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All Writers Are Border Walkers: Emma Donoghue Between History and Fiction in Astray and The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits



Historical fiction 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 Scott in the early 19th century. Later in that same century, however, the value of historical fiction as such was challenged by historians who were eager to make history a science, 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. A devaluation of historical fiction took place which is still felt today. In the context of this opposition of history and fiction, Emma Donoghue's recent historical fiction offers a fresh approach to the genre. The aim of this article, after reviewing the issue of its relationship to history, is to analyze Donoghue's innovative combination of fiction and the archive in two collections of short historical fiction, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits (2002) and Astray (2012). Donoghue's own reflections on her work are applied in this analysis, as well as the theoretical approach to this kind of fiction by Lubomir Dolezel.
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 tomake history ascience; 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. Adevaluation of historical ction took place which is still felt today. In
thecontext of this opposition of history and ction, Emma Donoghue’s recent
historical ction oers a fresh approach to the genre. e aim of this article,
aer reviewing theissue of its relationship to history, is toanalyze 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 reections on her work are applied in this analysis, as
well as thetheoretical approach tothis 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 toCanada tojoin 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 adierent
kind of border, that between theelds of history and literature, which Donoghue
crosses in amanner very much her own. Internationally she is celebrated for Room
(Donoghue, 2010), apsychological novel set in thepresent, but she is also well-
known for historical ction that uses agreat deal of research toprovide adetailed
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
toRabbits (20 0 2) and Astray (2012).
Milda Danytė
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 thegenre. is analysis begins by looking at historical ction and
the problematic relationship between the historic and the ctional, referring
totherecent boom in historical ction as well as tothehostility which thegenre
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 toRabbits (2 0 02) and Astray (2012). ese are unusual literary works
that merit more critical aention than they have so far received.
Although there are single works that can be given this label earlier, literary history
tends to consider Sir Walter Sco (1771–1832) as thefounder 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 thenational past that are held
tobe especially meaningful, whether they are defeats or triumphs. Sco’s success
came in part from theway in which he deviates from thenorms for non-ctional
historical writing by giving themajor roles in his narratives toctional characters.
As critics explain, his narrative formula is to place an invented character, most
oen avery 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).
Aer 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 toapproach thenational 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 aradical 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 signicance: some are minor gures in historical
events, while others are extremely obscure and even marginal, ‘wrien o’, as she
explains in the foreword toe Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits, ‘as cripples,
children, half-breeds, freaks and nobodies’ (Donoghue, 2002: ix). For example,
in this collection e Fox on the Line does not direct her readers’ aention
toFrances Power Cobbe, a 19th century activist in animal rights, but toamuch
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
apowerful witch in 14th century Ireland and toher faithful servant who was burnt
at thestake, but about whom nothing beyond her existence is really known.
Furthermore, Donoghue uses atwo-part structure that emphasizes how much
thetext is her own creation, bringing ction and thearchive 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
apostscript (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, oen on thesame page, as thenal sentences of thectional story.
Where most authors of historical ction are concerned not tobreak theillusion
of reality by such direct archival references, Donoghue feels there is much tobe
gained in confronting history and ction. She calls thelong 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 thesame muddy work of digging up thepast’ (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 thescholarship of others and thelives of thedead’ (Crown,
2012). In her unabashed readiness to bring together two ways of representing
thepast, academic history and ction, Donoghue is very unusual in thecurrent
controversy about the relationship between the historical novel and works of
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 aracted large audiences. In
the English-speaking market, for example, the British are prolic producers of
both print ction and lmed historical narratives like theBBC 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 theEnglish Renaissance and 19th-century
imperial history are linked to the widespread feeling known as ‘declinism’,
the diculties the British have today in accepting the way their country has
lost status and power since themid-20th century: ‘Generally perceived as having
Milda Dany tė 19
relinquished its position as aglobal and economic power, thecountry reconsiders
regretfully its diminished place in the world’ (Gauthier, 2006: 3). Gauthier
treats such ctionalized history as adesire tocompensate for national decline by
regaining ‘contact with thecountry’s glorious past’ (ibid.: 4).
