Thrillers and historical fiction have a lot in common, says novelist Sarah Dunant — from the “compulsive” narrative energy that drives them, to the work of the writer/detective who pieces together the elements of the story.
Dunant, whose early work includes her novels featuring the female P.I. Hannah Wolfe and the postmodern mystery Mapping the Edge, first turned her attention to the landscape of Renaissance Italy with her novel The Birth of Venus in 2004. Set in Florence, The Birth of Venus recounts the story of 16-year-old Alessandra Cecchi, and explores the contradictions of a culture pulled between what Dunant terms the “exploding modernity” of the fifteenth century and the reactionary influences that threatened it. Dunant’s next novel, In the Company of the Courtesan, shifts focus to the life of an elite prostitute (or “honest courtesan”), and depicts the simmering tensions of a confined community of women. Sacred Hearts (2009), the most experimental novel of the trio, is set in a Benedictine convent and reflects the simmering tensions of an enclosed female community in seventeenth-century Ferrara. Together, the three novels constitute a trilogy that seeks to convey the range of experience of early modern women through a fictive re-evocation grounded in extensive historical preparation.
Dunant’s latest novel, Blood and Beauty, came out in the U.S. last week. It takes her back to Italy, this time to recount the story of the notorious Borgia family through the voices of Lucrezia, Cesare, and Alessandro Borgia (who became Pope Alexander VI). Dunant is clearly invigorated by the challenge of revisiting the powerful and much-maligned family, which she sees as the victim of the “veiled racism” of anti-Spanish sentiment. In all her “Italian” novels, Dunant’s interest lies in narrating the experience of marginalized characters, particularly women, at key moments of historical tension and conflict.
Dunant spoke with me recently about her new novel and her thoughts on writing historical fiction. Our conversation touched on the differing — but in many respects complementary — roles of historians and novelists, the place of feminism within the historical novel, the perils of present-ism in writing historical fiction, and the popularity of historical fiction today (what Dunant calls the Hilary Mantel “phenomenon”). Our interview was conducted over Skype; Dunant spoke from her home in London.
Meredith K. Ray: You wrote detective fiction and suspense before turning your eye to Renaissance Italy. How did that shift come about for you?
Sarah Dunant: Well, I was a very passionate young historian. [As a teenager] I read a huge amount of historical fiction. It was really my introduction to history. And it was interesting — when I finally ended up at Cambridge doing a degree, it was very clear to me that quite a lot of the boys came in to history through politics and war and quite a lot of the women came in through historical novels. There was something about the imaginative creation of the past that historical novels allowed that was very inviting for women. Partly because history was so much closed to them . . . the imaginative space of a novel was a way in.
I was wanting to become a writer but I think that the process of doing a three year degree in academic history at Cambridge rather brought home to me very powerfully that in order to write historical fiction really well, this was a really big deal, because it was not just romantic stories of Mary and Elizabeth that had pulled me in. It was an integration of political history, religious history, cultural history, social history. That was really very intimidating if you were coming out as a graduate.
I worked for a long time at the BBC as a journalist, a cultural journalist working in theater, and television, books. It was through them that I started to write. I chose the thriller form — which is interesting looking back, of course, because in the same way that you can use the historical novel to comment in some ways on the contemporary world, you can also use the thriller to talk about issues. And what both of them have in common, if they’re really well done, is a kind of compulsive narrative.
What’s interesting about the history of detective fiction . . . is that for quite a long time, certainly in the British form, it was quite a traditional force. You could argue with people like P.D. James that it still is: it’s about cracking open the status quo, and then putting it back together again. I think in a sense what’s so interesting about feminism is that it’s injected a million different ways into the culture. It’s injected in and you see the color of it running through a million different kinds of rivers. It is very powerful within thriller writing because of female private eyes, where it is a genuine attempt to say: “Is there something about this mythic form which is male? Is there something about the kind of loner, white knight, bottle of scotch in the filing cabinet, own moral code, etcetera, that is male?” And if you invert it, do you subvert it, or do you crack it apart? I think that there was a whole 15 years of women — of which I was one — writing female private eyes in order to see what was myth and what was real; and how far you could have your cake and eat it. Subverting, but also holding on to the form.
It’s very interesting to see what writers are doing with detective fiction now — and in Italy it’s always so grim, really. There’s always this lack of any possible resolution to anything.
Well, I think because it started to reflect national concerns and national character. It was very noticeable to me when I started to write a private eye in Britain, that what in America was “sleaze” had a kind of glamour attached to it, from Chandler on, because there was such an energy in the criminal sleaze. In Britain sleaze was sleaze. It didn’t have quite the charisma attached to it.
