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The historical fictions that history tells us

nelson

The Death of Nelson (one of many)

The Historical Fictions Research Network had its second conference this weekend, in the splendid surroundings of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, home of the Meridian, south-east London. The Network is for enthusiasts and academics alike, which produced a pleasing mix of robust scholarly talks and the kind of top-quality historical reconstructions you’d expect to find in a good BBC documentary. These were my highlights, bearing in mind that I couldn’t go to all the parallel sessions because I don’t have a time-turner.

Christine Riding of the Museum gave a really stunning illustrated talk about the different ways Elizabeth I was depicted in contemporary paintings and modern cinema, from available and fruitful to the bride of the State. Elizabeth’s wigs, white-lead makeup and total ownership of the stomacher as body armour made her as iconic as a Protestant queen could be.

Lioudmila Fedorova, who teaches Russian literature at Georgetown University, Washington DC, has been writing a book on Russian crime fiction for five years and is getting near the end. For light relief she gave us a talk on how Gulag novels have used Gulag memoirs, rewriting history as fiction.

The Inshore Squadron (bringing 18thC naval warfare into the 21st century) spent the coffee break laying out their exquisite models of all the ships in action at the Battle of Trafalgar, and then talked us through how that naval battle actually happened. Since none of the contemporary accounts or the standard histories agree on even the starting positions of the opposing sides, they had to spend two years researching the wind, waves, tides, and logbooks for all the English, French and Spanish ships present. What a surprise to find that all the standard histories are wrong, and that the Nelson Touch was a feint to the left before charging down the van to break the French line where they least expected it. The computerised animation of the battle has forced historians to take wind and weather into account, though some of them don’t seem to want to do this.

Ronald Ramsey from the architecture department at the University of North Dakota described the ongoing adventures in his invented Iowa town of Agincourt (the town that time forgot and geography misplaced), which he created some thirty years ago as a teaching tool for his architecture students. This year, they designed factories and refugee housing for Agincourt, from the Bauhaus in the 1920s and in the present-day, and had violently differing opinions with the teaching staff about the appropriateness of creating a Santa’s Grotto as a final-year design project. As Ronald said, if you consider it as a monastic community for differently-abled workers  with peak seasonal demands in production, there’s nothing odd about that assignment.

Two papers dug into Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle as a speculative fictional nightmare: mine, and Ciaran Kavanagh from University College Cork. I talked about mirroring realities and the inadvertent fossilisation of the one moment of reality in that novel by the demolition of San Francisco’s Embarcadero Highway in 1989. Ciaran topped that with a bravura dissection of whether Winston Churchill was real, or not.

Mario Slugan from Warwick University took us through some early cinematic fakery, from open recreations of news events when they could not be repeated for the camera, to Méliès’ film The Four Troublesome Heads, in which a conjuror removes his own head four times. There was also the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots, a messy affair.

The grand finale of the two-day meeting was the public lecture by Michael Twitty, the culinary historian of the Deep South, who described recreations of plantation houses’ dining-rooms in full state as the history of something the slaves who created were never permitted to see, in Dining From a Haunted Plate.

Anyone can come to the Network’s conferences: the next one will be in Stoke-on-Trent on 23-24 February 2018, and you can book at the earlybird rate here. The Network also has a journal (which I edit), which is utterly free and Open Access to all. Read it here.

About Kate

Blogger, lecturer, podcaster, writer, critic, reviewer, researcher (in no particular order) in and on British literary history. Preferred occupation while listening to podcasts: cooking or knitting. Preferred soundtrack while reading: the sound of silence.

3 comments on “The historical fictions that history tells us

  1. elizabethmaddenlitblog
    February 27, 2017

    Kate- I’d love to join the Network, and read the journal- I’m passionate about history & write Historical/Literary fiction. Can you give me a link to the group to join it, please. Thank you.

  2. Kate
    February 27, 2017

    Elizabeth, you’d be very welcome. Click on the links in the article to find the site, or go to https://historicalfictionsresearch.org/

  3. Pingback: Historical Fiction Conference – VIRTUAL BORSCHT

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Acknowledgment

  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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