Historical novels and the conception of self

Catching up on some things, here: I finished The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant several weeks ago and before I mess with the code to remove its image from my sidebar I may as well blog about it, eh?

I liked the book; I liked the way it pulled me into the 15th century and into the inner life of the narrator. The fact that it raises issues around suspension of disbelief is not any flaw in the novel per se, but in the genre.

One can’t help but wonder whether a 15th century teenager would view the world in a way that could even be communicated to a 21st century observer.

How did women living at that time view themselves? How could they?

In some respects, I think Dunant has probably hit on a few answers. The narrator’s habit of filtering her interpretation of the world in religious terms comes across as plausible, for instance. And certainly her conflict with her parents and siblings rings true, given her personality and intelligence. There is internal consistence, which helps a great deal to make the novel’s pretences work.

But what about the primary themes of the novel? They are essentially feminist: the narrator is precociously bright and desires desperately to be a painter; because she’s a woman, both her intelligence and her artistic ambitions are a liability. This conflict, incidentally, isn’t handled in a way that’s stilted or cloying. Nonetheless, one can’t help but wonder whether any woman at that time could have articulated herself in those terms.

Put another way: could such conflicts have become even close to conscious 500 years ago?

It’s an impossible question to answer; we can’t place ourself inside the skins & minds of long-dead people.

Historical novels are, instead, rather like dreams: they insert a contemporary self into a vastly peculiar landscape and say, “now. React.”

Quite possibly, that’s enough.

[tags] book review, The Birth of Venus, Sarah Dunant [/tags]

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