Then I think what happened to me is that, after a while, I got constrained by the form. There are certain rules to writing thrillers and private detectives very well and substantially, the plot is dominant. Character has to serve the plot rather than totally inform it and the pace dictates everything. I became more interested in the gray rather than the black and white and the ambiguities and the impact of the interiority of character. I started to realize that the form was beginning to press against me — it was like being in an envelope. Every time I put my elbow out, I hit a corner of it.
I wrote a book called Mapping The Edge, which was a book which basically said: “somebody goes missing, what happens to them?” And then gave you two completely different versions of what happened and refused to tell you which one is true. And when I finished that book, I had a very mixed response to it. People who really liked thrillers didn’t like it because it didn’t resolve and it didn’t tell you an end or the truth; and people who in a sense were bored by thrillers loved it because of its sort of existential ambiguity. I think I realized then that I had probably come to the end of my relationship with that form. I was looking to doing something different.
So that’s when you started thinking about writing historical fiction?
Yes, and it was only when I spent some time in Florence, and was genuinely lost as to where I was going next; but I also then started to get lost in Florence, both literary and historically. And I became interested in a very simple idea, which was, “What would it have been like to be in the middle of the cauldron of the shock of the new that they must have felt when it was happening around them?” I just kept thinking “Dear God, everywhere you go in this city, it must have been vibrating!” I wondered whether or not it would be possible to write a book that would capture that sense of exploding modernity within the past.
Then of course what happened is when I went back to look at the history, I realized that there had been a quiet but persuasive revolution going on within the discipline. When I was doing history . . . people studying [gender and race] had yet to move into doing their post-graduate work and become professors and start producing the literature which was starting to fill in the missing spaces, or at least make a gesture towards the color. I really often think of [history] as a pointillist painting, which is made up of a thousand dots. It’s just bits of paint, but as you walk away, each one of them gives you more of a sense of internal life and dynamic. I really began to feel that that was true about some of the history that I’d studied: blocks of primary color, but there was stuff missing and it was very important stuff. It was like, “What was it like to be half the population?”
You’re part of a working group in London that brings together academic historians and writers of historical fiction.
We talk a lot about where we differ and where we come together. One of the ways in which we really differ is that we [novelists] are really attempting to live in the period; i.e., to create the past as if there is no future, in the moment. I have come to see that that is really, really central because the historian’s job, it seems to me, is to analyze the waves and the weather that cause change. But the fictionist’s job is to live in the middle of the storm and for you to not know (to continue the analogy) if your boat is going to sink or not. Because, it seems to me, that makes you understand the impact of history on people, as opposed to history in a grand narrative sense.
For instance, when I wrote The Birth of Venus, I didn’t really know very much about Renaissance history post-Savonarola. When I wrote In the Company of The Courtesan, I didn’t really know much about Renaissance history post-1530s in Venice. Each one pushed me a little bit further. To begin with, of course, I didn’t know if I could write The Birth of Venus. In a sense, I didn’t have a game plan, but once I finished, I had tricked myself into thinking that I could do it and I become so interested, of course, that I couldn’t stop. It was — and I’m sure this is the great pleasure of the historian, too — it was so great learning so much.
I have done the equivalent over ten or twelve years of some kind of Ph.D. now in this subject. It was never a period I read [as an undergraduate] so it was all new to me. And that’s fantastic because, of course, what do we know in Britain — Henry VII? That’s where it all starts, with the odd nod back to Richard III and some Shakespeare plays. The popular version of history doesn’t really take us easily to the fourteenth century. It’s just so exciting!
When you were writing The Birth of Venus, for example, or your other two Italian novels, did you start with the idea that you wanted to recreate a particular historical period, or did you have a character and a story in mind before starting your research?
With the Birth of Venus — and I’ve told the story before, but it’s absolutely true so it’s quite an important moment . . . When I’d been in Florence for a while, my two daughters came out to stay with me. They were, at that time, ten and thirteen. They’d been with their dad and they were coming out to stay with me. When they arrived, because I knew so much about the Renaissance, I thought it would be great if they could learn it all too, so I was going to take them out and show them everything which of course is a very hard sell for kids of that age. It became clear to me as I was walking through Florence with them that I actually did have a very hard sell on my hands, because nothing that I was going to tell them about it had anything to do with being a young woman — nothing. It was just going to be a set of male names doing male things.
It really made me think, “Okay, so what the hell was it like if you were smart, educated and female?” Because there were smart, educated females. More than that, it made me ask — and it’s a very obvious question — why so much of genius and fame became male rather than female? There may not have been a female Michelangelo, but I don’t believe that talent was gender-divided. What would it have been like to have some kind of innate talent, to have some education . . . ? And after that, Alessandra [in The Birth of Venus] was born.
