‘There is nothing like looking if you want to find something…’ but what you find is not always quite the something you were after. So says the narrator of The Hobbit when the dwarves go looking for shelter from a storm in the mountains. On the other hand, when writers look back into the past, what they find is likely to depend on what they are looking for.
My newly published novel, Ghosts and Exiles, is set in the 1930s but was written in the 2010s. I’ve tried to avoid obvious anachronisms, because they would throw the reader out of the story. But my interests are those of the 21st century and that’s bound to be reflected in what I write. In this novel, a family and their friends must deal with a haunting and with the intrusion of magic, which partly results from the events of my earlier book, Spellhaven. That novel is set during and after the Great War, because it reflects the upheaval in European civilisation during that period. Ghosts and Exiles moves forward to London the 1930s to explore how the exiles from Spellhaven and their descendants cope with the changes in their lives.
As I thought about the 1930s, I found plenty to interest me. Women were breaking out of their traditional roles then but not without a struggle; people were still dealing with the aftermath of the First World War and were afraid a new one was coming. Refugees who came to London, mostly from Europe, had to come to terms with great changes in their lives, while the English countryside and English country life could no longer be taken by granted as people thought they should be.
These were some of the issues that were written about in the 1930s themselves. My perspective on them, however, is bound to be different. I’m conscious, for example, that religion and class are not important concerns for any of my characters. I can justify this because of the particular backgrounds I have given them but it is far from typical of daily life as most people experienced it then. There are bound to be other distortions and angles, less easy for me to spot, which would speak to a reader from the future about the time the book is written rather than the time in which it is set.
I’ve been thinking about this, because I’ve been reading A Literary History of Science Fiction, edited by Roger Luckhurst (British Library 2017). This survey of the genre from its origins up to the 21st century relates different works to the social and political context in which they were written. Of course, fantasy as a genre might be expected to be less concerned with the preoccupations of the present. It has been criticised as conservative and backward looking. But I would argue that it’s just as possible to imagine alternative ways of living or to explore human experience creatively in fantasy as in science fiction. A historical fantasy doesn’t have to involve nostalgia for the past. Frances Hardinge’s latest novel A Skinful of Shadows, is not romantic about either the Cavaliers or the Roundheads of the English Civil War. She focuses, as she often does, on the possibility of change for her characters and for society, rather than a restoration of the old order. Her approach evokes her chosen period through the way her characters think and behave as well as physical details. But all the same, she writes from a 21st century perspective in her focus on a rebellious young girl and in her portrayal of the destruction and disillusion brought about by the war.
I don’t think this is a drawback: a novel which tried to avoid the concerns of today would probably not be worth reading. It means that a historical fantasy, if done well, engages the reader on two levels. It evokes an imaginary past but through that past, has something to say about the kind of people we are and the way we live our lives now.
Sandra Unerman’s several visits to Milford have given a real boost to her writing. She is a retired Government lawyer who lives in London. Her novel, Spellhaven was nominated for the 2018 Crawford award from the IAFA. Her latest novel is Ghosts and Exiles and she has had a number of short stories published. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Middlesex University and she is a member of London Clockhouse Writers.