Learning how to deal with history -- from three women writers

November 19 2017

The human propensity to go full tilt at windmills, a la Don Quixote, is not limited by gender -- as anyone seeing Indian news channels focusing on a forthcoming film can attest. Among other grievances, a section of women protesters deemed "Padmavati" an attack on royalty (in republican India, no less), underlining how many of us can do much with history -- except learn from it. Even when there are some worthwhile woman guides.


The field of letters is one where, for the past century-and-a-half, there has been more equality than in the real world. Mystery, horror, thrillers, history, travelogues -- there has been scarcely any sphere or genre where women writers have not left their mark. Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie, J.K. Rowling et al are not exceptions but just the tip of a vast iceberg.


And from this gigantic but hidden edifice, let us acquaint ourselves with three magnificent woman writers of the past century. All were well-regarded in their own day though not as much now, given the shortness of human memory and the deluge of works, but despite their varied styles and issues dealt with, offer valuable lessons to deal with history -- in fact and fiction.


Let us begin with fiction first. "Daughter of Time" (1951), the most famous work of Scottish author Josephine Tey, deals with a very controversial issue of English history.


Tey was physical training teacher-turned-novelist Elizabeth MacKintosh (1896-1952), who began writing mysteries in the mid-1920s, taking the name of her great-great-grandmother. Another of those genteel but intricately-plotted mysteries the British do so well, the series, featuring Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, amounted to half a dozen books, with the final one discovered and published posthumously. Of the five published during her lifetime, the first four dealt with the period in which they came out (c.1929-51), but "The Daughter of Time" focused on a historical crime -- the fate of the "Princes in the Tower".


It has Grant, confined to a hospital bed with a broken leg and already bored, when a visitor suggests a diversion to occupy his mind, giving him pictures of some historical figures and asking him to determine if they were guilty of the offences held against them. Among them is the much-maligned King Richard III (r.1483-85), who is accused of murdering his nephews to succeed to the throne after his brother. However, Grant has a gut feeling that says otherwise, and with the help of an American researcher who provides him historical documents, using his detective skills, and testing his theories on attending doctors, nurses and other visitors, he builds a strong case why the unfortunate king -- whose remains were only found recently -- was blamed.


But Tey's objective is not to exculpate a medieval monarch but rather show how history is constructed, and certain versions of events are believed to be the truth, without any evidence and/or any logical plausibility, with our present-day protagonist also coming to understand how great myths or urban legends -- that so many of us believe -- prevail.


A more contemporary focus is taken by fellow Scotswoman Helen Clark MacInnes (1907-1985), who started out as a librarian but became the "Queen of Spy Writers, with 21 novels between 1941 and 1984, initially set in World War II before switching to the Cold War.


MacInnes not only had her first two books getting filmed within a year of their publication even as WWII raged, but the second -- "Assignment in Brittany" (1942) -- also became recommended reading for spies/secret agents. About a British officer inserted into Nazi-occupied France to obtain some vital information by impersonating an influential local, it is marked by her meticulous research, evocative descriptions -- and also different treatment. Though not entirely avoiding stereotypes (brave British/cruel Germans), it takes a more nuanced view of human motivations in wartime and the perils of judging someone on only one pre-conceived notion.


And finally, in non-fiction, there is journalist, author and literary critic Dame Cicely Isabel Fairfield (1892-1983), or Rebecca West as she is better known. A fierce opponent of any form of totalitarianism, including that of "majority" opinion, which, she found, was only too ready to turn on minorities and individuals on the flimsiest of evidence and mass frenzy, West wrote a host of novels, works of literary criticism and reportage -- of which we must single one.


Combining reportage, travelogue and shrewd political analysis, her massive (nearly 1,200 pages) "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon" (1941) is unsurpassed as a portrait of Yugoslavia and the various strands -- Serbs, Croats, Bosnians -- that made up the fractious country. Foreseeing both the extreme ethnic violence there during the coming world war and as well as in the 1990s, it is also universally timeless as a warning of how an exclusivist, rabidly nationalist and unconscionably violent frenzy can be whipped up, sustained and unleashed to wreak havoc on common people.


There are many more lessons and teachers but only if we are ready to accept there is nothing exceptional about our history, which is just another version of the human experience and our path already travelled -- with danger signs posted.


(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)


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