Only Call Us Faithful: A Novel of the Union Underground|
by Marie Jakober
by Douglas Glover
The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch
by Anne Enright
Post Your Opinion
|Historicals Converge on Eccentric Women
by Joan Givner
History and fiction have long been set up in opposition to one another¨the one being characterized by truthfulness and objectivity, the other by imagination and invention. Of the two oppositional terms, fiction has often been deemed the less rigourous genre, tainted by falsehood. Yet, as decades of post-structural theory have suggested, historical objectivity is a notoriously elusive entity, and the question of how history is produced, indeed the whole concept of "history," is a vexed one. What passes for history has often been evidence generated by the established opinion of the age under consideration. On the other hand, fiction is not the site of falsehood, but a way of knowing¨the place where methods of representation and signification, and subjectivity itself are examined. Consequently, fiction always returns, like a ghost, to haunt history.
Such considerations about the uneasy balance between history and fiction are clearly in the minds of three recent writers of historical novels, for all of them, with varying degrees of defiance, address the problem of combining history and fiction; the words "facts" and "truth" jingle repetitively through the notes to their readers.
Marie Jakober frames her novel as an autobiography of Eliza Van Lew, basing it on Van Lew's actual journals and on records of the Civil War; she says that certain events in her novel are "factual in essence, but altered in detail." She adds that "in personal matters I almost always put the interests of storytelling ahead of strict adherence to fact, even when the facts were available, and quite often they were not."
Fiction's tendency to haunt history is dramatized in Jakober's novel by the fact that her narrator, Eliza Van Lew, appears as an actual ghost. She walks around present-day Richmond recalling the events that took place there when it was the capital of the Confederacy. At that time, Van Lew was a resident of Richmond, but also a Union sympathizer and a key member of a Union spy network. Although a Southern woman by birth, she was educated in the North, where she made many friends among the Quakers involved in the underground railroad. Furthermore, Van Lew refused the role of Southern Belle, and her blunt, outspoken manner rendered her virtually unmarriageable. Yet it was by exploiting (and exaggerating) her anomalous status as an eccentric spinster that she was able to carry out her dangerous activities. These included carrying packages to Union prisoners-of-war languishing in Richmond's notorious prisons, exchanging coded messages with Ulysses S. Grant and other Union generals, and finally surviving after the defeat of the South, and the fall and destruction of Richmond.
The intrusion of fiction and myth into the history of the civil war is epitomized by the figure Scarlett O'Hara, the heroine of Gone With The Wind. (Alice Randall's recent novel The Wind Done Gone tackles the same figure by recasting her life-story from the point of view of her black half-sister.) Jakober places Scarlett among the ghostly community that haunts present-day Richmond. There she stamps her pretty feet, utters the familiar phrases "Well, I declare," and "I'm never going to be hungry again," and bears a strong resemblance to Vivien Leigh. The outraged Van Lew protests: "But that's ridiculous. She's a character in a story. She doesn't belong here. She isn't even real." A fellow ghost makes the case for Scarlett's presence. "A hundred million people know her name," he tells Van Lew, "How many people know yours?" Van Lew reluctantly admits that Scarlett, "by virtue of being the image of the South in the eyes of half the world" is, therefore, "as much a part of history as ourselves." Yet she frets about the reasons behind her enduring appeal:
"But why Scarlett? How does someone so cold, so breathtakingly selfish, so lacking in any whisper of social or moral or political understanding, get to be an icon? Would it ever happen to a man?. . .Maybe the lady who is nothing but self is simply a reverse image, the other face of the lady who isn't supposed to have a self at all. She's made out of all the energies of the women whose ordinary lives were bent and snipped and shut away, energies turned icy now, like vampire blood, still feeding on the South's old false dreams."
Jakober, the most traditional of the three novelists, exploits the historical novel's perennial source of appeal¨the linking of past and present. Her novel resonates with references to events of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries¨the distortions of truth, the subversions of the democratic process, and the wars entered into on pretexts by leaders of dubious legitimacy. Van Lew believes that for every member of the plantocracy there was "a German or Scot who despised not merely slavery itself, but all forms of aristocratic power." She does not consider Jefferson Davis a legitimate leader, nor does she believe that the vote for Secession was a fair one. As a consequence, she finds herself in the ambiguous situation of someone loyal to her birthplace, and yet totally at odds with popular opinion, and particularly with the policies of the current leadership.
Anne Enright acknowledges two previous biographers of Eliza Lynch, the Irish-born prostitute who became the mistress of the Paraguayan dictator, Francisco Solano Lopez. She dismisses the other biographers, alleging that the English-speaking ones treat Eliza Lynch with "all kinds of sneering excess." However, she says that certain facts do exist and around these she has built her "scarcely less fictional" account. Designating it a novel, she says "It is Not True."
Enright's method, in describing a courtesan who, like Madame de Pompadour, escapes the fate of the fallen woman and succeeds brilliantly, is to cast over her readers the same kind of seductive spell that Eliza exerted on her admirers. Enright is a prose stylist, after the manner of Angela Carter, and her sensuous and sinuous prose matches her subject's voluptuousness. She savours words with the same pleasure that Eliza Lynch derives from handling the sumptuous fabrics that make up her gowns, the exotic flowers she sets about her boudoir, the fruits and wines she offers at her table. The effect is to create a dreamy somnolence, just as Eliza lulls her guests into losing their will-power and simply surrendering to her charms. After the death of her lover and protector, she even charms her captor so that he allows her to escape and return to Europe.