It might be expected that the literary world would welcome any new
trend that draws thepublic to reading novels, yet not all critics are happy with
therise in popularity of historical ction. Most oen 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
aHistorical Novel Also Be Serious Literature?’, theAmerican writer Alexander
Chee admits that he was made tofeel he had broken a‘literary taboo’ by moving
from ction set in the present time to historical novels (Chee, 2016). esame
is said in aninterview, though in sharper terms, by awell-established historical
novelist, Philippa Gregory: ‘I think it’s really funny how thegenre is [] despised
by critics’; she enjoys pointing out that now that it has become so very popular,
those who earlier labelled it as wrien by ‘rather stupid women writers’ nd
themselves without much tosay (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 lile imagination and others condemning novelists for interpreting
thepast too imaginatively (ibid.).
Examples of this elitist approach tothegenre of historical ction can be found
even in sources that one would expect tomaintain aneutral position like on-line
Encyclopaedia Britannica articles. One of these states atly that many historical
novels ‘are wrien 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 dierent sub-genres of thenovel were shaken when thevery prestigious
Booker Prize went toHilary Mantel for historical novels in both 2009 and 2012.
Mantel’s career shows how views are changing, for in 1979 she was unable toget
her rst historical novel published and had toturn towriting realistic ction set
in thecontemporary period. ere was still unease in 2009 when Mantel’s Wolf
Hall took theBooker 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 thechair of theBooker Prize jury was defensive about its decision, and
not only because Mantel was therst British author towin theBooker 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 thedecision had not been unanimous, suggesting
that discomfort with ranking ahistorical novel as equal tothose seen as having
greater literary merit has not disappeared (Singh, 2012).
In abroader context, thedenigration of thegenre of historical ction can be
linked to anon-going aempt by historians to present thewriting of history as
asocial science that is based on strictly factual sources. Trying toraise thestatus
of history to a science is considered to have begun in the 19th century with
thedemands for a clearly documented presentation of thepast 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 wrien (Boldt, 2014).
For atime, this aempt togive history ahigher intellectual status than literature
was successful, but by thelater 20th century, specialists in rhetoric and narrative
theory had turned their aention tonon-ction texts and undermined theclaim
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 toachieve thestatus of ascience; he notes that
historians tend touse narrative as astructuring device and so encounter thesame
problems as historical novelists, ‘the problem of thetoo much and not enough’
and of ‘what toleave out in their treatment of real events and processes in thepast’
(White, 2005). Richard Slotkin focuses on the same problem, that of making
a choice from available and oen conicting evidence: ‘What we call ‘history
is [] astory we choose totell about things [] facts must be selected and []
made toresolve some sort of question which can only be asked subjectively and
from aposition of hindsight’ (Slotkin, 2005). He argues that ‘all history writing
requires active or imaginary representation of thepast’, implying that there is
no fundamental dierence between thework of historians and that of novelists
(ibid.). As ahistorian himself, Slotkin deals with theproblems raised by thekind
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 toestablish thefacts of apast event tothemotives that made people act as
they did, ‘information becomes even more slippery’ (ibid.). He sees thedierence
between history and literature as merely ‘a dierence of genre’ which predisposes
readers toadopt dierent approaches towhat 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 conict between history and ction,
Carroll concludes that these two elds ‘are still struggling toclarify anumber of
core issues’, in part because they have not only dierences but also similarities
(Carroll, 2011). ‘Who owns the past?’ asks another specialist, Ludmilla
Jordanova, raising asensitive issue especially where thenational past is concerned
(Jordanova, 2006: 143). Both historians and writers of historical novels act like
owners of thepast, shaping their texts toconvince readers that their interpretation
is correct.
Milda Dany tė 21
What is interesting about Emma Donoghue’s aitude toher 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 awriter of ction and
ahistorian, not feeling any contradiction between thetwo roles. As theformer,
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 toinclude her sources in apostscript: ‘But I had toput 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 toenjoy themovement between thetwo elds.
