A New Take on Historiographic Metafiction: Atkinson and Donoghue

Bunty chops up the blood-glazed kidney, the idea of testicles never far from her mind. She hates cooking, it’s too much like being nice to people. Here she goes again – I spend my entire life cooking, I’m a slave to housework – chained to the cooker … all those meals, day after day, and what happens to them? They get eaten, that’s what, without a word of thanks! Sometimes when Bunty’s standing at the cooker her heart starts knocking inside her chest and she feels as if the top of her head is going to come off and a cyclone is going to rip out of her brain and tear up everything around her. (Just as well she didn’t go to Kansas.) She doesn’t understand why she feels like this (Go ask Alice – see Footnote (i) again) but it’s beginning to happen now, which is why when George wanders back into the kitchen, takes another fairy cake, and announces that he has to go out and ‘see a man about a dog’ (even tapping his nose as he does so – more and more I’m beginning to feel that we’re all trapped in some dire black-and-white film here), Bunty turns a contorted, murderous face on him and lifts the knife as if she’s considering stabbing him. Is a torch being put to the great city of Atlanta?

‘I have some business to do,’ George says hurriedly, and Bunty thinks the better of things and stabs the steak instead.

Kate Atkinson Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1995)

What is Historiographic Metafiction?

The relationship between history and fiction, whereby history was assumed to report the facts about certain events and fiction was purported to deal with the imaginary and the unreal, was significantly redefined in the 20th century with the purpose of highlighting discursive principles common to both genres. The term ‘historiographic metafiction’ was coined by literary theorist Linda Hutcheon in her book The Poetics of Postmodernism and it refers to ‘those well-known and popular novels which are both intensely self-reflexive and yet paradoxically also lay claim to historical events and personages’. Such novels examine the absolute knowability of the past, contest the assumptions of the ‘realist’ novel, and, simultaneously, scrutinise and specify the ideological implications of historical representation. In other words, works of historiographic metafiction problematise the very possibility of precise historical knowledge and seek to rewrite the past in order to liberate historical figures (often women and other commonly dismissed groups) from the constraints of the recorded history and into the relative freedom of fiction. Such works cast light onto some of the more marginalised experiences and provide different views of certain events and personages, thus making their readers respond to historical material with a double awareness of both its fictionality and its foundation in the real events. Some of the popular contemporary representatives of the genre most definitely include Kate Atkinson and Emma Donoghue, who employ history in their writing as a convenient backdrop as well as a space for subversion of social norms and conventions.

The Sexual Trespasser

‘I often draw on fact to spin my fiction,’ says Donoghue in her New Yorker article on Frog Music (2014) where she explains the cultural influences and historical sources for her work. By rewriting the past Donoghue affirms that history and fiction are porous genres with very elastic boundaries. Slammerkin, The Sealed Letter, and Life Mask, all set in the 18th and 19th centuries, grapple with the past with the aim of casting light onto certain, primarily female, experiences which have been omitted from the official recorded history. Frog Music is based on an actual unsolved 19th century San Francisco murder, however with a twist. Donoghue’s tale pulls forward the two protagonists and presents them in a much sharper focus dealing with those issues that face any contemporary woman: economy, sexuality, sexual identity, and motherhood. Blanche Beunon is a former equestrienne with the Cirque d’Hiver, who had immigrated to the US with her lover Arthur, a former trapeze artist, in order to become the star attraction at a brothel with her act known as the Lively Flea. She is successful enough to own her own building in Chinatown where she rents out apartments to other immigrants like herself and earns enough to support bfullsizerender_3oth Arthur and their louche friend Ernest. Blanche is proud of her lifestyle, which, taking into consideration the period and the squalor in which most immigrants lived, is quite luxurious. However, there is something gnawing at her, tainting her American Dream, namely, her unwanted son simply named P’tit whom, in the course of the novel, she learns to accept as she embraces her role as a mother. Blanche’s life takes a different turn after she stumbles upon, or, rather, is almost run over by Jenny Bonnet, an eccentric, free-spirited, cross-dressing, frog-fisher who is the thorn in the eye of the San Francisco society because of her unconventional lifestyle. Another metafictional element in the Frog Music is the timeframe and the way Donoghue presents the story. She begins at the very end, or rather, at the place in time which had been best recorded by the 19th century historical sources. Jenny and Blanche are in a rented room, shots resound, there is shattered glass all over the place, and Jenny is dead. Henceforward, the plot leapfrogs back and forth in chronology, crisscrossed with flashbacks and possible scenarios and outcomes, exploring not only the circumstances that led to the murder but also the matters of sexual identity and 19th century feminism while Blanche tries to track down her friend’s killer. Donoghue’s resolution of the murder mystery presents the reader with an image of a society that had the ability to overlook numerous social evils, such as child abuse or even murder, but could not get over a woman who wore men’s clothes and lived a life of freedom and independence.

