Mind Readers: Thoughts on the Historical Imagination

Guest Post by Jeffrey Hantover –

Within the broad boundaries of historical reality, writers of historical fiction must create a fictional reality that has integrity. The parts must fit together. The whole created must be believable. One jarring slang phrase from the 21st century from the mouth of a Roman emperor or a Julia Child dessert on an Elizabethan table can undermine a reader’s trust in a writer before the wheels of the plot have even begun to turn.

The description of the historical world—the sights, sounds, and even smells of 18th century Venice, ancient Rome, or 17th century Burma—can be captured with patience, perseverance, a good library, and Internet access. The greater challenge is understanding and inhabiting the minds of the characters in those worlds.

A fictional character may inhabit a world of ideas, social forces, and material surroundings alien to ours, but they are not aliens. They are human beings with a shared range of emotions and feelings. How, when, and with what object and intensity these emotions are expressed are shaped by social, economic, and cultural forces specific to the period.

The writer must navigate the shoals of universalism and particularism. Grief over a dead infant may be universal, but how a person grieves over their dead child is shaped by such factors as class, gender, personal history, and infant mortality rates, among other factors. The writer cannot assume the maternal bond is so universal that this grief transcends time and place and erases history. On the other hand, it is equally a failure of imagination to assume that a 16th century Italian wife of a Florentine cloth merchant is so inured by the past deaths of her infants and those of others that she does not share the sense of loss that might consume a 21st century mother.

The writer of historical fiction works under the shadow of ethnocentrism: the sin of judging another culture from inside our own. Chekhov famously wrote of horse thieves: “Let the jury judge them; it is my job simply to show what sort of people they are.” 

Our task as writers is not to judge horse thieves, grieving mothers, besotted lovers, or jealous husbands from our contemporary vantage point. But that does not mean that characters in the novel do not judge themselves and others by the values and principles of their own times and culture. They may feel guilt or shame over their behavior, not because of our judgment but because of their own.

Giovanni Fumiani, the Baroque painter at the center of my forthcoming novel, may judge himself even more harshly than current art historians, and that judgment plays a pivotal role in the actions he takes.

We take a moral stance without judging simply by recognizing our shared humanity and by the humbling realization that we are not alone in our struggles or superior to our fictional creations in our personal resources to confront them. Philo of Alexandria in the first century admonished us to “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”

If we writers of historical fiction listen to our characters and plumb the depths of their minds, we communicate to our readers the foundation of moral wisdom and action: that all of us, fictional and real, are engaged in battles worthy of respect and understanding.

Jeffrey Hantover is the author of The Jewel Trader of Pegu (William Morrow), a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection, Borders “Original Voices” selection, and an Independent Book Sellers BookSense pick. His novels The Three Deaths of Giovanni Fumiani (Cuidono Press) and The Forenoon Bride (Severn House) are forthcoming in 2023.

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