Thursday, 14 October 2010

Fiction, family history and Defoe

Apologies for the absence of posts. I’ve been experimenting with other social media, for work and pleasure.

In my non-screen time, I’ve got back into reading fiction. This may seem a strange admission for an Eng. Lit. graduate, but over the past couple of years most of my reading has been non-fiction: history, biography, political memoirs. It used to be that H. was the non-fiction reader, and I the passionate absorber of contemporary novels, particularly if they were of southern European or Latin American provenance. But more recently, you’d have found us sitting side by side in bed, swapping quotations from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Lincoln book, or the most recent analysis of the Obama campaign, or the latest selection from Alastair Campbell’s diaries, with nary a novel between us.

But in recent weeks I’ve experienced a renewed and increasing hunger for fiction. I put this down partly to my adventures in family history. H. has tried and failed to see the appeal of genealogy – it reminds her too much of tedious family discussions of the ‘old days’ when she was a child – but I’m something of an addict. It’s not so much the construction of family trees or the dry cataloguing of births, marriages and deaths that grabs me, so much as the opportunities offered for imaginatively re-entering the past. Over the past couple of years, thanks to my ancestors, I’ve found myself mentally transported, to 18th century rural Aberdeenshire, Georgian Soho, and early Victorian Bethnal Green.

It struck me recently that this passion to enter into other times and places is rather similar to the appeal of fiction, and perhaps my historical researches have simply substituted for novel-reading in satisfying this part of me. However, history can only take you so far. At a certain point, you find yourself wanting to enter the imaginative worlds of those you are researching, and this is where fiction comes back in. For example, the pursuit of my forebears through the streets and alleys of London in the first half of the 19th century has left me with a desire to re-read Dickens.

So, as I say, I’ve started to read fiction again. Since (for now) it’s the 18th century that fascinates me above all, and since my literary studies left a huge gap in my knowledge of poetry and fiction between the 17th and 19th centuries (thank you, Dr. Leavis), I’ve begun there. My starting-point has been Defoe – partly because the London Dissenting milieu that he inhabited fascinates me, for family and other reasons, and partly because I’ve never actually read him properly. I’ve just finished re-reading Robinson Crusoe. I say ‘re-reading’, but I think I only ever read a cut-down children’s edition before, supplemented by the legendary ‘60s television series, whose haunting theme has been running through my head while I’ve been reading.

For nostalgics of a certain age, here's that theme tune and a short extract from the programme. Imagine it's 1965, and you've just come in from school:

It’s been fascinating to read one of the earliest English novels and to see how different the author’s concerns were from those of later writers. There's no build-up to dramatic events, they just happen out of the blue, and Defoe seems entirely uninterested in elements of the story that would absorb us – such as Crusoe’s feelings on re-entering civilisation, or Friday’s adaptation to European society. And whereas modern readers hope and anticipate that the story will culminate in a dramatic rescue (rather like our expectations surrounding the narrative of the Chilean miners this week), Defoe treats this event in a matter-of-fact way and allows the novel to tail off into an anti-climactic ‘further adventures’ episode. Plus, I don’t remember the casual racism, acquiescence in slavery and advocacy of European imperialism from the children’s edition or TV series….

I’ve now moved on to Moll Flanders, and plan to work my way forward in time, plugging the gaps in the leaky vessel of my literary knowledge until I reach the more familiar territory of the 19th century. I might get to Dickens in time for Christmas...


Minnie said...

Bravo, Martin! Interesting progression, from frustrating fact to imaginative reconstruction via literature. Some of my lot were also in NE Scotland (traced back to 17th cent) and doubtless best avoided, albeit marginally less sociopathic than the reivers on t'other side of maternal tree.
I recall Defoe employing the present tense a great deal: you'll be able to set me straight on that. Do try 'Journal of the Plague Year' (another work of fiction, although he was a journo after all ;-)). Hope you'll be including Fielding, Smollett & Thos Love Peacock; but look forward to the results of your further imaginative explorations wherever they lead.

Martin said...

Hello, Minnie, good to hear from you, and thanks for the recommendations. Incidentally, are you on Facebook? I've recently joined, using my real identity, which I'm happy to reveal to blogging friends if they email me. Have already 'friended' a number of people from this little corner of the blogosphere.

Minnie said...

'Fesse-book'? Er, nope; sorry, but not even for The Marginalia!
PS H of the Margins was right about the birdies ;-). But, as a visual type, could do with the odd pic here and there.

Martin said...

Re. FB: not to worry.

Re. the design: Blogger really is pretty awful when it comes to adding pics, etc. Maybe I'll migrate to Wordpress at some point (I already have 3 other blogs there - one in my own name, 2 under yet more pseudonyms...gets confusing sometimes!)

Brigada Flores Magon said...

One of the great pleasures of the earlier part of this year was putting together about a decade's genealogical research notes into a family history. It runs from 1641 to 1949 and draws on many social and industrial histories [T C Smout and Tom Devine in particular]to put the family into context [down pits for ten generations but also at sea and in foundries]. I recommend the experience.

Martin said...

Funnily enough, that's exactly what I'm trying to do this autumn. I'm starting with my dad's side of the family - origins in rural Aberdeenshire, then moving down to London and out to the East End. I've found Smout useful too, tho' I think I might leave out a lot of the historical/social context stuff at this stage and just put together the 'bare bones' of the story - for my relatives. Have an ambition to write something more publishable - using family story as lens thru which to view social, religious and political history - at later date.

I have a family history blog, which I can direct you towards if you email me at:

(I'm starting to reveal my 'real' identity - e.g. to Facebook and blogging friends - but would prefer not to broadcast it too widely just yet.)

Martin said...

Brigada - forgot to ask: do you have any plans to publish your historical research?

Brigada Flores Magon said...

No. It is purely for family consumption, to give my son an idea of where he came from. He will need the social/cultural/industrial context to make sense of it as he's London born and bred, never went beyond Hitler 'n Stalin in GCSE History etc.