Thursday, July 20, 2006

Lightening things up a bit

The other day, I had a brief e-mail exchange with a publicist about one of their house's upcoming novels - one that was being promoted as a humorous historical, something they felt was unique for the genre. "Have you read many historicals with a funny side to them?" he asked me, and I pondered the question. To my surprise, I really had not, although I hadn't thought about it much previously. I even took a quick browse through my bookshelves, but it was difficult to come up with more than a couple dozen titles, out of the thousands that I own and/or have read, that I'd consider truly humorous.

I know humor is often a matter of personal taste, but even with my rather sarcastic sense of humor in mind, I like to think I'd have recognized it in historical fiction if I saw it. To me, it seems much more common in other genres. In romance, it's easy to find examples, from the witty repartee of Regency couples (and these do count as historical fiction in my book, but what of titles outside this category?) to the wacky adventures of many heroines in contemporary romance. There's plenty of humor in mystery, fantasy, sf as I recall. But when it comes to non-genre-crossing, "straight" historical fiction, it seems quite rare. Am I wrong?

Possible reasons for this phenomenon, and more than one could be right:

(1) Historical novelists are a staid, humorless lot. (No, I don't really believe this)

(2) History is a Serious topic, filled as it is with battles, death, pestilence, arranged marriages, class conflict, etc., and adding humor to one of these topics would feel disrespectful and horribly inappropriate.

(3) Many historical novels are either biographical or about particular historical events, and sometimes people's lives (or particular happenings) just weren't funny. Not much you can do about that.

(4) Similarly, many historical novelists use their work to explore the Mysteries of the Universe, the Meaning of Life, and other philosophically deep and profound topics, and those tend not to be funny, either. Or they're not treated as such.

(5) Humor is something that's relatively hard to do well in fiction; it has to come naturally or it just doesn't work. One has to have the personality and writing ability to carry it off.

What else? This is disregarding, of course, the unintentionally funny historical - those with horrible anachronisms, lame dialogue, etc., etc.

Anyway, it has been interesting for me to note some titles I'd read that I thought were truly funny in places, and recognize how often these authors are praised for their unique voice. I enjoyed reading Jane Harris's debut novel The Observations, with its wisecracking, self-deprecating heroine, fearlessly optimistic despite her truly rough past; Bernard Cornwell's The Last Kingdom (and undoubtedly others I haven't read), for his gleefully dry British wit; Karen Mercury's The Hinterlands, which puts its characters in hilarious situations; and James Morrow's The Last Witchfinder, loftily narrated by Newton's own Principia Mathematica, with its sarcastically sly observations on the book world (and which serves as a counterpoint to the sobering main topic of the book, the witch trials of the 17th century). I'll also add Catherine Jinks's incredibly funny medieval novel The Notary, in which the eponymous narrator does his best to keep his lustful nature under control while investigating a murder alongside a Dominican monk. (More on this title later; it's Australian-only, as far as I know.)

Maybe your experience is different from mine, however, and if so, I'd love to hear your recommendations and/or thoughts on the subject. (I believe this topic was touched upon in someone else's blog within the last couple months, but for the life of me, I can't find the relevant entry.)


  1. I've seen it touched on regularly in the group of blogs I frequent. I'd suggest another few for your list of reasons:
    (6) Much humour depends on language - puns, repartee, jokes, double entendre, etc. It has to be fast and that means the mental image has to be instant. If the reader has to stop and work a joke out it feels lame. So the language has to be very accessible for a modern reader. Language is difficult enough in historical fiction, trying to avoid being slammed as cod medieval on the one hand and slammed as too modern on the other. It's much safer to stick to a very careful all-purpose tone, and that doesn't lend itself easily to humour.

    (7) Much humour also depends on cultural context. Jokes about football go straight over my head, for instance. Humour in historical novels has to work both in the context of the time, or it's anachronistic, and in a modern context, or a modern reader won't get the joke. This is hard.

    (8) Humour is irreverent almost by definition, and so if a character in a novel tells a joke it's probably at the expense of someone or something. This upsets people who have a reverential approach to history, so it's safer not to do it. I think it's possible to respect history and historical figures without being reverential, but I may well be in a minority there.

    Fantasy and SF doesn't have this problem because the world has to be true to itself, not to some external past world, so the writer can set his/her own rules. Terry Pratchett is an example par excellence. I think mysteries and romances have less of a problem than 'straight' historical fiction because the language is allowed to be more relaxed. So Lindsey Davis' Falco novels can use terms like 'wide boy' and 'gay' that presumably weren't in use in first-century Latin and no-one minds, whereas that might provoke complaints if it appeared in straight historical fiction. I don't know whether she had any trouble getting the first Falco published, but it wouldn't surprise me if she had complaints about the wisecracking private eye being 'too modern'. In film, I thought 'Shakespeare in Love' had a tremendous sense of humour, but that opening scene with Will on what amounts to a psychiatrist's couch could easily be dismissed as anachronistic.