One of themost useful approaches totheanalysis 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 dierent
relationships totheactual world of thepast’ (Doležel, 2010: 84). One domain
is that of elements in thenarrative like characters, events, seings and cultural
contexts ‘that do not have counterparts in theactual 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 tochange into thectional possible’, a‘general transformation’
(Doležel, 2010: 85). In this way, he explains that ‘in therealm of ction, historical
fact is aconstruct’, which makes it easy for writers tocombine history and ction
(ibid.: 87). Finally, he asserts that it is theright of thecreator 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
theworld under construction’ (ibid.:85) In this way writers of historical ction,
in Doležel’s terms, produce aconfrontation between history and ction within
asingle text.
What is happening in Donoghue’s short historical narratives becomes clearer
when Doležel’s theory is applied toher stories. Agood example is eLast Rabbit,
thetext that opens and gives atitle totherst collection, eWoman Who Gave
Birth to Rabbits. is begins with therst-person narrator, Mary To, deciding
toplay a joke on her husband by pretending to give birth to arabbit: ‘We were
at home in Godalming, though some call it Godlyman, and I can’t tell which is
right, I say it thesame way my mother said it. I was pregnant again, and cuing
up arabbit for our dinner, I don’t know what sort of whim took hold of me togive
ascare tomy husband’ (Donoghue, 2002: 1). Encouraged by others, she becomes
involved in ascheme tomake money from agullible public by apparently giving
birth torabbits. estory ends when she realizes she will have toadmit thetruth
toaninvestigator: ‘So I turned and walked back totheroom where Sir Richard
was waiting for my story’ (ibid.:13).
en comes thepostscript, which gives thehistorical 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 toname ve of them. epostscript concludes with
what is known about Mary’s life aer she spent afew months in jail for thehoax:
‘Back in Godalming with her husband, Mary had another baby in 1728 [] and
was occasionally shown o as anovelty at local dinners [] she lived totheage
of sixty’ (ibid.). Stylistically, the ctional domain is narrated in Mary’s relaxed
and colloquial style, while thehistorical domain has amore academic style with
anabundance of dates and thespecic titles of thepamphlets and poems which
are Donoghue’s sources.
According toDoležel’s distinction, therst part, thestory, combines ctional
and ctionalizing entities: in one sense, Mary To is a ‘ctionalizing entity
with a real counterpart in 18th-century English history, while thecharacter who
reects on what happens, along with thewhole of theopening scene are ‘ctional
entities’ invented by thewriter. epostscript emphasizes Mary To’s historical
status, with the information about her later life making her historicity credible.
Yet most of thestory must be ctional, as very lile precise information about
To’s actions, let alone her feelings, has survived, and even this, as Donoghue
states, is ‘contradictory’ (ibid.).
One of the features of her narratives that heightens the apparent reality of her
characters is theabrupt 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 thedistant past. In thesecond collection, Astray, Donoghue
does precede each story with anidentication 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 theshock of hearing adistinctive voice that in its diction and cadences is not
that of the21st century. Readers have tomake an eort toidentify thehistorical
period through occasional brief references, which is more dicult because
the stories in each collection are not given in any kind of chronological order.
Nevertheless, they are encouraged to make this eort by Donoghue’s skill in
beginning her stories in dramatic ways. One reviewer comments on thestartling
energy these obscure gures demonstrate, emphasizing how the‘people of these
tales come hurtling o thepage from thedeep past with theemotional force of
thenewly 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 theWar there’s two women in thehouse but
last year Marse done took them toauction. Now’s just me, thecook and all-round
boy. My name Nigger Brown, I don’t got no other, I was born here’ (Donoghue,
2012: 65). eyoung African American addresses thereaders abruptly as though
they already understand his situation and thehistorical context from which he
speaks. Readers can pick up clues, combining references to‘the War’, people sold
at auction and thecasual 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 agirl whose mother was anAfrican slave made mist-
ress toa British aristocrat, the speech paerns are completely dierent because
she has been brought up in theupper class. Nevertheless, theeect of theopening
sentences is also surprisingly direct: ‘I was in theOrangery at Kenwood that June
morning, picking plums and grapes. I knew nothing. My name was Dido Bell’
(Donoghue, 2002: 170). esecond and third very short sentences sound taut
with emotion: Dido is describing theday that she comes toabrutal understanding
of her true status in aracist society.
