ALL WRITERS ARE BORDER WALKERS:
EMMA DONOGHUE BETWEEN HISTORY
ANDFICTION IN ASTY AND
THE WOMAN WHO GAVE BIRTH TO BBITS
Vytautas Magnus University, Lithuania
Abstract. Historical ction has gained a degree of popularity among readers
in the last two decades it has not enjoyed since the fashion for writing novels
about national history was set by Sir Walter Sco in the early 19th centu r y.
Later in that same century, however, the value of historical ction as such was
challenged by historians who were eager tomake history ascience; they claimed
that academic historical writing provided an objective view of the past based
on archival research and was therefore fundamentally superior to historical
novels. Adevaluation of historical ction took place which is still felt today. In
thecontext of this opposition of history and ction, Emma Donoghue’s recent
historical ction oers a fresh approach to the genre. e aim of this article,
aer reviewing theissue of its relationship to history, is toanalyze Donoghue’s
innovative combination of ction and the archive in two collections of short
historical ction, e Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits (2002) and Astray
(2012). Donoghue’s own reections on her work are applied in this analysis, as
well as thetheoretical approach tothis kind of ction by Lubomir Doležel.
Key words: history and ction, historical ction, Lubomir Doležel, Emma
Donoghue’s historical ction, minor and marginal historical gures
Emma Donoghue has concluded one interview with the evocative statement:
‘I suspect writers always feel like border-walkers’ (Fantaccini and Grassi, 2011:
406). Among the borders that Emma Donoghue walks, one is that of national
identity. In 1998 this Irish writer moved toCanada tojoin her partner and start
a family, nding in Canada, as she has stated, a more tolerant atmosphere for
same-sex couples (Swilley, 2004). However, this study focuses more on adierent
kind of border, that between theelds of history and literature, which Donoghue
crosses in amanner very much her own. Internationally she is celebrated for Room
(Donoghue, 2010), apsychological novel set in thepresent, but she is also well-
known for historical ction that uses agreat deal of research toprovide adetailed
picture of the past. Among this kind of writing, the most formally innovative
are her two collections of short historical ction, e Woman Who Gave Birth
toRabbits (20 0 2) and Astray (2012).
ALL WRITERS ARE BORDER WALKERS: EMMA DONOGHUE BETWEEN HISTORY ..
Baltic Journal of English Language, Literature and Culture Vol. 9, 2019:16–28
Milda Dany tė 17
Donoghue enjoys her dual national identity, just as she enjoys writing what
she calls ‘hybrid ction’ (Jordan, 2012), historical narratives not quite like any
other work in thegenre. is analysis begins by looking at historical ction and
the problematic relationship between the historic and the ctional, referring
totherecent boom in historical ction as well as tothehostility which thegenre
still provokes among literary critics. is context makes it easier to recognize
how distinctive Donoghue’s method of bringing together the ctional and
the historical is in two collections of short historical ction, e Woman Who
Gave Birth toRabbits (2 0 02) and Astray (2012). ese are unusual literary works
that merit more critical aention than they have so far received.
ON HISTORICAL FICTION
Although there are single works that can be given this label earlier, literary history
tends to consider Sir Walter Sco (1771–1832) as thefounder of the historical
novel (see, for example, Lukacs, 1962: 38–39; Baldick, 1991: 99–100; Cuddon
1991: 411). His novels celebrating the national past of Scotland and England
created a literary fashion in many European countries, inspiring major novels
like those by Alessandro Manzoni, Stendhal, Balzac and Alexandre Dumas, Leo
Tolstoy and Henryk Sienkiewicz (Lukacs, 1962: 39–45). Beginning with Sco’s
Waverley in 1814, these novels re-consider events in thenational past that are held
tobe especially meaningful, whether they are defeats or triumphs. Sco’s success
came in part from theway in which he deviates from thenorms for non-ctional
historical writing by giving themajor roles in his narratives toctional characters.
