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Friday, May 29, 2020

On traveling in the past: Charis in the World of Wonders

One of the demands of writing a novel set in the past is that a writer not put people and thoughts of his or her own day into fancy dress. Not give us woke people in linsey-woolsey. Not present people with our own concerns about climate (well, maybe if it's a Ruskin--so prescient!) or our own beliefs about how a woman may be heroic or our own attitudes toward childbirth or child-rearing or many another thing. In Catherwood, A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage, Maze of Blood, and now Charis in the World of Wonders, my desire is always to enter into another world, to believe that time is a realm I can find and walk around in if I am imaginative and reasonably knowledgeable. 

For the new book, one wish of mine was that Charis be a convincing citizen of the godly (Puritan to us), and that I would not fail to enter into her feelings about family, the wilderness, native peoples, the French, God, marriage, childbirth, community, and all the terrors and pleasures of the New World. And where she came to differ from the most common view, it had to be because she was forced by circumstances to learn something new that tempered or transformed what she thought to be the truth. It struck me that the most difficult thing to portray for contemporary readers would be religious faith and feeling, now so alien to many, and so easy to get wrong.

So I was especially pleased to see a comment about Charis's faith from poet Sally Thomas, discussing a review at the DarwinCatholic blog. Here it is, pilfered from facebook:
I particularly appreciate the allusion to Ron Hansen's Mariette in Ecstasy in this review. I hadn't thought of those two novels as parallel in any way, but among other things, a comparison on the point of the un-ironic handling of religious sensibility is apt. It is so very, very easy for the contemporary novel to wink and nudge at the reader – the religious characters are either dumber than we are in their belief, or are hypocrites whom we see through (wink wink nudge nudge). Or else they're caught in amber, as not-quite-living relics of a not-quite-living past. 
What I think both Charis and Mariette accomplish (though this is far from the only thing both novels accomplish) is to present a spectrum of characters, a whole human range of people, who all believe in God (and further, operate wholly within the world of a shared tradition of belief). There is awareness of a world outside that tradition – for Charis it's the indigenous tribes and the Catholic French. In fact, Charis goes farther in imagining the whole diverse tapestry of its world than I remember Mariette's doing. But the world that is each novel's focus is itself a tapestry of human personalities and livings-out of belief. This is part of why, as a novel taking up religion as a concern, each one rings true.
And surprise, Sally Thomas is doing a launch for her poetry book Motherland on Zoom on this very day at 3:00! Go HERE if you want an invitation.


  1. I appreciate your aims in that the characters, patterns of thought, modes of civic organisation, harshness or otherwise of contemporary law, should be of another time and should be consistent. Many authors try and many fail, most obviously in the matter of language. The harder they try to get the details right about furbelows and different types of horse-drawn vehicle, the more the spoken anachronisms stand out. Often quite deceptively simple statements such as "Let's go." or "She was a real looker."

    I have never been tempted to attempt a historical setting although I am in awe of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series where everything - yes, everything - is of the early nineteenth century. Both characters are heroes to us (the readers) and are beautifully sustained. Yet O'Brian has the skill to make Jack Aubrey, a successful captain in the Royal Navy, a Tory as he would have been in those days. That means he believes in the efficacy of capital punishment and - even harder to swallow - he is against democracy. Yet still he is intensely likeable and possessed of many singular virtues. Even more remarkable, O'Brian keeps the pot of authenticism boiling for twenty separate titles. Many many readers who you would not expect to be attracted to stories about battles at sea, inter alia the technical details of wooden-wall sailing ships, the crudities of contemporary surgery (Stephen Maturin is a ship's doctor), the political upheavals of the Napoleonic Era, have succumbed. Not least VR who has re-read the series at least once. And the dialogue is swooningly good, not least in the way O'Brian handles two-hundred-year-old jokes.

    I admire your willingness to embark on a novel about Puritans which must, to be authentic, grapple with, say, a legal system which, to us, will seem unbearably harsh. Your characters may disapprove of the execution of minors for piffling crimes, but not too much. There is also the matter of money and who pays for what; in those days the methods were not exactly egalitarian, and social welfare was a distant concept.

    My inadequate education leaves me ill-equipped for such a project. But I did brush against similar strands by setting Out of Arizona partly in the USA and partly in SW France. I had to remind myself this is a US veterinary doctor speaking, or an embittered widow living on the outskirts of Bayonne. Good fun, though

    1. p. s. Sometimes I think that I will blog no more, as most of the conversation about my and other books happens on places like twitter and facebook these days. But then I think on RR and roust myself to do my bit to keep blogging going, haha! Good cheer to you on the other side of the puddle (I note that it seems larger and less crossable to many now, in pandemic time.)

  2. I don't really know why I am tempted from time to time, although I have always looked on time more as a rather inaccessible place that I can get to with sufficient knowledge and imagination. Perhaps that is a form of madness!

    O'Brian is a good example of someone who "enters in." He is not embarrassed (as it seems so many are) to enter the mind of someone very different from himself. Probably that is even more of an issue today, with the manacles of political correctness on our wrists.

    It would be interesting to compare his books with some of our most critically-praised novels set in the past. A great many seem to be a form of alternative history: what would it be like if we thrust contemporary minds into the past? We end up with books by people who are ideologically constrained and cannot depart their own time, no matter how many appropriate-to-era objects are tossed around. And yet these are the books that are praised. Sometimes (often?) critics can't depart ideological bounds, just as much as writers.

    One of the barriers to writing about the godly is that we have so many faux-myths about them... And what we call Puritanism in America was in some ways harsher than in England, and it's easy to make a bleak picture if you focus on partial things.

  3. Ooh, Aah!

    What a fabulous compliment!

    What a grievous revelation!

    What an inordinate moral burden!

    I could say I regularly return to The Palace at 2 am because you are easily the most conscientious blogger in my experience. Only illness or distance prevents you from responding. But that's putting you on a very low pedestal. I could say you always give good value but that too is a rather mechanical judgment, which minimises who you are.

    Here are one or two more important reasons. You are honest and entertaining about your background and outlook. You engage me in unprejudiced dialogue despite our differences about the existence of souls. You are serious without being solemn; amusing without being facetious (gently reminding me of my own tendencies in this direction). The origins of our first encounter were portentous - in a book of quite serious poetry, for goodness sake. You are well read. And ooh, aah again, there's my name in blue.

    Hey, I'm only getting started.

    This is a hell of a lot to give up on my part. But I cannot be your sole reason for maintaining a blog. You're not only busy you have sufficient youthful energy to make the best of these years. You've written novels and you understand the nature of the novel's long slog, and of keeping other ideas on the boil as you slog.

    Affection and admiration overcome my own selfish needs (for once) and force me to say: give it up. I'll get over it in the way I've got over other sudden holes in my life, through writing amateurish verse. Though not for a little while.

    1. Well, luckily for you I just got a message from another writer on blog. Hahaha! More of a reply tomorrow--having a surprisingly disastrous day.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.