In the postscripts to these stories, Donoghue explains that ‘Nigger Brown’,
as he is called, survived historical oblivion only as asingle entry in anewspaper
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
toshow that she was loved and provided for, but admits that everything else in her
story is aseries of probabilities, not hard facts: she was probably theyoung black
woman painted by Johan Zoany in aremarkable portrait of theperiod, allegedly
showing her with her white-skinned cousin; she was probably the reason that
her great-uncle, in afamous legal judgement, took astep 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 asingle sentence they spoke. ere is Minnie
Hall in Daddy’s Girl, whose father, apillar of theDemocratic Party in New York
City, died in 1901, and was then discovered to have been a woman. Minnie
refuses toacknowledge his biological condition in public, snapping at thejudge,
‘I will never say she’ (Donoghue, 2012: 239). In eNecessity of Burning in 1381,
when thePeasants’ Revolt saw hundreds of hand-wrien manuscripts set ablaze
in the streets of Cambridge, Margery Starre, further identied only as an ‘old
woman’, enthusiastically pitched volumes into theames, shouting: ‘Away with
the learning of theclerics, 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 theconcept of friendship between men and women in
the18th century. is work was part of anew movement tomake women acentral
subject in historical research, something that made her feel it was legitimate togo
beyond monarchs and politicians: ‘Looking through history for thewomen also
led totheOther: theslave, thewitch, thewhore, thefreak, thepoor, thecriminal,
the victim, thedisenfranchised, the child, the migrant’ (Palko, 2017). She also
links her interest in themarginal through her uncomfortable awakening to her
homosexuality: ‘I grew up in Dublin [] Prey much everyone I knew was
white, had two Irish parents, and was apracticing Catholic. I had no objection
at all to this until, at about fourteen, I realized I was alesbian, and therefore, in
my society’s terms, afreak’ (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 toaccept being socially abnormal’ (ibid.: 401). She
refers in more than one interview tothe determining nature of this experience.
It was this ‘moment of alienation’ that she feels ‘turned me into a writer’: ‘I’ve
remained fascinated by thethings 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 theclash between individual and community, norm
and ‘other’– has marked many of my published works’ (Fantaccini and Grassi,
2011: 400). en, in acharacteristically ironic comment, she concludes: ‘to know
yourself tobe theOther 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 dierence. She is interested in same-sex unions, ctionalizing some that may or
may not have been consciously homosexual. For example, in therst collection,
eWoman Who Gave Birth toRabbits, there are Mary Lloyd and Frances Power
Cobbe, trying to pass a law against animal vivisection in Victorian England
(e Fox on theLine), while in Astray readers encounter theAmericans 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 thenorms
of their society. ere are agreat variety of eccentric gures from thepast in her
stories, like Elspeth Buchan who as thecharismatic ‘Friend Mother’ led asuicidal
religious sect in Scotland in thelate 18th century (Revelations in eWoman Who
Gave Birth toRabbits) and Mollie Sanger in eLong Way Home in Astray) who,
dressed in men’s clothing, successfully worked for many years as aprospector in
mid-19th century Arizona.
In other cases, she is aracted 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 theknown facts, and could be considered history
as well as ction, especially as my source notes are included, toinsist on thereality
of thestories’ (Swilley, 2004). In her rst collection she sensitively develops what
ablind poet’s childhood must have been like in Night Vision; in thesecond, her
story eGi supplements leers that have survived about 19th-century American
adoptions, depicting aman who refuses togive up thechild he and his wife had
adopted despite later claims by thebirth mother.
Milda Dany tė 25
Donoghue’s postscripts also vary and do more than provide alist of sources.