As critics explain, his narrative formula is to place an invented character, most
oen avery ordinary person, alongside historical gures participating in major
historical events; this ctional character, with whom readers can identify,
transports readers to the past in a way that academic historical texts cannot
(Lukacs, 1962: 41; Danytė, 2008: 54–55).
Aer their period of success in the 19th century, historical novels appeared
again as a major literary genre during the period of postmodernism, although
in this period writers were more likely toapproach thenational past ironically.
As Linda Hutcheon notes, such novels are more concerned with those who did
not ght in national struggles or who appeared on the losing side (Hutcheon,
1989: 51). Nevertheless, although questioning national myths, these novels
still use Sco’s narrative formula with invented ctional characters serving as
protagonists, narrators and focalizers that participate in past events alongside real
historical gures. It is in this respect that Donoghue makes aradical change, for
instead of centring her narratives around ctional characters, her protagonists
are almost always historical gures themselves. However, they are not leading
players in events of national signicance: some are minor gures in historical
events, while others are extremely obscure and even marginal, ‘wrien o’, as she
explains in the foreword toe Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits, ‘as cripples,
children, half-breeds, freaks and nobodies’ (Donoghue, 2002: ix). For example,
18 ALL WRITERS ARE BORDER WALKERS: EMMA DONOGHUE BETWEEN HISTORY ..
in this collection e Fox on the Line does not direct her readers’ aention
toFrances Power Cobbe, a 19th century activist in animal rights, but toamuch
less documented woman, Cobbe’s long-time companion, Mary Lloyd, while
in Looking for Petronilla she gives equal room to a woman who was known as
apowerful witch in 14th century Ireland and toher faithful servant who was burnt
at thestake, but about whom nothing beyond her existence is really known.
Furthermore, Donoghue uses atwo-part structure that emphasizes how much
thetext is her own creation, bringing ction and thearchive very close together.
First one reads a brief ctionalized narrative about the past, and then what is
titled as a ‘Note’, in which Donoghue as a historian comments on her sources
and the gaps in her knowledge. In this Note, which Sarah Crown usefully calls
apostscript (Crown, 2012), readers are moved very abruptly from the ctional
domain to an academic one. Acknowledgements of sources are not uncommon
in many genres of ction, but in the case of Donoghue’s works, the academic
text follows, oen on thesame page, as thenal sentences of thectional story.
Where most authors of historical ction are concerned not tobreak theillusion
of reality by such direct archival references, Donoghue feels there is much tobe
gained in confronting history and ction. She calls thelong labour of searching
through printed and archival sources, ‘ten years of sporadic grave-robbing’, and
concludes cheerfully, ‘I have tried to use memory and invention together, like
two hands engaged in thesame muddy work of digging up thepast’ (Donoghue,
2002: ix). She also makes her double allegiance evident: ‘I’m aware that what I’m
doing is simultaneously research and ction. […] Plus, ethically, I don’t own these
cases: I’m drawing on thescholarship of others and thelives of thedead’ (Crown,
2012). In her unabashed readiness to bring together two ways of representing
thepast, academic history and ction, Donoghue is very unusual in thecurrent
controversy about the relationship between the historical novel and works of
CONFLICT BETWEEN HISTORY AND HISTORICAL
Donoghue’s texts have appeared in the context of a boom in historical ction
which has taken place since the late 1990s; lately, in addition to novels, lms
and television series that ctionalize history have aracted large audiences. In
the English-speaking market, for example, the British are prolic producers of
both print ction and lmed historical narratives like theBBC series e Tu d or s
(2007–2008) which are popular beyond the United Kingdom itself. Within
Britain, however, these productions are seen not only as entertainment but also
as treatments of the national heritage. Literary specialists like Tim Gauthier
have argued that these celebrations of theEnglish Renaissance and 19th-century
imperial history are linked to the widespread feeling known as ‘declinism’,
the diculties the British have today in accepting the way their country has
lost status and power since themid-20th century: ‘Generally perceived as having
Milda Dany tė 19
relinquished its position as aglobal and economic power, thecountry reconsiders
regretfully its diminished place in the world’ (Gauthier, 2006: 3). Gauthier
treats such ctionalized history as adesire tocompensate for national decline by
regaining ‘contact with thecountry’s glorious past’ (ibid.: 4).