The following is a description of Eliza making an appearance at the national Paraguayan theater whose construction she has arranged:
Her dress, it seems, is spun gold. Her underskirts are lapis lazuli, the colour of the night sky when it glows. Five diamond clusters knuckle around her throat, and a deep sapphire pendant hangs over the bodice, so low that, when she sits, it nestles in her lap. So much money. . .the crowd watches rapt as she picks up the sapphire and opens it. What can be inside? It is the very nexus, as though the entire theatre had been pulled into the world, like the finest shawl, through its pure blue doors. She glances inside¨a figuring look. It is a watch, impossibly small. What use is the hour to anyone here, or the minute? Eliza leaves it carelessly open, hinged like an oyster on the blue-gold bed of her skirts, and Time spreads through the theatre, expensive and minutely ticking. Time for the interval to end. Time for the play to recommence. Time for the battle scene.
Douglas Glover tells the story of a legendary French woman who became a passenger on an expeditionary force to colonize Canada; she got tossed off the ship with two companions, and marooned on the desolate, icebound Isle of Demons. Glover says that he has plundered too many sources to list, although he acknowledges Arthur P. Stabler's The Legend of Marguerite de Roberval as a key one. He has tried to "mangle and distort" the facts as best he can.
Of the three writers, Douglas Glover has the longest engagement with the historical process, and the most experience in turning that engagement into highly entertaining forms. He has written two previous novels parodying various aspects of the historical narrative, and he has a clearly articulated purpose underpinning his present novel. In a 1994 interview in this journal he recalled the words of the Canadian scholar Winnifred Bogaards:
"She said the contemporary historical novel had to be about the writing of history, about our changing sense of the nature of time and history. And old-style historical novel takes a period or event or heroic figure as its subject; the modern historical novel takes history as its subject."
Accordingly, he undertakes to puncture holes in the process by which myths are created, hardened into dogma, and elevated into canonized texts that become the jurisdiction of a priestly caste. Glover follows Rabelais in discarding the official version of medieval culture for a racy and riotous account of carnal pleasures and adventures, a carnivalesque bawdy sequence of eating, drinking, defecating, copulating, and dying. The Rabelaisian model is underscored when his picaresque heroine, the eponymous Elle (she resembles Rider Haggard's She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed in her capacity for eternal regeneration and transformation) returns to France, and becomes the companion of F. F. is none other than Francois Rabelais himself.
Soon after Elle's abandonment on the island, she is bereft of her lover and her old nurse, but quickly finds a replacement in her next companion, the Inuit hunter, Itslk. The two exchange myths from their different cultures. Elle regales Itslk with stories from Tyndale's translation of the Bible, her favourite book, and a recurring point of reference throughout the novel. Itslk is especially interested to learn that the man who made the Bible available in the vernacular was burned at the stake. (I thought the historical Tyndale was strangled and his body burned, but maybe that was apocryphal. Who knows?)
In return Itslk offers stories from his own oral culture. He tells of a hunter who stalks a bear which leads him far beyond his usual hunting grounds. When he finally catches up with the bear, it is already dead, and a naked white woman, emerges from the carcass as if the bear had given birth to her. The story, in fact, is prophetic of their actual meeting, for when the bear dropped dead, it fell upon Elle, who crept inside the carcass for warmth. Itslk found her shortly afterwards smeared with the blood, slime, and offal. When Elle, after her return to France, tries to sort out the mix of memory, legend, myth and dream, she can hardly follow her own life-story. She describes it as "the unofficial account of an anti-quest":
"This is the story of a girl who went to Canada, gave birth to a Fish, turned into a bear, and fell in love with a famous author (F.) Or did she just go mad? In either case, from my point of view(the inside), they look the same."
Despite the differences in historical periods, geographical locations, and narrative styles, these three novels have one marked point of convergence; this is in their treatment of what the Victorians, at the height of the historical novel's prestige, called "the woman question." It is a question crucial to any examination of a historical process that has been characterized by the exclusion of women.
Jakober, Enright, and Glover contrive in different ways to repair that omission; they all take events that have previously been the province of soldiers, generals, politicians, and explorers¨the American Civil War, the Paraguayan war, and the colonization of Canada¨and recast them, making women the central characters. Paradoxically, each woman is fitted for that centrality precisely by her eccentricity, that is by her refusal to conform to the norms of her society, and her resistance to the role of wife and mother.
Each of the three female characters modifies, manipulates, or flouts the traditional female role in her own original way, so that reading the three novels together sets up reverberations among them, even a kind of dialogue. Eliza Van Lew uses her chastity as a means of leading a double life, one of apparent conformity to the dominant group, the other of rebellion and subversion. Eliza Lynch succeeds by raising the decorative and seductive arts to such a flamboyant level that she becomes a legend in her own time. Van Lew's meditation on how anyone as lacking as Scarlett O' Hara in social or political conscience can become an icon might well have been addressed to her. The immense vitality of Elle makes the non-conformity other two characters seem pallid in comparison. Yet such headstrong delinquency inevitably ends in pathos, as her own words indicate:
I am far gone in self-pity, melancholy, misanthropy and other Words ending in -y. I drink wine spirits for nourishment, take laudanum to sleep and insert clysters of galbanum, asafetida and castoreum to counteract the constipating effects of the laudanum. . . .In Canada I was, briefly, next thing to a god (an ambiguous and confusing state), but now I am perceived as a liar, a madwoman and, worst of all, a bore. (Weep, weep.) No one believes a word I say, either that I once went to the New World or knew the celebrated F. ˛
Joan Givner's next novel Ellen Fremedon will be published by Groundwood Press in 2004.