Fiction is fun, but don't mess with the history

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

'Outlander', by Diana Gabaldon

Normally, I stay away from the sub-genre known as 'historical romance', even though the more modern sort can be much more interesting than the bodice-rippers of the past. I made an exception for Outlander, first in the time-travel-to-the-past series by Diana Gabaldon, because later novels in the series are set in pre-revolution America. The period suffers from a dearth of novelists with significant interest in the history underlying the fictional story, so I went fishing. I hadn't previously read any of Ms. Gabaldon's novels, so I didn't know what to expect. Also, when choosing novels that are part of a series, I prefer to start with the first.

Outlander is set in the highlands of Scotland, beginning in 1945 and time-traveling back to 1743, just before the Jacobite Uprising of 1745. My historical accuracy antennae were aroused early in the opening section. The setting was September, 1945 - just a few months after the end of World War II. The novel's heroine, Claire, goes into a small highlands town and discovers that bare wartime shop shelves are now suddenly overflowing with goods. It doesn't take much study to conclude that, in reality, it's very unlikely anything like that happened. The UK was dead broke after the war, and stayed in a severe depression for a good many years. The 'Inspector Troy' series of historical-crime novels by John Lawton show a much more accurate picture of wartime and post-war Britain.

Following this opening section, I was prepared for the worst when Claire is magically transported back in time to 1743. However, apart from the usual difficulties involved in viewing the past through modern writing and the romanticizing of conditions in a remote, impoverished pre-industrial society, Ms. Gabaldon avoided issues of historical accuracy by the usual expedient of fuzzy details. Some actual place names are used (e.g. Loch Ness), and a few historical places (e.g. Fort William). The fictional Castle Leoch is identifiable as the historical Castle Leod, seat of Clan Mackenzie. The fictional castle is occupied by fictional Mackenzies (a real clan). The cast includes fictional members of several other actual highland clans, including Fraser, Grant, Munro and Ross. A few major political figures are mentioned in passing; the 'Old Pretender' James II, his son 'Bonnie Prince Charlie', King George II, but that's about it.

How does this novel rate on my five criteria? Let’s see:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?

There wasn’t a whole lot of historical material to use as a jumping-off point for further investigation. Score = 2

  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?

No historical events or characters are included in the narrative, except where briefly mentioned as background. To be fair, the bulk of the action takes place in a short period of time, from autumn of 1743 into early winter of 1744. Thus, the novel has more of a setting than a story, in historical terms. Score = 2

  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?

Outlander is first and foremost a romance novel, so historical accuracy is bent to that task. That said, it’s perhaps not completely fair to criticize a lack of accuracy. Still, when I read a novel that includes ‘historical’ in its genre classification, I expect the author to make an effort. In some areas, such as folk medicine and Highlands geography, the author goes into great descriptive detail. History gets much less attention. Score = 1.

  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?

There are no historical characters, so no score.

  1. Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters?

Probably not. Score = 1.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

'Sparrowhawk, Book Two: Hugh Kenrick'

Sparrowhawk, Book Two: Hugh Kenrick, by Edward Cline, is the second novel in the Sparrowhawk series. It picks up the historical timeline in England right after the end of Book One (around 1750), with a new but familiar cast of characters. The main difference in the two stories arises from the differing social status of the titular characters. Where Jack Frake was a working class boy who became a smuggler, Hugh Kenrick is the only son of a wealthy aristocrat who becomes an intellectual radical. Hugh's father and uncle, in addition to their titles of Baron and Earl respectively, are secret investors in various smuggling operations, reaping the rewards of the illegal activity without any real risk. The story chronicles Hugh's coming of age much the way Book One did with young Jack.

The two main characters are also similar in sharing the moral outlook inspired in author Edward Cline by the novels of Ayn Rand. Thus, Hugh Kenrick and his actions suffer from the same plausibility issues that marred Jack's story. Hugh's very different social standing directs him through a very different set of circumstances, but the same moral challenges. Many of the supporting cast are also familiar from Book One. Instead of a band of philosophical smugglers, Hugh trades insights with a secret society of London free-thinkers. Instead of a villainous step-father, family resistance comes this time from Hugh's class-conscious, vindictive uncle. Henoch Pannell, bane of the smugglers in Book One, shows up again to personify the amoral social climber. An African former slave with the colorful name of Glorious Swain, also a member of the secret group, becomes Hugh's friend and mentor following a chance meeting, much as Jack Frake was befriended by one of the smugglers.

Despite the predictability of the fictional story and characters, Cline has studied his history and doesn't take obvious liberties with it. The novel includes many interesting details of life among 18th century British gentry. How does it score on my five criteria? See the post on Book One. All the scores are identical, and the accompanying comments very similar. I'm still interested in reading more of the Sparrowhawk series, but perhaps a bit less so this time.

It's time to try something different, so my next historical novel read will be Outlander, first in the time-travel-to-the-past series by Diana Gabaldon.