It might be expected that the literary world would welcome any new
trend that draws thepublic to reading novels, yet not all critics are happy with
therise in popularity of historical ction. Most oen this dissatisfaction seems
to spring from the belief that, by nature, historical ction is an inferior genre
that cannot be treated like academically elite works. In an article titled ‘Can
aHistorical Novel Also Be Serious Literature?’, theAmerican writer Alexander
Chee admits that he was made tofeel he had broken a‘literary taboo’ by moving
from ction set in the present time to historical novels (Chee, 2016). esame
is said in aninterview, though in sharper terms, by awell-established historical
novelist, Philippa Gregory: ‘I think it’s really funny how thegenre is […] despised
by critics’; she enjoys pointing out that now that it has become so very popular,
those who earlier labelled it as wrien by ‘rather stupid women writers’ nd
themselves without much tosay (Taylor, 2011). Gregory is ironical about how she
and other historical novelists have been criticized both for being too historical
and not historical enough, with some reviewers complaining that using historical
plots shows lile imagination and others condemning novelists for interpreting
thepast too imaginatively (ibid.).
Examples of this elitist approach tothegenre of historical ction can be found
even in sources that one would expect tomaintain aneutral position like on-line
Encyclopaedia Britannica articles. One of these states atly that many historical
novels ‘are wrien to mediocre standards’ (‘Historical novel’, n.d.), while
another begins contemptuously: ‘for the hack novelist, to whom speedy output
is more important than art, thought or originality, history provides ready-made
plots and characters’ (‘Types of novels’, n.d.). Furthermore, this second writer
asserts, without providing any examples, that ‘the technical conservatism of most
European historical novels’ puts them into a‘second place’ category among kind
of ction (ibid.).
In the English-speaking world, these elitist convictions about the relative
value of dierent sub-genres of thenovel were shaken when thevery prestigious
Booker Prize went toHilary Mantel for historical novels in both 2009 and 2012.
Mantel’s career shows how views are changing, for in 1979 she was unable toget
her rst historical novel published and had toturn towriting realistic ction set
in thecontemporary period. ere was still unease in 2009 when Mantel’s Wolf
Hall took theBooker Prize away from well-established writers like J.M. Coetzee
and A.S. Bya who are analysed in academic programs (Edemariam, 2009). Even
in 2012 thechair of theBooker Prize jury was defensive about its decision, and
not only because Mantel was therst British author towin theBooker twice. He
later denied that an additional criterion was used by this jury, ‘readability’, and
insisted that a‘rigorous process of literary criticism’ was applied; he did admit no
vote had been taken and that thedecision had not been unanimous, suggesting
20 ALL WRITERS ARE BORDER WALKERS: EMMA DONOGHUE BETWEEN HISTORY ..
that discomfort with ranking ahistorical novel as equal tothose seen as having
greater literary merit has not disappeared (Singh, 2012).
In abroader context, thedenigration of thegenre of historical ction can be
linked to anon-going aempt by historians to present thewriting of history as
asocial science that is based on strictly factual sources. Trying toraise thestatus
of history to a science is considered to have begun in the 19th century with
thedemands for a clearly documented presentation of thepast by Leopold von
R an ke (1795 –18 86). Ranke propagated scrupulous analysis of multiple archival
sources so that an objective historical account could be wrien (Boldt, 2014).
For atime, this aempt togive history ahigher intellectual status than literature
was successful, but by thelater 20th century, specialists in rhetoric and narrative
theory had turned their aention tonon-ction texts and undermined theclaim
that historical writing were fundamentally more objective than historical novels.
