“The Past is a Foreign Country”
I’ve been listening to a podcast about time and how impossible it is to define time, but also how time is a dimension unlike space because time always moves forward. Physicists speak of the “arrow of time,” always moving toward more chaos. On a personal level, we cannot go back in time no matter how much we desire to. This presents a quandary for the writer of historical fiction. She wishes to return to or visit the past in order to learn more about it. She tries to build a plausible past world, even though history itself is not something she can take down from the shelf and examine. According to historian Hayden White, history too is fictionalized depending on who wrote the history, and the historian “creates” history rather than reflecting “reality.”
Perhaps the only way to think logically about the past is to consider it a “foreign country where people do things differently,” as L.P. Hartley claims in his 1953 novel, The Go-Between. As a writer, it is impossible for me to know the past with certainty. It’s like visiting a foreign country where I am ignorant of the language and how people understand the world. Did the people in the time period I write about believe in a heliocentric universe? Did they believe Bishop Ussher’s calculation that claimed the Earth was created in 4004 B.C.? Did they have the privilege of education? Were they literate? Did they travel farther than the nearest town? Were they allowed to/have time to exercise creativity? Did they long for a different reality than the one they lived in? The best I can do as I construct their worldview and their “reality” is to conduct thorough research, while realizing that historians and biographers too can’t visit the past to verify what they assume is true. All they can do is examine the artifacts, the primary documents, and then extrapolate as they construct their version of the past, their foreign country.
As a writer of historical fiction, who often skews the past by creating different events that could have plausibly happened, I do what I can to know this foreign country. I try to learn its language; I try to be aware of its customs, mores, and personal, social, and political conflicts. Even so, this foreign country is more like a different planet, where I, like the 1950s cartoon characters Mr. Peabody and Sherman, time travel to connect with other human beings whose worldviews may have been radically different from mine or not. The hope for me, as a writer of alternate history, is that I can help my readers learn the languages, customs, and mores, and understand the conflicts of that foreign country, with the aim of making us feel a greater affinity for those who traveled these strange roads before us.