Now, I think there’s some difficult areas here, which is, if you like, the downside of the profoundly positive impact that feminism has had on all kinds of cultural arenas. If your driving force is your political need to talk about women, unless you are very careful, you are tempted to do one of two things: one of which is that you find the lost heroines. “Just look under this stone, I just found this extraordinary character . . . !” Or you do the exact opposite, which is you analyze oppression. It’s like you come to both with your own political agenda.
I think it’s only gradually that you start to take more respect of history and more respect of individual and gender creativity . . . start to realize that what people did — and this was true as much with poor people as it was with people outside power or women — was to learn methods of living creatively within the cracks. If a crack squashed you, sometimes you got a bit of elbow room, sometimes you rose above. It wasn’t easy, but you weren’t all, by definition, victims. Neither were you all, by definition, creative wonders. So it’s about normalizing the questions, and that, of course, I think was particularly true when I began writing about nuns in Sacred Hearts.
That brings me to a question I had about Sacred Hearts, because in the academic arena there really are two camps: one looks at the Renaissance convent as a place of oppression. But there’s another that focuses on the creativity and freedoms nuns had that wouldn’t have been available to them outside the convent. It can be frustrating, because the answer has to be somewhere in the middle. In Sacred Hearts it struck me that you were trying to portray the range of experience that was possible in that context.
You’re absolutely right. I should tell you one thing which will illuminate that for you, which is that the process of writing Sacred Hearts was very different from the processes I’ve have had before . . . I started writing it and found out it was impossible. It was really, really tough for me.
Why was that?
Well, for a long time I couldn’t work it out, but of course, when things go wrong, you don’t know the answer, you just know that you can’t do it. It takes quite a long time for you to work out what it is. In fact, I stopped writing and I realized that one of the things that was happening to me is that I was angry. I was angry on behalf of the whole convent population because they had been given no choice [in entering]. I realized that my anger was informing how I was writing. Actually, I was breaking my own cardinal rule, which is I was entering the past as a modern woman. I was saying . . . “Poor you, you have no idea, do you, that feminism — or certain levels or waves of feminism — is going to make lives different?” I was preempting the future.
Whereas, of course, if you really go back to those convents and say, “This is how it was,” then the question is not, “How dare you put us in here?” The question is more, “What were the alternatives?” As soon as you ask what were the alternatives, you begin to realize that there are pluses and minuses to the whole damn thing. To be one fifteen-year-old put in a convent is unbearable, because you don’t have the personality to go there; but to be another fifteen-year-old who ends up being married to a man they don’t love, or like, who gives them a sexually transmitted disease (I’m working on syphilis at the moment) . . . for whom you become a breeding cow with no space to do anything else . . . ? Actually, you could argue that for that human being, the convent might in some ways have been more creative. So it was not one thing or the other . . . they all became kind of gray, or rather all multicolored. I think it was what helped me to go back into the book.
There has always been an enduring fascination with the figure of the cloistered nun and I’m curious as to what you think that fascination or that curiosity is about.
Well, I think part of it is submerged eroticism. I’ll tell you something very funny. When I was writing Sacred Hearts and people would ask me what I was writing, men would say, “What are you writing”, and I’d say, “I’m writing this novel that’s set entirely within women’s convents.” And they’d go, “Oh, naughty nuns!” Then women would ask the same question and I’d give the same answer and they’d go, “Oh, that’s very interesting, so . . . if women were just living alone, was there space for them to [experience different things]?” Women got into it in a completely different way from men. Women could imagine and fantasize their own version of what it would be like to be female without men — but men could only see that these were women who weren’t allowed men. I think there is something very profound about gender in those reactions.
Although Sacred Hearts could have been a novel that centered only on Serafina, the rebellious nun who is the main character, in the end it was really about the relationships between all the different women. It seems clear that you identified most with the character of Suora Zuana.
The critic in me would go, “Well, I wonder if [Suora Zuana’s] too modern?” It’s a very difficult thing but it’s also true . . . I mean, there’s a lot of tension going on in here. I actively want a large readership. I want those fifteen year olds who I once was; and I also want you; I have to do some negotiation in that. For instance, quite early on in the book, I didn’t really know how powerful Serafina was going to be. It’s only as you write it that you know what you are writing about.
But the secret [of Zuana] for me came through the collision of science and nature. It always helps when characters have more than just their own internal personality, where somehow their personalities connect with something that you know about the moment in history, which (once again we’re back to confidence) gives me the confidence to think I am writing them truthfully. If I start with the confidence, then it’s more likely that I’ll communicate that confidence on. It’s exactly why I do every bit of research possible . . . So it was that moment where the notion of nature . . . is starting to be challenged by is going to become really quite a terrible collision between the Church and science. Now, probably very few people will see that in the novel, but for me it gives depth to the character so she has her own internal life.