A leading gure in analyzing the rhetoric of texts, Hayden White, concludes
that historical studies have failed toachieve thestatus of ascience; he notes that
historians tend touse narrative as astructuring device and so encounter thesame
problems as historical novelists, ‘the problem of thetoo much and not enough’
and of ‘what toleave out in their treatment of real events and processes in thepast’
(White, 2005). Richard Slotkin focuses on the same problem, that of making
a choice from available and oen conicting evidence: ‘What we call ‘history’
is […] astory we choose totell about things […] facts must be selected and […]
made toresolve some sort of question which can only be asked subjectively and
from aposition of hindsight’ (Slotkin, 2005). He argues that ‘all history writing
requires active or imaginary representation of thepast’, implying that there is
no fundamental dierence between thework of historians and that of novelists
(ibid.). As ahistorian himself, Slotkin deals with theproblems raised by thekind
of archival research that Ranke insisted on: ‘Anyone who has worked with
historical records knows that the documentation of any large, complex human
event is never fully adequate or reliable’ (ibid.). Moreover, if one moves from
trying toestablish thefacts of apast event tothemotives that made people act as
they did, ‘information becomes even more slippery’ (ibid.). He sees thedierence
between history and literature as merely ‘a dierence of genre’ which predisposes
readers toadopt dierent approaches towhat they read (ibid.).
Both he and Richard Carroll see the fundamental goals of history and
a historical novel as the same; in Slotkin’s words, it is to ‘create in the reader
a vivid sense of what it may have been like to live among such facts’ (Slotkin,
2005; Carroll, 2011). In his review of the conict between history and ction,
Carroll concludes that these two elds ‘are still struggling toclarify anumber of
core issues’, in part because they have not only dierences but also similarities
(Carroll, 2011). ‘Who owns the past?’ asks another specialist, Ludmilla
Jordanova, raising asensitive issue especially where thenational past is concerned
(Jordanova, 2006: 143). Both historians and writers of historical novels act like
owners of thepast, shaping their texts toconvince readers that their interpretation
Milda Dany tė 21
What is interesting about Emma Donoghue’s aitude toher work is that, in
comparison with writers like Alexander Chee or even Philippa Gregory, she is
neither troubled nor defensive. She locates herself as both awriter of ction and
ahistorian, not feeling any contradiction between thetwo roles. As theformer,
she needs to entertain readers: ‘I’d never start with the facts […] that would
be too much like a history lesson’ (Crown, 2012). As a historian, she nds it
imperative toinclude her sources in apostscript: ‘But I had toput them in’ (ibid.).
Donoghue does not ignore the duality of historical ction and historical study;
she puts them side by side in her work, believing that her readers are sophisticated
enough toenjoy themovement between thetwo elds.
LUBOMIR DOLEŽEL ON ANALYSING HISTORICAL
One of themost useful approaches totheanalysis of historical ction has been
developed by Lubomir Doležel, writing within the context of possible worlds
theory. He states that historical ction creates worlds that have a ‘dyadic
structure’, ‘two domains that are clearly distinguishable by their dierent
relationships totheactual world of thepast’ (Doležel, 2010: 84). One domain
is that of elements in thenarrative like characters, events, seings and cultural
contexts ‘that do not have counterparts in theactual past’, calling these ‘ctional
entities’, while the second includes those elements that ‘have counterparts’
in the historic past, ‘ctionalized entities’. Despite this distinction, Doležel
emphasizes that when any entities, especially characters, enter ctional worlds,
all of them ‘have tochange into thectional possible’, a‘general transformation’
(Doležel, 2010: 85). In this way, he explains that ‘in therealm of ction, historical
fact is aconstruct’, which makes it easy for writers tocombine history and ction
(ibid.: 87). Finally, he asserts that it is theright of thecreator of historical ction