    Rather more than 2d-worth - sorry. Will be interesting to see what others have to say.

  2. For me, it's point 5. I just can't do humour, not that I think it doesn't belong in historical fiction.

    Historical fiction with humour - I'd say, Eco's Baudolino counts. The book stands in the tradition of the fabliaux and Schelmenromane and thus allows for the inclusion of some weirder theories en vouge in the Middle Ages (which are, strictly speaking, not historical facts).

  3. I suspect many historical fiction writers (and others) avoid humor mainly either because they don't want to risk having it fall flat or because they deem it incompatible with High Art.

    That's a shame, because a little humor goes a long way in making me want to continue reading. It doesn't have to be laugh-out-loud funny; even just the occasional gentle jibe will do. And if an important character can laugh at himself or herself, I'm hooked.

    I think Sharon Penman does a good job with humor in the ways I've mentioned above. Her characters will occasionally banter with each other, which makes them come alive for me, because that's what people who like each other do, after all--now and in the past. And I'll never forget Davydd's gallows humor in The Reckoning, when on the eve of his execution, someone tells him that it's a pity that he never learned to curb his tongue. Davydd replies, "I know. I expect it will get me into trouble one of these days."

  4. These are great comments.

    Carla - I agree with you about language being difficult enough as it is for the historical fiction writer, and that adding humor is risky. This may be why I'm especially impressed when I see an example of a novel that works well. I know of some other historical detectives besides Davis that use a wisecracking, modern tone (David Wishart fits, I think), and I have heard comments that his characters sound too "modern." So I suppose they're just not for everyone.

    Gabriele - I haven't read Baudolino but will check it out.

    Susan - this is very true, it doesn't take much at all for it to work. That's a funny example. Similarly, Steven Pressfield does a good job of portraying the gallows-type "warrior humor" of the doomed Spartans in Gates of Fire. "Eat a good breakfast, men, for we'll all be sharing dinner in hell." It's not laugh-out-loud funny, but it's very telling about the culture.

  5. I remember Colleen McCullough made me grin several times as well. She does it best in First Man of Rome (gotta love the letters Rutilius Rufus sends to Marius) but there's enough in the other books, too, except the forth (Caesar's Women) which I found boring.

  6. I don't remember any of that from McCullough! Hmm, interesting. I made it through the first few books and then gave up, I'm afraid - you may have gotten further than I did.

  7. You and Carla have comprehensively covered the reasons why HF is comparatively non-humorous. Julian Rathbone made me laugh with his deliberate anachronisms in The Last English King, though this isn't to everyone's taste. I think that much of the humour in Davis, Wishart and now Ruth Downie comes from the perceived similarities between the Roman empire and us. In Lindsey Davis's HNS Conference talk a few years ago, she said that using a Roman gumshoe with a cynical attitude enabled her to send up modern society without offending anybody. Humour seems to work well in Roman-set novels, because of the perceived similarities and because we know what their own sense of humour was like from literature and graffiti -- they loved satire, farce and rude'n'lewd jokes.

    A pedantic BTW: The "for tonight we dine in hell" speech in Gates of Fire is taken from the ancient Greek account by, erm, I forget who. But it shows that some kinds of humour don't change.

  8. Sarah J - am I right in thinking that the publicist meant more humour than the occasional gentle jibe or witty remark? The term 'humorous historical' conjures up an image for me of Terry Pratchett but with history rather than fantasy. Is that right?
    I second the recommendation of Sharon Penman, especially Davydd. Some characters lend themselves more readily to humour than others, I think. Davydd's irresponsibility seems to fit with a quicksilver wit, and the wit makes him attractive, even though his actions certainly don't.
    I liked Julian Rathbone's The Last English King, though I bet it annoyed a lot of people. Rathbone can afford to ignore them. There's also quite a lot of humour, and some farcical situations, in Dorothy Dunnett's books. I'm sure Game of Kings opens with a pig getting drunk in a merchant's wine cellar, and there's the extraordinary set-piece with Nicholas riding the ostrich in the first book of the Niccolo saga.

