The seductions of the past

Can all this pretty detail substitute for imaginative engagement with a writer's own times?
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The Independent Culture
AS WE move inexorably towards the millennium, it's odd to note that our reading matter seems to be drifting backwards. These are typical bestsellers of the Nineties: Stalingrad, by Anthony Beevor; Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, by Amanda Foreman; Aristocrats, by Stella Tillyard; and Longitude, by Dava Sobel. As these books go on and on selling, the publishers are scurrying to catch up with readers' newfound love for simple history by commissioning armfuls more of the stuff. This autumn, one of the books most confidently expected to capture the readers is Dava Sobel's new work about Galileo and his daughter.

It's not just striking that readers are turning to history rather than to thrillers or cookery books to while away their summer holidays. It's also interesting to see the kind of history they are choosing. These new bestselling historians are interestingly bland writers. None of them have much of an opinion on anything, or if they do they keep it well hidden. They are not like EP Thompson, who wanted to write history from a socialist perspective, or Sally Alexander, who wanted to write it from a feminist perspective. They are not like Camille Paglia or Michel Foucault, who mined past cultures in order to put together an argument about our times. They do not want to question received opinion, and have no ambition to change our view of the past.

And all of them have one thing in common - they present their narratives through a plethora of intimate detail about their subjects' lives: their clothes, their conversations, their ailments, their houses, their food, the times they got up and the times they ate. They pile up physical and social detail until the past becomes almost as vivid as the view out of our own windows.

In doing so they clearly feed a hunger. The readers who love these books want to know. They want solidity, not airy-fairy opinion or fancy ideas, but thickness, detail, documentation. Just as the rash of popular science books fed a hunger to ground oneself in the natural world, these books feed the hunger to ground oneself chronologically. And so the past is wrapped into bite-sized packages - almost literally. Exactly how much food did a German soldier eat on the eastern front? Exactly when did Georgiana sit down to dinner? Exactly what sweets did Galileo fancy? What drives the popularity of these books is a desire to experience the past so precisely and unambiguously that it can almost be tasted and smelled.

It's not just the popular historians who are keen to look at the past in this secure, precise way. Having read over a hundred new novels this summer as a Booker Prize judge, what has struck me over and over again is how many novelists are setting their books, wholly or partly, in the past. About a third of the novels submitted for the prize have a historical setting, ranging from Roddy Doyle's turn-of-the-century Ireland to Rose Tremain's 17th-century Denmark.

The trend is particularly clear in the work of the women writers. Fully half of the books submitted to the Booker panel by women writers are set in past times, and these include most of the strongest female writers. Julia Blackburn writes of a medieval village; Michele Roberts of a writer caught up in the French revolution; Deborah Moggach about a 17th-century Dutch painter. Others set their tales with one foot in the past and one in the present: Pat Barker's picture of modern family life is troubled by cries from the Edwardian past; while Ahdaf Soueif, in The Map of Love, tells a tale of cross-cultural love in modern Egypt that is echoed by one at the turn of the century.

That's all very nice and fine - like the historians, these writers are impressively competent at drawing detailed, well-researched pictures of their past times. The way in which they conjure up the sounds, the scents, the clothes, the food, of their chosen periods is professional and entertaining.

Read Tulip Fever, Moggach's neat tale of adulterous love in 17th-century Holland, for instance, and you are right there in the bourgeois Dutch house with the bream prepared with prunes in front of you, the blue silk dress, the gold crucifix, the chequered tiles and the white tulips flushed with pink. Read Rose Tremain's Music and Silence, and you can almost see the little room in the 17th-century Danish court for the lady in waiting, with her silver brush and comb, her bottle of orange-flower water and her neat grey dress. But can all this pretty detail substitute for the vigour of real imaginative engagement with a novelist's own times?

Historical novels can, sometimes, feel as fierce and contemporary as a novel set in the writer's present - Tolstoy, in War and Peace, showed that a novel needn't lose any force just because it's pushed back in time. But these writers are not Tolstoy, and they often seem to me to be playing safe when they retreat into another depiction of an 18th-century sea voyage or a Victorian prison. Are they substituting research, however well done and engagingly presented, for the deeper springs of fictional inspiration?

After all, sticking with the past often saves you from writing about some of the most slippery and difficult aspects of our present lives. The attraction of historical fiction today seems to be very like the attraction of straight history. It is solid, grounded in specific, sensual detail that feeds the readers' desire for certainty: this is how people dressed in the 17th century, this is the music they played, these are the pictures they looked at. Deborah Moggach goes so far as to include beautiful reproductions of Vermeer and de Hooch paintings within the pages of her novel. But is all this painstaking research in libraries and archives really a substitute for the business of looking hard at the world around you?

You can see why writers would prefer the certainties of the past for the confusion of the present. Particularly for a woman writing either fiction or non-fiction, there is a great attraction in unearthing your heroines from previous centuries. The passing of time has added lustre and grandeur to the lives of ordinary women. In retrospect, they all seem engaged in a struggle for self-determination in a grossly unjust society.

When Michele Roberts chooses to write about a female writer who has an illegitimate daughter in the 1790s, when Deborah Moggach depicts a sensual woman who leaves her husband in the 1600s, or when Ahdaf Soueif tells the story of an Englishwoman who falls in love with an Egyptian and Egyptian culture in the early 1900s, we have no hesitation in regarding these women as heroines. In making such a brave stand against the rest of society, they acquire a stature that contemporary fictional characters often lack. Next to the weedy likes of Bridget Jones, they have a courage and grandeur that can hardly be underestimated.

These stories, of women's extra-marital love, their forays into different cultures, their decisions to stand against society, could never be told honestly in previous centuries. Now that feminism and women's studies have transformed our sense of the past, these stories are flowering before our eyes. Our view of the past is hugely enriched by that. But it is a pity if, in our attraction to Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, or a fictional character chasing free love in 18th-century France, we are averting our eyes from the struggles that are still going on in women's lives.

Because there are still heroines now, even at the end of this millennium, even in the Britain of Bridget Jones and Babes in the Wood. If fiction writers aren't searching for a language with which to understand them, we will all be the losers.

Fiction and non-fiction aren't just there to give us reassurance about the past. We need our writers to search out the present too, to walk into the mazes around us, to find words and images for things that have only just begun to come into existence. If we approach the new millennium with our faces set backwards, it makes it hard to see where we are going.