to make decisions: this writer ‘gathers as much historical knowledge as he or
she wishes and transforms it in ways that correspond to the general order of
theworld under construction’ (ibid.:85) In this way writers of historical ction,
in Doležel’s terms, produce aconfrontation between history and ction within
What is happening in Donoghue’s short historical narratives becomes clearer
when Doležel’s theory is applied toher stories. Agood example is eLast Rabbit,
thetext that opens and gives atitle totherst collection, eWoman Who Gave
Birth to Rabbits. is begins with therst-person narrator, Mary To, deciding
toplay a joke on her husband by pretending to give birth to arabbit: ‘We were
at home in Godalming, though some call it Godlyman, and I can’t tell which is
right, I say it thesame way my mother said it. I was pregnant again, and cuing
up arabbit for our dinner, I don’t know what sort of whim took hold of me togive
ascare tomy husband’ (Donoghue, 2002: 1). Encouraged by others, she becomes
involved in ascheme tomake money from agullible public by apparently giving
birth torabbits. estory ends when she realizes she will have toadmit thetruth
22 ALL WRITERS ARE BORDER WALKERS: EMMA DONOGHUE BETWEEN HISTORY ..
toaninvestigator: ‘So I turned and walked back totheroom where Sir Richard
was waiting for my story’ (ibid.:13).
en comes thepostscript, which gives thehistorical evidence for Mary To’s
life; Donoghue writes: ‘For “e Last Rabbit”, which was inspired by William
Hogarth’s famous engraving of Mary To (1703–63) giving birth, I have drawn
on many contradictory medical treatises, witness statements, pamphlets and
poems’ (ibid.:14). She goes on toname ve of them. epostscript concludes with
what is known about Mary’s life aer she spent afew months in jail for thehoax:
‘Back in Godalming with her husband, Mary had another baby in 1728 […] and
was occasionally shown o as anovelty at local dinners […] she lived totheage
of sixty’ (ibid.). Stylistically, the ctional domain is narrated in Mary’s relaxed
and colloquial style, while thehistorical domain has amore academic style with
anabundance of dates and thespecic titles of thepamphlets and poems which
are Donoghue’s sources.
According toDoležel’s distinction, therst part, thestory, combines ctional
and ctionalizing entities: in one sense, Mary To is a ‘ctionalizing entity’
with a real counterpart in 18th-century English history, while thecharacter who
reects on what happens, along with thewhole of theopening scene are ‘ctional
entities’ invented by thewriter. epostscript emphasizes Mary To’s historical
status, with the information about her later life making her historicity credible.
Yet most of thestory must be ctional, as very lile precise information about
To’s actions, let alone her feelings, has survived, and even this, as Donoghue
states, is ‘contradictory’ (ibid.).
DISTINCTIVE CHACTERISTICS OF DONOGHUE’S
SHORT HISTORICAL FICTION
One of the features of her narratives that heightens the apparent reality of her
characters is theabrupt way that many of her stories begin. ere are no lengthy
introductory descriptions of time or place to warn the readers that they are
entering a world of thedistant past. In thesecond collection, Astray, Donoghue
does precede each story with anidentication of where and when it takes place,
while in the earlier collection, there is not even this. Instead, the ctional texts
plunge readers into the historic past in a kind of baptism through immersion,
with theshock of hearing adistinctive voice that in its diction and cadences is not
that of the21st century. Readers have tomake an eort toidentify thehistorical
period through occasional brief references, which is more dicult because
the stories in each collection are not given in any kind of chronological order.
Nevertheless, they are encouraged to make this eort by Donoghue’s skill in
beginning her stories in dramatic ways. One reviewer comments on thestartling
energy these obscure gures demonstrate, emphasizing how the‘people of these
tales come hurtling o thepage from thedeep past with theemotional force of
thenewly awakened dead’ (Brown). For example, Last Supper at Brown’s, which
Milda Dany tė 23
relates how an African-American slave poisons his master and runs o with his
master’s wife, opens like this: ‘Before theWar there’s two women in thehouse but
last year Marse done took them toauction. Now’s just me, thecook and all-round
boy. My name Nigger Brown, I don’t got no other, I was born here’ (Donoghue,
2012: 65). eyoung African American addresses thereaders abruptly as though
they already understand his situation and thehistorical context from which he
speaks. Readers can pick up clues, combining references to‘the War’, people sold
at auction and thecasual use of the term ‘nigger’ to guess that the action takes
place during the American Civil War, in a southern part of the United States
where slavery still exists.
