Historical novels are often a better way of getting a feel for the past than history books, especially academic ones. Here’s Adam Mars-Jones in the LRB on Jim Crace’s Harvest, ‘a historical novel that takes place outside history’:
There is a manor house, there are villagers (58 of them), there is barley to be harvested. The settlement isn’t particularly remote, except that for a modern readership remoteness itself has been abolished, to the extent of disappearing also from its idea of the past. One of the plot points of the Spielberg-produced summer blockbuster of 2011, Super8, set in the late 1970s, was the delay caused by the time it took to process film. Whole days! Teenagers gazed at their parents, not exactly with respect, but with sorrowing wonder at a deprivation they couldn’t have imagined for themselves. When we read about the past most of us fall prey to the same empty amazement, though historical novelists are generally in the business of soothing their readers with continuities rather than admitting the psychological inaccessibility of the past.
The absence of institutions is the most startling thing about the world of this book. There are law courts and civil authorities somewhere, with relevant powers and responsibilities, but they’re so far out of reach they might as well not exist. There’s no church, although a site has been set aside for one. The nearest place of worship is a long day’s travel away, as is the nearest alehouse. […]
Some things are rationed or unobtainable that it’s hard for modern people to imagine doing without. There isn’t a looking glass in the parish, ‘though no doubt there are some wives who have a secret sliver with which to horrify themselves and which they wisely do not seek to share.’ The nearest reflection is two days distant. ‘We close an eye and see no more than the side of the nose, or possibly some facial hair, the outer regions of a beard. We know our hands and knees but not our eyes and teeth.’
The past is imagined here in all its richness, or paucity, though neither alternative seems right. The richness of its paucity perhaps. Poor relative to what, when there is no point of comparison available to those labelled impoverished? Having no conception of other periods or ways of living, they exist in time but perhaps not in history.
Update: just to emphasise the point, the TLS reviewer thinks that the period of the novel’s events “might be the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century”, up to three hundred years later than Mars-Jones’s guess of some time in the Tudor period.
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