes this so fascinating.
Some of the details may have been lost to history, but Moore has unearthed and enhanced them to create this wonderful book about ambition, power and progress.
|Top left, clockwise – Paul Cravath, Nikola Tesla, George Westinghouse, J.P. Morgan, Thomas Edison & Agnes Huntington|
What have you been reading lately?
Are you a fan of historical fiction?
What was your favourite historical fiction read this year?