In another case, that of agirl whose mother was anAfrican slave made mist-
ress toa British aristocrat, the speech paerns are completely dierent because
she has been brought up in theupper class. Nevertheless, theeect of theopening
sentences is also surprisingly direct: ‘I was in theOrangery at Kenwood that June
morning, picking plums and grapes. I knew nothing. My name was Dido Bell’
(Donoghue, 2002: 170). esecond and third very short sentences sound taut
with emotion: Dido is describing theday that she comes toabrutal understanding
of her true status in aracist society.
In the postscripts to these stories, Donoghue explains that ‘Nigger Brown’,
as he is called, survived historical oblivion only as asingle entry in anewspaper
of his time (Donoghue 2012: 72). Dido Bell was both more celebrated and more
elusive. Donoghue refers to the evidence of her father’s and great-uncle’s wills
toshow that she was loved and provided for, but admits that everything else in her
story is aseries of probabilities, not hard facts: she was probably theyoung black
woman painted by Johan Zoany in aremarkable portrait of theperiod, allegedly
showing her with her white-skinned cousin; she was probably the reason that
her great-uncle, in afamous legal judgement, took astep towards making slavery
illegal in Britain (Donoghue 2002: 183).
At least Dido exists in many sources, while some of Donoghue’s most vivid
characters are known only through asingle sentence they spoke. ere is Minnie
Hall in Daddy’s Girl, whose father, apillar of theDemocratic Party in New York
City, died in 1901, and was then discovered to have been a woman. Minnie
refuses toacknowledge his biological condition in public, snapping at thejudge,
‘I will never say she’ (Donoghue, 2012: 239). In eNecessity of Burning in 1381,
when thePeasants’ Revolt saw hundreds of hand-wrien manuscripts set ablaze
in the streets of Cambridge, Margery Starre, further identied only as an ‘old
woman’, enthusiastically pitched volumes into theames, shouting: ‘Away with
the learning of theclerics, away with it!’ (Donoghue 2002: 198). Minnie’s and
Margery’s declarations are documented historical facts, but Donoghue creates
their personalities, lls in earlier events and provides motivation for their actions.
Donoghue explains her evident interest in marginal historical gures through
two formative events in her personal life. One was preparing her doctoral thesis at
Cambridge University on theconcept of friendship between men and women in
24 ALL WRITERS ARE BORDER WALKERS: EMMA DONOGHUE BETWEEN HISTORY ..
the18th century. is work was part of anew movement tomake women acentral
subject in historical research, something that made her feel it was legitimate togo
beyond monarchs and politicians: ‘Looking through history for thewomen also
led totheOther: theslave, thewitch, thewhore, thefreak, thepoor, thecriminal,
the victim, thedisenfranchised, the child, the migrant’ (Palko, 2017). She also
links her interest in themarginal through her uncomfortable awakening to her
homosexuality: ‘I grew up in Dublin […] Prey much everyone I knew was
white, had two Irish parents, and was apracticing Catholic. I had no objection
at all to this until, at about fourteen, I realized I was alesbian, and therefore, in
my society’s terms, afreak’ (Fantaccini and Grassi, 2011: 400). She calls this ‘the
trickiest border I’ve ever crossed […] I wasn’t bothered by religious guilt, only
social shame; I found it hard toaccept being socially abnormal’ (ibid.: 401). She
refers in more than one interview tothe determining nature of this experience.
