Hello, friends. Here we are: this week, in the UK and Australia, Walker Books publishes Rivals in the City. (The US/Canadian edition will come in February 2015 from Candlewick Press.) I am tremendously excited to see this fourth novel come into the world and meet its readers. I’m also rather wistful: it’s the last Mary Quinn mystery.
The part I’m saddest about? I’ll never again write dialogue between Mary and James. I absolutely adored writing them in and out of arguments. The part I’m happiest about? Leaving Mary poised to make her way in 1860s London, entirely on her own terms. To me, this feels like a triumph.
Like all good endings, this final pub date has made me think about Mary Quinn’s beginnings. One of the best questions I’ve ever been asked, as a writer, was a couple of years ago at Kingston WritersFest. It was from a high school student. While I can’t remember her precise words, it went something like this: “The premise for the Agency is clearly a fantasy. But you’ve chosen to write the novels as realist historical fiction. Why did you decide to blend the two?” Isn’t that a beautifully analytical question?
To mark the publication of Mary Quinn’s last adventure, here’s my answer, in the form of a short essay about what I call “ahistorical fiction”. (If you don’t want to read expository writing, I’ve posted the first chapter of Rivals in the City here, for you.) If you’re curious about the idea of ahistorical fiction, please read on. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
My title is neither a typo nor a lousy pun. I really meant “ahistorical fiction”, which I define as a subset of historical fiction that includes elements which stand apart from mainstream history. I’m not talking about fantasy (set in an imagined world that may or may not straddle our own) or speculative fiction (which includes fantastic, supernatural or futuristic worlds). Neither do I mean fiction that is broadly anachronistic (Napoleon with a smartphone!) or counter-historical (undermining the very idea of history). Today, I’m here to defend the use of ahistorical elements in otherwise realist historical fiction.
The obvious, reflexive objections are:
1. Doesn’t that undermine historical fiction as a genre?
2. Why bother with ahistorical fiction at all? Why not write something else?
My short answers:
1. No, it enriches it.
2. See answer no. 1.
Are you ready for my longer answers? In the afterword to Code Name: Verity, Elizabeth Wein explains some of her plot choices and acknowledges that her first priority is not perfect historical accuracy. Instead, she says, her goal is simply to tell a really good story. I like that justification; it’s at the core of my writerly impulse, too. And Wein makes it sound so clean and easy. But I think it skims over some of the tricky decisions and border-drawing that happens when writers carefully include ahistorical elements in their work.
When we use ahistorical elements, we’re being selective. We’re not haphazardly inventing conveniences to rescue a stalled plot or sprinkling in some cute embellishments. Instead, we’re trying to open up our understanding of historical relationships. For Wein, this is having an English girl pilot crash-land in Nazi-occupied France. For me, in the Mary Quinn mysteries, it’s the creation of a women’s detective agency in 1850s London. In both cases, the ahistorical element is technically possible (just about). For my detective agency, I’m leaning on two historical precedents: the beginning of progressive girls’ education in the mid-nineteenth century (Bedford College was founded in 1849) and the career of Aphra Behn, the eighteenth-century playwright and spy. (The Agency is also an affectionate homage to Miss Climpson’s “typing bureau” in Dorothy L Sayers’s Peter Wimsey novels.) These specific historical leaps allow writers a different way of asking the big question at the heart of historical fiction: what if?
When I began to write A Spy in the House, the first Mary Quinn novel, I wanted to focus on an orphan girl without any advantages of money, social status, or education. I quickly realized that such a novel would be a swift, bumpy descent from poverty to prostitution to prison and, almost inevitably, early death. (This last sentence basically gives away the plot of Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin, which I highly recommend. It’s a gorgeously excessive tragedy not the least bit diminished by its inescapable ending.) Yet I wanted to rescue my protagonist, not sentence her to death. I decided to play with ideas of power by giving my orphan, Mary, a quasi-realistic opportunity to make her own way in the world: a handful of allies, a good education, a job that was more than underpaid drudgery. She would carry with her the baggage of her childhood suffering, but she would have a second chance. It was my way of using fiction to right an ongoing injustice. It was also a way to, in David Copperfield’s words, make Mary the hero of her own story.
Ahistorical elements in historical fiction are a way of rearranging the furniture. They’re also a bit like social history’s quarrel with the great-man narrative of history: what about everybody else? What if we shift our focus away from what’s always been there, and ask a different question? The use of ahistorical elements is born of love and respect for history and historical fiction. As in any relationship, though, sometimes you bump up against its limits. Sometimes you crane your neck, trying to see what exists outside its bounds. Sometimes, a fresh idea knocks you breathless. And once you’ve considered it, it helps you to see your old love anew.