Historical fiction has something of a reputation for sugar-coating the past – brushing over the nasty, brutish and short nature of life in favour of fancy costumes, antiquated speech and cosy nostalgia. In particular, the accurate history of the British Empire and what it did – rather than how it made and still makes some people feel (read: rampant pining for a ‘greater age’) – has been underrepresented, to put it mildly. But this is becoming increasingly untrue, and unfair, as an accusation – and this point is proved admirably in the latest novels by Jane Harris and Andrew Miller.
Both books explore different aspects of colonial history. Harris’ third book, Sugar Money, takes places on Grenada and Martinique, and follows a mission fraught with danger: to smuggle 42 slaves out of British hands and back onto French territory. Miller, in what is now his eighth novel, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, focuses on the Napoleonic Wars, and the brutality of soldering and the business of war, with an additional exploration of the Outer Hebrides. The settings for each book paint the past as a real place, rather than a theme park to be dropped in and out of at leisure – a place of flowing blood, prone flesh and human misery.
Both writers give a short reading from their respective works. Harris starts at the beginning, introducing us to her protagonist, Lucien, a mixed-race (termed mulatto at the time) teenager living on Martinique, entrusted with a highly dangerous (and unrefusable) task by his master, Father Cléophas. The only awkwardness stems from her decision to voice the character in an ‘accurate’ accent, about which the less said the better. Miller starts at around a third of the way through his work instead, exploring the effects of possible PTSD on his central character, Captain John Lacroix, as he slowly distances himself from his violent past and gets to grips with life at sea. The world painted here is vivid and flickers into life before our eyes, as Miller draws us in to the cramped ship quarters, the etiquette of dining across ranks, and the burying of a deep trauma.
Harris and Miller are both clear and concise in their approaches to their writing, (which are incidentally, very different, especially when it comes to authorial voice and writing in first or third person), and offer excellent responses to audience questions, especially on violence – the nature of current violence in society, how historical violence differs (if indeed it does) and the reality of being depressed/sickened by their own research – Harris mentions particular incidents at the end of her book (which she doesn’t spoil) as being especially upsetting. The only blot (and it is slight) on the event is the hosting by Jackie McGlone – perfectly acceptable, but it adds little to the proceedings, and she often sounds uncertain of the works she is discussing. It would be better to just watch both authors in discussion with each other; bouncing ideas of the walls and the audience, comparing prose styles, and dragging historical fiction very firmly into the 21st Century.