It was this ‘moment of alienation’ that she feels ‘turned me into a writer’: ‘I’ve
remained fascinated by thethings that make us feel at home, or out of place, or
even monstrous’ (Palko, 2017). In another interview she states: ‘is theme –
not just homosexuality but theclash between individual and community, norm
and ‘other’– has marked many of my published works’ (Fantaccini and Grassi,
2011: 400). en, in acharacteristically ironic comment, she concludes: ‘to know
yourself tobe theOther is very educational’ (ibid.: 402).
In her historical ction Donoghue writes about men, women and children
who were not leading gures in their own societies, but who acted out some form
of dierence. She is interested in same-sex unions, ctionalizing some that may or
may not have been consciously homosexual. For example, in therst collection,
eWoman Who Gave Birth toRabbits, there are Mary Lloyd and Frances Power
Cobbe, trying to pass a law against animal vivisection in Victorian England
(e Fox on theLine), while in Astray readers encounter theAmericans Frances
Loring and Florence Wyle, who led a successful career as sculptors in Canada
(What Remains). In general, she is fascinated by those who go against thenorms
of their society. ere are agreat variety of eccentric gures from thepast in her
stories, like Elspeth Buchan who as thecharismatic ‘Friend Mother’ led asuicidal
religious sect in Scotland in thelate 18th century (Revelations in eWoman Who
Gave Birth toRabbits) and Mollie Sanger in eLong Way Home in Astray) who,
dressed in men’s clothing, successfully worked for many years as aprospector in
mid-19th century Arizona.
In other cases, she is aracted to fragmentary historical records, accounts
of people’s lives which she can complete through ction. As she puts it, many of
these stories ‘are woven around theknown facts, and could be considered history
as well as ction, especially as my source notes are included, toinsist on thereality
of thestories’ (Swilley, 2004). In her rst collection she sensitively develops what
ablind poet’s childhood must have been like in Night Vision; in thesecond, her
story eGi supplements leers that have survived about 19th-century American
adoptions, depicting aman who refuses togive up thechild he and his wife had
adopted despite later claims by thebirth mother.
Milda Dany tė 25
Donoghue’s postscripts also vary and do more than provide alist of sources.
Historical novelists oen receive criticism from reviewers and readers about what
are perceived as factual inaccuracies, but Donoghue’s protagonists are mostly so
obscure that readers make their way through her narratives without any sense
of which details are historical and which invented. Reading the postscripts
then provides a new kind of pleasure; thereaders have identied with the main
characters and inevitably want toknow more precisely what their later lives were
like. e story Salvage in e Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits describes two
cousins known as the‘Coage Ladies’ directing aempts tosave sailors drowning
on their shore. One may believe that their lives in theearly 19th century would have
been very limited by gender norms, especially given that one of them, Anna, can
move about only in awheelchair. It is refreshing tond out in thepostscript that
Anna was anoted Anglo-Saxon scholar and, as thelast sentence lists triumphantly,
the two ‘acted as their relative Fowell Buxton’s secretaries in his long campaign
toend theslave trade, founded aschool, travelled toRome and Athens, and were
nally buried together in theseaside graveyard at Overstrand’ (Donoghue, 2002:
105). Another variety of story leads readers tosympathize with those who broke
laws; in such cases, they may be relieved in reading postscript that, for example,
Marger y Starre in eNecessity of Burning, who participated in thePeasants’ Revolt
of 1381 at least does not gure in thelists that Donoghue’s research turned up of
those imprisoned or executed (Donoghue, 2002: 199). Similarly, the postscript
toLast Supper at Brown’s reassures readers that theAfrican American slave and his
white mistress who murder her husband seem tohave escaped punishment. Aer
his dramatic escape from being re-sold by his master, any possible romance seems
tohave ended: he apparently took up with a Mexican woman, while she married
aman with whom she ‘ran aboardinghouse, then worked mining claims and set up
agoat ranch’, rather amundane conclusion totheir story (Donoghue, 2012: 72).