Three Generations of Bitter Women

Ruby Lennox, the narrator of Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum, takes the readers through the story of her own life from 1951 to 1992, however, the tale is far from a chronological realist narrative. The chapters are non-consecutive episodes and flashbacks, followed by footnotes, or rather, endnotes, stories within stories, where Ruby unearths episodes from the lives of her forebears, with neat strings that bind the work together into a complete and logical whole.  The novel’s subplot dealing with the lives of Ruby’s mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother takes the readers through these women’s lives and shows the various ways in which they had ended up trapped in marriages that were not what they had hoped they would be, the different ways in which they strove to unleash themselves from the shackles of domesticity, alas unsuccessfully, thus passing the feelings of dissatisfaction down to their own children. The central character in the novel, besides Ruby herself, is her eternally frowning mother Bunty whose experience is described as ‘Ibsenesque’ in reference to Ibsen’s Doll House, and whose domestic ordeal is placed neatly within the historical context of the mid-20th century and serves as an fullsizerender_2example of all the reasons for what we refer to as the second wave of the feminist movement. The year 1942 is described as ‘the most eventful year of Bunty’s war’ since she gave up her clerical job and, like thousands of other women, joined the war effort. Atkinson refers to the factory jobs that the women held in the 1940s and places a spotlight on the change that women had to undergo at the end of the war when, after they had been given a taste of freedom, they were forced back into their comfy, lace-trimmed prisons, which resulted in the constant feeling of anxiety and yearning for something more than a washing machine or another baby. Towards the end of the novel, in Footnote (xi) titled ‘The Wrong Life’, Atkinson pushes further back into the past, to another war and recounts how Ruby’s great-grandmother Alice had taken up a lover, abandoned her children, and escaped to Europe in the early 1900s, only to be tormented by guilt and constant desire to find her children again. Just when the thought of returning to England and abandoning Monsieur Armand got sway over her, on the morning of her 47th birthday, Gavrilo Princip shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo and sparked the First World War. Thus, history got in the way of Alice’s redemption and reunion with her lost children, and who knows how many Alices were there, frolicking around France, weighed down by past regrets whose stories are yet to reach us.

‘After first death, there is no other’ (Dylan Thomas)

World wars play a major role in another Atkinson’s work, Life After Life (2013), where the protagonist, Ursula Todd, keeps dying only to be resurrected and set on another one of the many alternate paths that her destiny might have taken. The novel begins with an event that shows an alternate course not only of Ursula’s own life but that the history of the entire world might have embarked upon. Ursula becomes Hitler’s ‘Englische Freundin’, joins him for a bite of ‘Pflaumen Streusel’, and ends up swiftly pulling her father’s old service revolver from her handbag and shooting Hitler straight at the heart just before the ‘darkness falls’ and she is reincarnated by Atkinson into another existence that does not steer history in a completely different direction. Ursula experiences several deaths and resurrections in her childhood. She dies in birth, drowns, contracts influenza, and even falls off a roof. Later on, she commits suicide, gets murdered, dies during the German bombing of London in the Second World War, dies in Berlin, and so on, but each time she gets resurrected her story is subjected to revision, her life is prolonged and she trudges on only to meet death under some other circumstances. The novel is brimming with quick-paced shifts in chronology; certain events and people remain constant, whereas the others are just variables that change with every new incarnation. Here Atkinson shows the readers a glimpse of the strings pulled by the novelist, the commonly self-obliterated puppet master, making them acutely conscious of an author’s power and the ways in which creative thoughts run and the decisions that need to be made on every page. She sharpens the readers’ awareness of history as just another story that can be tweaked and subjected to changes, and who is to prove that the recorded choices are singular and final. Atkinson’s time is a flow, an unending, intrinsic arabesque, with no exact beginning and no exact end. Everything is interrelated, smoothly woven into the overall plot that constitutes life itself.

© 2016 Erna G. – All Rights Reserved

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