World Building in Historical Fiction

If you write historical fiction, taking apart the novel of a master of the form can be illuminating. For example, how does Peter Carey convey historical information in his novel, Parrot and Olivier in America. (The novel is reviewed by Thomas Mallon in the NY Times here, and by Ursula K LeGuin in the Guardian here.)

The character named Olivier is a young French aristocrat, forcibly removed from the political upheaval of 19th century France by his domineering mother under the guise of sending him to America to write a treatise on prisons. Parrot is an Englishman living in France who is persuaded to become Olivier’s manservant for the trip.

Chapters alternate between Parrot and Olivier’s point of view, both first person. Each character relates incidents from their respective childhoods, then the novel moves into its own “present time” of 1829 when they meet in Paris and travel, reluctantly, to America together. This happens in chapters five through ten. The rest of the novel is set in 1830 America, at which point Olivier is about 26 and Parrot is 49.

How Carey Works in the Facts

In this novel, historical facts are delivered subtly – never as a set piece, always part of the action. Sometimes Carey conveys the milieu through the viewpoint character’s sensory perceptions. For example, America is described in terms of raw lumber, muddy roads, the discomfort of travel by carriage, steamboat and stagecoach.

When Olivier, the French aristocrat, steps out in New York to look for Parrot, he remarks:

“To a Parisian the aspect of Broadway was bizarre. One saw neither dome nor bell tower nor great edifice, with the result that one had the constant impression of being in a suburb. The city appeared to be made of all brick which gave it a most monotonous appearance.”

LeGuin writes in her review:

…[W]e see that world only through the eyes of the two narrators, both of whom, moved by fear, anger and scorn, tend to dismiss people and events cynically, without much attempt to understand them. A series of quick glimpses can, of course, give a quite complete picture, but there’s no completeness here – neither narrator is a good observer, both are far more interested in their own emotions than in what’s around them.

Ursula LeGuin, The Guardian, 30 January 2010

Carey also delivers historical information via narrative summary. For example, Parrot describes how the old mother of his mistress goes to market every day:

“So old Mme Christian was our burden, although a burden I was pleased to accept and it was no terrible duty to rub her ugly old feet and knead her little knotted shoulders. She was not quite there but not quite gone, and although she had a tendency to talk to herself, and therefore to reveal her gums, she set off each day to market and returned with the best and cheapest and freshest of everything, laying out her findings on the windowsill where we must inspect each item and then hear the full adventure of its purchase.”

Thus Parrot’s character is revealed and so is the old lady’s, and some facts about where and when French women shopped for food.

Characters Trump Worldbuilding

History and character are intertwined again when Parrot goes through customs on arrival at America. Here I have to quote the whole exchange to give the flavor:

“The American officials and police were lined up waiting in their shed. What they might want from me I could not say but I had a very formal letter of safe conduct with so many seals you might think I robbed them from a prince. I showed these papers to a policeman.
‘Bon Jour,’ said he. He was as cockney as the Bow Bells.
‘So,’ said the cockney American. “You look like a very cheeky chappie.’
‘That’s me your worship.’
‘And how did you come by a piece of paper like this?’
‘My employer is a Frenchman. He’s a lord.’
‘Well is he now?’ he said, and returned my documents.
‘What now?’ I asked. “Aren’t you going to write my name down?’
‘Get out of here,’ he said.
And that was that.

Peter Carey writes the scene as his character sees it, without cramming in any facts about customs procedures in 1830 New York. Parrot doesn’t know what the customs official wants and he gets in without a fuss, so that’s all the reader needs to know.

More Examples

Here is another example. Olivier is on his way to celebrate July 4 in Albany with his prospective father-in-law:

“… it was hard to conceive the Glorious Fourth on the inglorious third, which we spent on a long slow mucky ride to Albany, mud to the axles and bullocks commandeered from an old Dutchman who did not mind renting us his oxen because plowing, he said, was useless in the mud, and he would rather rescue us than destroy his fields.”

The way newspapers collected information in 1830 America is conveyed through dialogue. Here it is (we are in Parrot’s point of view):

“Then I thought a rum and milk might improve my horrible mood, so it was out the back gate, through the rusty sumacs, up onto the bridge, and into the Bull Inn where I was confronted with about fifty roaring men – merchants from the Tontine, clerks, loungers, racetrack touts, reporters – all squeezed in a shouting and writing in their notebooks or on butcher’s paper, pressed against the next chap’s back.
To the publican, I said, “So what is this?”
Said he, “It is the packet Waterloo released by customs.” And he nodded beyond the crowd where the smoke-yellowed windows had been thrown open to reveal the busy wharf, the windy river.
“But what are these men doing?”
“What are they doing?” He was a big cheeky red-haired Irishman with hard-used cheeks. “They are getting the news from England. That chap there is from the New York Sentinel.”

The Upshot

In short, what I discovered was that Carey reveals his characters through action, and he grounds the action in its historical period through specific detail, through dialogue, and through the events of the scenes themselves. As a reader, I didn’t need any special knowledge of 1793 England, 1805 France or Australia, or 1830 America in order to understand the story. I have the impression that Carey knew his material so well that he could pick and choose only what he needed to give the reader the sensation of being in another time and place, looking through the viewpoint character’s eyes.

Carey might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m with LeGuin, who finishes her review as follows:

There are terrific set pieces, such as the burning of the forgers’ house – moments Dickensian in their vividness. Themes of fire and burning run through the story. An early kind of bicycle appears, with much discussion and even an illustration, and later on an American bicycle enters the tale. Are there hidden significances? I don’t know. It’s a dazzling, entertaining novel. Should one ask for more?

Ursula LeGuin on Parrot and Olivier in America