However, among so many sympathetic and even celebratory accounts of
those who deviated from social norms, the postscript toeLong Way Home in
Astray shows that society could be unexpectedly harsh on rebels against norms
like theswaggering prospector Mollie. Aer depicting her forcing aman who has
abandoned his family to return to them, in thehistorical postscript Donoghue
decides this story is possibly true but adds that three years later ‘she was therst
woman in Arizona commied for insanity, which probably translates as cross-
dressing, promiscuity and alcoholism’. Aer twelve years in an asylum Mollie
escaped but was tracked down trying to survive in thedesert ‘on one bole of
water and afew crackers’; she spent her remaining years back in theinsane asylum
(ibid.:122). In this way contemporary readers, who have become accustomed
by previous stories in thecollections about strong women successfully breaking
norms, are brought up suddenly and even brutally with the reality of women’s
unequal status in anearlier historical period.
Only in one case, How aLady Dies in eWoman Who Gave Birth toRabbits
does Donoghue use the historical postscript to extend the narrative she has
focused on in her story. It is the 18th century: Frances Sheridan is a mother and
26 ALL WRITERS ARE BORDER WALKERS: EMMA DONOGHUE BETWEEN HISTORY ..
themiddle-aged wife of atheatre director, but she leaves husband and children
temporarily totake her beloved friend Elizabeth, younger, wealthier and dying of
tuberculosis, for treatment toBath. Elizabeth toys with theidea that death will
be welcome but is shocked when she coughs up blood and determines to make
themost of her remaining days. ectional story ends at this point in her life, but
thepostscript, aer referring tohistorical sources, ends with anadditional detail
about thepair of women: ‘On their return from Bath toLondon, Elizabeth died
in Frances’s arms’ (Donoghue, 2002: 162). esentence concludes this historical
narrative as high romance. However, this kind of extension of the emotional
narrative is a single example, as in all other postscripts the tone is much cooler
and more academic.
In thepresent context of conicting opinions about thevalue of historical ction
and its relationship with history as an academic discipline, Emma Donoghue’s
declarations on thesubject are refreshingly condent. She feels no guilt about her
use of thehistoric past. ‘To me all of history is akind of warehouse of stories for
me toburgle. I don’t feel I should be restricted tomy own era,’ she states in one
interview (Richards, 2008). Nor does she apologize for her manipulations of past
events or theway she plays with her readers’ feelings. She sees herself as rescuing
theminor and themarginal for anew life as literary characters: ‘to me what feels
good is to give these characters subjectivity, agency, a chance to rule the page
even if I can’t always grant them happy endings’ (Palko, 2017). In her hands this
kind of ctional narrative does not deny thelimits that people’s sex, race, class or
physical disabilities set on their lives. Her historical ction does not erase pain
or reverse thedefeats which they experienced in thepast. However, it does give
them akind of power over thepast: ‘at’s asecond life you’re granting along-
dead person in ction: achance toshow what they’re made of, strut their stu,
have their say’ (ibid.). She selects for her stories people that academic historians
might include, if they did at all, in statistical reports or footnotes to the main
narrative. In this way Emma Donoghue moves away from thedominant tradition
in thewriting of both history and historical ction, theanalysis and celebration
of major events and gures from thenational past. She does not deny thevalue
of those texts that take amore traditional approach, but her sympathies are with
those ‘whose lives exist as only minor, almost anonymous footnotes in history’s
back drawer’ (Brown, 2002). In comparison tocritics who nd historical ction
in general trivial or un-historic, she sees it in a very dierent way: ‘yes, trying
towrite the past into life will always be in some sense an impossible task, but
Ind it athrilling and even rather heroic one’ (‘Emma Donoghue and Laird Hunt
on writing historical women’, 2016). Her historical ction dees the traditional
principles of the genre developed by Walter Sco and his followers as well
as those critics who see history and ction as hostile to each other rather than
Milda Dany tė 27
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Milda Danytė (PhD, Prof. in English Philology) has been teaching at Vytautas
Magnus University since 1990. Her research covers two parallel elds,
Lithua nian imm igrant history and litera ry criticism, especia lly narrative studies.