There is a chapter in it that begins (and I remember, because I wrote this long before I wrote the chapter): “Things that Zuana will never see.” She will never see the internal veins under the earth and stuff like that . . . and we’re back to another really powerful theme in historical novels, which is: how far is the past that you create completely recognizable because humanity in its basic build blocks doesn’t change? “Prick us, do we not bleed?” says Shylock, to show that Jews and Gentiles are the same. Or is there an argument for saying that if you’re brought up in a different religious, political, cultural, and social structure, do you think differently? Do you feel differently?
It’s an interesting question.
It is, isn’t it? One of the most interesting conversations we recently had [in our working group] is what do we mean by the meaning of shame? How has this emotion shifted through history, depending on what was perceived to be morally shameful, etc.? And I find that really interesting. Because at some level, I think I lean to the latter rather than the former — I think we were more different than we want to necessarily think [we were]. But part of the attraction of historical fiction is that you go, “Oh, I’m like Alessandra [in The Birth of Venus], I want to be a painter. Can I do that?” Again, it’s a balance.
I want to ask you more generally about current trends in historical fiction. Although for a long time so much historical fiction has centered on England and its kings and queens, it seems to me that the Italian Renaissance — and Italy in general — is enjoying something of a boom in novelistic popularity lately.
Two years ago, I would have completely agreed with you, but the arrival of Hilary Mantel — who I’m going to now liken to something, and you really have to understand why I’m likening her to it — is a bit like the arrival of Fifty Shades of Gray, do you see what I mean? What’s happened is, a phenomenon has taken place. Hilary (who is a really good writer, and those two are really good books) has somehow collided — and it’s not just in Britain, but certainly in Britain it has to do with the notion of “Britishness” and our panic about losing our history — she has collided to stop being a novelist, and start being a symbol of something, it’s gotten so big. It’s become its own sort of Dan Brown.
Suddenly, it looks like we are pulled right back in again to Henry VIII: from a revisionist standpoint, if you like — it’s from a bureaucrat’s standpoint, rather than the royalist standpoint — but it’s still that story. The question mark in me — which has nothing to do with Hilary’s talent, which is extraordinary and she is long overdue to be noticed within Britain — is: is this a return of the old narrative history, which many of us were trying to get away from? I don’t think we can answer that yet, because if she is just a phenomenon, in some ways it won’t touch the rest of it. We’ve yet to see how much it’s going to impact on the market. I think more powerfully . . . and this is the other thing [Mantel] doesn’t do, which is the question we began with: about feminism and historical fiction. Given that the historical novel has always been somewhat more popular among women than men, certainly unless you go to the Hornblower and military novels: what has feminism’s impact been on it?
Your latest novel, about the Borgia family in Renaissance Rome, is coming out soon. Can you tell me a little bit about the novel, and about the Borgias?
I think I got to the Borgias because initially, I thought, “What experience have I not considered here?” And then I thought — ironically, of course — I have not considered the ones who raised their heads above the parapets. I was very interested for a while in Isabella D’Este because of her role as a patron; and as a result of looking at Isabella D’Este, I became interested in her relationship with Lucrezia Borgia, and as a result of becoming interested in Lucrezia Borgia, I started to look at the Borgias, and suddenly I realized that this was a family who had been done over by history. It’s very easy to see the Borgias as the worst all- time villains . . . whereas if you embed them back down into their moment in history, you have to ask much more uncomfortable questions about the complete corrupt morality of the whole Church during this period of time. Then you find yourself asking, “So how come they got such terrible press [as opposed to] other families, like Popes who had children . . . ?”
Of course there’s a very simple fact here, which is that the Borgias are Spanish: they’re interlopers — particularly within Rome, which is run by a mafia of Italian Roman families. The Borgias attempt to build a dynasty that will survive to become a new Italian dynasty, and it suddenly marks them out as bandits. A great deal of the insult and hatred and venom that emerges towards them is almost a kind of veiled racism. To gain power, they’ve got to take it from someone — and that really gives you a problem, because there’s going to be a lot of people who want revenge.
Meredith K. Ray is Associate Professor of Italian and Women’s Studies at the University of Delaware and the author of Writing Gender in Women’s Letter Collections of the Italian Renaissance (Toronto, 2009), winner of an American Association for Italian Studies Best Book Prize in 2009. She has published extensively on early modern women’s writing and convent culture, and is currently working on a book about women and science in Renaissance Italy.