Saturday, February 24, 2007

"That Christopher Columbus - he'll never amount to anything."

Is there a word or phrase to describe the throwaway comments historical novelists have their characters say, ones deliberately inserted to give readers a smugly superior feeling about their own historical knowledge? If not, there should be.

This has happened with a few novels I've read lately. With the current review book, the head of a London mental institution writes to a colleague, in 1896: "... this fad will pass as others have. There is no future in Freudianism." (It's a decent book, don't get me wrong, despite this bit of silliness)

And then there are the scenes I've read in some Tudor-set novels. It's almost stereotypical. Some gossipy English villager, cackling at the fall of Anne Boleyn, makes a prediction that "Nan Bullen's bastard daughter - what a shame she's a girl. She'll never amount to anything." The readers, of course, are gleefully laughing up their sleeves at such horrible ignorance. They know better.

In a previous read, we had a similar scenario featuring Caligula, presented as a spiteful, smarmy adolescent who surely wasn't destined to rule the Roman Empire, as one very minor character in the novel remarked. These comments may have been historically appropriate - Germanicus was the favored heir at the time - but the reader's foreknowledge of Caligula's eventual succession gives them added meaning.

These little asides nearly always draw me out of a story. Maybe because I don't want an author reaching out from behind the plot to congratulate me on what I know about history? These tactics feel too obvious, if that makes sense. Good for a chuckle, maybe, but not much more.


  1. I usually don't find this bothersome--I think a lot of it depends on how how subtle the author is (not very, in the case of the Freud and Elizabeth I references). At least they're good for a chuckle sometimes.

    What I don't like are Dire Portents, as in The Winds of War where Wouk has a couple of characters traveling through Poland in the early 1930's. When they reach Oswiecim, one character shivers and says to the other, "For some reason, I don't like this place." (Or something like that, it's been over 30 years since I read it.) Needless to say, one of the characters ends up in the concentration camp 10 years later. If only they'd paid attention to the Dire Portent.

  2. I find it funny that nearly every time this happens, the person making the silly comment is a very minor character who seems to have been inserted into the story for that purpose. To be chuckled at for his/her poor foresight about history...

    The examples I mentioned weren't subtle at all, no. I don't think I'd have minded it as much if they were.

    Dire Portents, that's a good name for what you described. This is one of the reasons I didn't care for Antoinette May's Pilate's Wife as much as I thought I would. Lesson to be learned: if you go to a temple of Isis and ask for a love potion to attract a man, and the priest warns you against it - but you ignore him and insist - don't be surprised when the potion backfires. And certainly don't go to the temple a few weeks later and ask for another one.

  3. It doesn't usually bother me, either, though as Susan says it depends on the context. Sometimes it might be a genuine attitude of the time that the author has crystallised into a line for a minor character - I don't know about Freud in particular, but plenty of new medical ideas were dismissed as fads by the establishment at the time (sometimes quite rightly, sometimes not), and it wouldn't surprise me at all if there are letters lying around from distinguished physicians saying just what the letter in the novel says. There's an arguable case that he was right, anyway, and Freudianism did more or less pass - it tends to get fairly short shrift from psychiatrists now, who are much more inclined to look for a drug treatment or cognitive behavioural therapy than Freudian analysis.

    Ditto with Dire Portents, sometimes they feel like subtle foreshadowing, sometimes they're not so much a foreshadowing as a signpost in flashing neon. Like the line a few pages into Book 1 of Conn Iggulden's Emperor series when the eight-year-old Caesar reflects that being a king sounds much more exciting than being a republican senator. Yes, I get it, thanks...

  4. I agree with you. It's definitely author intrusion and, to my mind, lazy writing.