Historical novelists oen 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; thereaders have identied with the main
characters and inevitably want toknow 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‘Coage Ladies’ directing aempts tosave sailors drowning
on their shore. One may believe that their lives in theearly 19th century would have
been very limited by gender norms, especially given that one of them, Anna, can
move about only in awheelchair. It is refreshing tond out in thepostscript that
Anna was anoted Anglo-Saxon scholar and, as thelast sentence lists triumphantly,
the two ‘acted as their relative Fowell Buxton’s secretaries in his long campaign
toend theslave trade, founded aschool, travelled toRome and Athens, and were
nally buried together in theseaside graveyard at Overstrand’ (Donoghue, 2002:
105). Another variety of story leads readers tosympathize with those who broke
laws; in such cases, they may be relieved in reading postscript that, for example,
Marger y Starre in eNecessity of Burning, who participated in thePeasants’ Revolt
of 1381 at least does not gure in thelists that Donoghue’s research turned up of
those imprisoned or executed (Donoghue, 2002: 199). Similarly, the postscript
toLast Supper at Brown’s reassures readers that theAfrican American slave and his
white mistress who murder her husband seem tohave escaped punishment. Aer
his dramatic escape from being re-sold by his master, any possible romance seems
tohave ended: he apparently took up with a Mexican woman, while she married
aman with whom she ‘ran aboardinghouse, then worked mining claims and set up
agoat ranch’, rather amundane conclusion totheir story (Donoghue, 2012: 72).
However, among so many sympathetic and even celebratory accounts of
those who deviated from social norms, the postscript toeLong Way Home in
Astray shows that society could be unexpectedly harsh on rebels against norms
like theswaggering prospector Mollie. Aer depicting her forcing aman who has
abandoned his family to return to them, in thehistorical postscript Donoghue
decides this story is possibly true but adds that three years later ‘she was therst
woman in Arizona commied for insanity, which probably translates as cross-
dressing, promiscuity and alcoholism’. Aer twelve years in an asylum Mollie
escaped but was tracked down trying to survive in thedesert ‘on one bole of
water and afew crackers’; she spent her remaining years back in theinsane asylum
(ibid.:122). In this way contemporary readers, who have become accustomed
by previous stories in thecollections about strong women successfully breaking
norms, are brought up suddenly and even brutally with the reality of women’s
unequal status in anearlier historical period.
Only in one case, How aLady Dies in eWoman Who Gave Birth toRabbits
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
themiddle-aged wife of atheatre director, but she leaves husband and children
temporarily totake her beloved friend Elizabeth, younger, wealthier and dying of
tuberculosis, for treatment toBath. Elizabeth toys with theidea that death will
be welcome but is shocked when she coughs up blood and determines to make
themost of her remaining days. ectional story ends at this point in her life, but
thepostscript, aer referring tohistorical sources, ends with anadditional detail
about thepair of women: ‘On their return from Bath toLondon, Elizabeth died
in Frances’s arms’ (Donoghue, 2002: 162). esentence 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 thepresent context of conicting opinions about thevalue of historical ction
and its relationship with history as an academic discipline, Emma Donoghue’s
declarations on thesubject are refreshingly condent. She feels no guilt about her
use of thehistoric past. ‘To me all of history is akind of warehouse of stories for
me toburgle. I don’t feel I should be restricted tomy own era,’ she states in one
interview (Richards, 2008). Nor does she apologize for her manipulations of past
events or theway she plays with her readers’ feelings. She sees herself as rescuing
theminor and themarginal for anew 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 thelimits that people’s sex, race, class or
physical disabilities set on their lives. Her historical ction does not erase pain
or reverse thedefeats which they experienced in thepast. However, it does give
them akind of power over thepast: ‘at’s asecond life you’re granting along-
dead person in ction: achance toshow 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 thedominant tradition
in thewriting of both history and historical ction, theanalysis and celebration
of major events and gures from thenational past. She does not deny thevalue
of those texts that take amore 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 tocritics who nd historical ction
in general trivial or un-historic, she sees it in a very dierent way: ‘yes, trying
towrite the past into life will always be in some sense an impossible task, but
Ind it athrilling and even rather heroic one’ (‘Emma Donoghue and Laird Hunt
on writing historical women’, 2016). Her historical ction dees 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
neighbouring genres.