  9. Sarah - thanks for pointing that out, that wasn't clear on my part. The quote from Pressfield does come straight from the original source, so it wasn't the author's invention (he stated as much in his afterword, I believe). But I thought Pressfield did a good job of conveying the general sentiment throughout the novel as well. With Rathbone, I didn't manage to get very far in Last English King - not because of the anachronisms but because of the writing style - but I may give it another go one of these days. Good point about the similarities between Roman culture and ours. Humor does seem more common in Roman-set novels (esp. mysteries) than in others.

    Carla - yes, the publicist gave the impression that the novel (Letter Perfect by Cathy Marie Hake, to name it) was humorous in overall tone. From the back cover, it seems to involve comedy of the physical and wisecracking sort (heroine is a bit of a klutz, and her mouth gets her in trouble), so it's not as subtle or dry as with other novels. It's about to go out for review, and I'll be curious to hear whether it worked.

  10. I like to see wry, gentle humour in historical novels, and I'd like to see much more of it. Not necessarily laugh-out-loud funny, just something that raises a smile. It seems pretty rare in historical novels, so I tend to notice it when it's there.

    Like Susan, I enjoy it when a main character can make a humorously self-deprecating comment. Susan's far too modest to mention it herself, but her own novel is wonderfully humorous at times - this won't mean much to anyone who hasn't read it or doesn't know about the Despensers, but the bit when Edward III asks Hugh Despenser the even younger what he's been up to, and Despenser thinks 'Trying to acquire Gower', made me laugh out loud.

    On my blog, I've just reviewed The Queen and Mortimer by Brenda Honeyman, which has some nicely humorous moments (Susan quotes a lovely bit in her comment). The Edward II novel Gaveston contains a few funny bits, which I enjoyed seeing, as most of the novel is pretty intense. There's a nice scene where Edward has some problems trying to drag his reluctant dogs out of the bedchamber so that he and Gaveston can make love, and sometimes his Fool (who he's narrating the story to) makes some comic asides and observations.

  11. Thanks, Alianore, haven't read Gaveston yet, but I have a copy, and that sounds encouraging. I like it when an author uses humor to counterbalance an otherwise intense or somber subject, and that sounds like a good example.

  12. Thanks, Alianore!

    Interesting comments about Roman novels--I'll have to read some of the ones mentioned here.

    I also thought that A Lady Raised High (part of the Laurien Gardner series on Henry VIII's wives) had some nice humor, such as in the opening where the narrator says that she had gone out with her fellow villagers to see Anne Boleyn "because I wanted to see what a whore of Babylon looked like." Wry remarks like that gave the narrator a unique voice that really lit up the book for me and made it more than just another novel about Anne Boleyn.

  13. This is an excellent point, and something I hadn't really thought of. I wonder if it's also been just partly as a result of writing to what's "expected" of a straight historical--lush description, long, minute historical detail, little humor.

    I too have run across small bits of it in authors like Penman, Dunant, and Sara Douglass (if you count her alternate-history series as historical fiction?).

    I hope there's humor in my historical fiction book, but others will have to decide that!

  14. Regarding A Lady Raised High, I think that if an author is going to attempt (yet another) Anne Boleyn novel, s/he has to do something right away to set it apart from the crowd. That example sounds like a good way to do it.

    I would count Douglass in, myself, and put her in the "alternate history fantasy" category you implied. I've heard her novels can be quite gory in places, and have not tried them yet, but good to know there's some humor to lighten the load.

  15. Susan Higginbotham - if you like humour, do try Lindsey Davis' Falco mystery novels set in Vespasian's Rome (1st century AD). The first one is The Silver Pigs and they are probably better read in order, since although the mystery is self-contained in each one, Falco's personal and family life develops. They are full of dry wit and clever jokes.

  16. Anonymous1:29 PM

    The problem is really one of anachronism. Dry, witty humor can work--however, many of our contemporary class assumptions about humor don't fit in with older periods. For instance, Q. Elizabeth I had an often bawdy and scatological sense of humor that wouldn't translate well.

  17. Sarah,
    I liked the first two (First Man in Rome, The Grass Crown) and though the third (Fortune's Favourites) ok, then gave up on her after the boring fourth, but was told the next two were better again, and while they don't reach the level of the first, they're still as good as no. 3, which makes for an enjoyable enough read.

  18. Thanks! I'll keep that in mind.

  19. Getting in late, but how about everything George MacDonald Fraser ever wrote? Pyrates? All of the Flashman books? It can be done . . . it just isn't done outside of Romance all that often (mores the pity).

  20. You're absolutely right, of course - I had Fraser in mind when I was writing, but never managed to get him in there. He's in a category of his own.

    I keep thinking that, too, that it CAN be done... but it's pretty rare.