Book: Historical Fiction and Contemporary Values

Rachel Kadish, The Weight of Ink. 2017.

This one grew on me. At the beginning I’ll admit I had little sympathy with Aaron Levy, the PhD student who is sort of our protagonist. I liked Helen Watt I suppose but I wasn’t particularly arrested by the story. That said, as things progressed into the real meat, the scenes proper of Esther alongside the scenes of Aaron and Helen, I did get sucked in.

This one isn’t going to be long, because I’m writing a little too late after getting suddenly invited out of Tartu for what turned out to be a 4-day trip. (Aitäh jälle, Kärt, kui sa loed.) The main thing that stuck with me about The Weight of Ink was how powerful was the instinct in it (and I think this is true of a lot of historical fiction) to make historical characters share our values. Kadish could surely write excellent history of 1660s England, given how much research she has clearly done. Within the context of that period, she places Esther, who is both in her identity and in her philosophy, a profoundly 21st century character. You could say the same about Miller’s Patroclus.

Having, for example, Esther be more or less an atheist, consider desire to be the source of meaning and morality in human life, harbor a gay husband, and be an unvanquishable female philosopher in times where such activity was forbidden, makes her share the values of her contemporary readers. She predicts, amazingly, thought that would arise 200 years and later after her life.

This is not a knock against the book. It makes Esther a great character, and I liked her a lot. I wonder, though, about this instinct in historical fiction. I would have to read more, frankly, but it seems to me that this is an eternal difficulty not only in dramatizing history but in studying it at all. We do not do so in detachment. We claim individuals, themes, events, and thoughts as our ancestors and our patrimony. It is impossible not to do so. History is not simply elemental to our conception of self, it is the whole of our conception of self.

What makes a certain ancestry claim legitimate? On what grounds do we claim people as ours? Take a look at this forum post on the white supremacist, in which members of the website discuss “who is your favorite Byzantine emperor?”

The question is ridiculous for many reasons, but what this group of white supremacists are doing are claiming, by the act of discussing and praising the deeds of a group of violent theocratic Medieval despots, a sort of patrimony. This group of historical people, their ideas, their values and their history, belong to us. Why is stormfront member Spartan_Blood, whose location is listed as Canada, entitled to claim such patrimony? This Canadian presumably has about as much in common with Flavius Heraclius as I (a white New Yorker) have with Moctezuma.

I don’t have a good answer, but these seem like valuable questions to pursue. 1: what makes a patrimony claim legitimate? 2: why do people claim certain patrimonies over others?

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