Milda Dany tė 27
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and Aer: Visions and Revisions (pp.54–64). Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars
Doležel, L. (2010) Possible Worlds of Fiction and History: e Postmodern Stage.
Baltimore: eJohns Hopkins University Press.
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Milda Dany (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.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
This interview/article expands on Emma Donoghue’s role in contemporary Irish culture. Introducing Donoghue as novelist, playwright, and cultural historian is a critical biography which, through the metaphor of travelling along borderlands covers over twenty years of Donoghue’s background, life, and works.
Full-text available
What is history? This question has been asked for centuries and there is still no single accepted answer. Many different opinions exist, with different methodologies and theories providing different answers. This article aims to rethink the idea of history as it was known to the German historian Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886) and reflect whether it is still relevant today. For a number of years, I have examined the concept of objectivity attributed to Ranke by looking at his private life and how it influenced his historical writing. In previous studies, scholars have examined Ranke's works, his use of language and how he dealt with specific areas of history. By examining his private life, I hope to not only provide an understanding of Ranke as an individual, but also shed new light on him as a scholar. Due to the fact that his wife was from Ireland, I have briefly examined his History of England and contrasted his treatment of Irish history with his account of English history. It shows that Ranke's Irish history was written from a pro-Catholic viewpoint, which is the opposite of his usual pro-Protestant outlook. It also shows that Ranke, like many other historians, did not always follow his strict self-set goal in his historical narrative. In this article, I want to argue that despite a number of problems that have been acknowledged with Ranke's understanding of the ontology of history, modern historians should still be interested in Ranke as a historian: So, why should modern historians ever contemplate reading Ranke for instruction on what they do today? Is he still central to historical thinking and practice? In this essay, I shall place this discussion within the larger debates on the nature of history as it is understood today.
With Possible Worlds of Fiction and History, Lubomír Doležel reexamines the claim - made first by Roland Barthes and then popularized by Hayden White - that "there is no fundamental distinction between fiction and history." Doležel rejects this assertion and demonstrates how literary and discourse theory can help the historian to restate the difference between fiction and history. He challenges scholars to reassess the postmodern viewpoint by reintroducing the idea of possible worlds. Possible-worlds semantics reveals that possible worlds of fiction and possible worlds of history differ in their origins, cultural functions, and structural and semantic features. Doležel's book is the first systematic application of this idea to the theory and philosophy of history. Possible Worlds of Fiction and History is the crowning work of one of literary theory's most engaged thinkers. © 2010 by The Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.
The argument most frequently made on behalf of historical fiction is that, if responsibly done, it can stimulate interest in the study of history. But I'd like to offer a stronger argument, based on my experience working in both forms: if properly understood, the writing of historical fiction can be a valuable adjunct to the work of historians in their discipline. A novel can be as accurate as a history in telling what happened, when, and how. It can, and should, be based on careful research and rigorous analysis of evidence. But the distinction and advantage of the fictional form lies in the way it uses evidence and represents conclusions. The novel tests historical hypotheses by a kind of thought-experiment: assume that events are driven by the conditions and forces you believe to be most significant—what sort of history, what kind of human experience, then results? For the thought-experiment to work, the fiction writer must treat a theory which may be true as if it was certainly true, without quibble or qualification; and credibly represent a material world in which that theory appears to work. We should not suppose that thought-experiments, however elegant, make empirical tests unnecessary. But as the history of modern physics shows, without such experiments, the forward movement of knowledge becomes slower and more difficult. Moreover, because the novel imaginatively recovers the indeterminacy of a past time, the form allows writer and reader to explore those alternative possibilities for belief, action, and political change, unrealized by history, which existed in the past. In so doing, the novelist may restore, as imaginable possibilities, the ideas, movements, and values defeated or discarded in the struggles that produced the modern state.
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