Reviews/Interviews – Margaret Elphinstone

VoyageursThe Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone

Solander, Vol. 9, November 2005

[All material copyright © 2005 Lucinda Byatt]

The Blurring of Edges

Lucinda Byatt talks to Margaret Elphinstone
I met Margaret Elphinstone in Edinburgh while she was doing research at the National Library of Scotland. One of Scotland’s foremost women writers, she has written three historical novels Islanders (1994), The Sea Road (2000) – a tale based on the sagas and the Viking explorations of the North Atlantic, seen through a woman’s eyes – and Voyageurs (2003), which is set in British colonial Canada and offers an extraordinary insight into the lives of the fur traders, the native peoples and the Quaker missionaries. Elphinstone’s prose has been described as ‘erudite’, ‘mythical’ and ‘magical’ and she is passionate about her work as a historical novelist.

[Byatt] Mary Renault wrote that the best historical fiction shows‘that real empathy with the life-style of a period, which is the result of applying imagination, and a deep humanity, to a knowledge of the sources so thorough that it merges into instinct’. Did you feel a particular ‘empathy’ with the periods you have written about?

[Elphinstone] I love Mary Renault’s work. She thinks herself into the classical period – she’s such an example of what she’s talking about.

I think you have to get beyond the point of showing off your knowledge. For example, if your Vikings are eating soup out of a soapstone pot, you don’t stop and say that the soapstone came from the Viking quarries in Cunningsburgh.

There are experts on everything and every expert reader has to be satisfied, whether he’s a historian of Norse history or a Shetland crofter. You don’t want anyone thinking ‘that’s not right’. But you can’t say everything and sometimes I find the history is so mind-boggling you feel swamped.

What you have to do is think who the characters are and be inside them. I’ve just been re-reading Chesterton’s Father Brown stories. He talks about how you solve the crime by getting into the mind and heart of the criminal. And it’s a bit like that… you’ve got to become these people, you’ve got to walk around being Mark [the protagonist of Voyageurs], or whoever it may be.

Was there anything in particular that led you to choose the Viking explorations, or your other periods?

I think in each case it was just a line of particular interest.

In the 70s I worked in Shetland library and did a lot with the Shetland Collection. I also worked on an archaeological dig on Papa Stour where we were excavating a Viking royal farm, Da Biggins. I was a humble digger – I’m not an archaeologist – but the whole story of the dig and the document that led to the dig gave me the idea for doing Islanders. Then I got an Arts Council travel grant to go to Iceland for the summer and I started to work on The Sea Road.

I go to all the places I write about. I absolutely have to. There’s only one place that I couldn’t get to for The Sea Road. I couldn’t get a boat to take me from Greenland to Labrador. When I told a high street travel agent in Glasgow that I needed to get from Iceland to the coast of Labrador, he replied, ‘Oh, no problem. You go by Heathrow!’.

How do you go about your research?

It feels like being a detective! What I like about the research for historical fiction is that it is so diverse. One day you want to know what kind of coat buckles they had, and the next you want to know who was the prime minister. What did they have for breakfast, what did they read about in the newspaper? So many different things come in and I think that gives you a strength because you can’t go as deeply into the research as a historian of the period would do.

When I set out to write Voyageurs I had a moment of complete panic when I arrived back in America. I’d spent all this money and got all this funding, and I suddenly realised that I’d contracted to write about Canadian history, American history, Native American history, the war of 1812, Quaker history, Cumbrian history, Quaker missionaries, the fur trade. I thought to myself, ‘I can’t do this’. But in fact, you can quite easily because you pick up your character and you follow them. He wanders through all these worlds, and you need to know what he needs to know. So I got out my canoe on the Ottawa River and we went canoeing, because that hasn’t changed. You have to actually stand on the shores of Sault Ste. Marie – which are completely different now of course, but you can see the rapids still, and you can see across the river.

Another example, which I’m working on at the moment, is that my character has to do some surveying. I don’t think my readers want to do trigonometry anymore than I do! So what I’ve done is to introduce two onlookers. They stand and comment on what my character is doing. By changing point of view, I can explain what my character is up to. A lot of time you need to remember that you don’t need to know it all. You need to know what it was like for your character.

Another thing I’d like to stress is the importance of primary sources. People think that for historical fiction you go to secondary sources, but actually the primary sources are much more important. That’s where the language and the voices come from. For example, when I was researching Voyageurs I worked in the Carlisle Records Office where I found lots of minutes and letters. Quakers have such amazing records. Reading through the letters gives you the voice and the sense of what it meant to be ‘disowned’. No secondary source can tell you that.

The same is true of the bills of lading for the canoes at Mackinac, where they brought furs one way and trade goods the other. The bills of lading tell you exactly what was in each canoe. In fact, I have used one particular bill of lading practically verbatim, just adapting it marginally.

I do a lot of research when I’m travelling. As well as the laptop, I also have a series of notebooks, including a little journalist’s notebook when I’m in a canoe or up a mountain, because an awful lot of research is done by being in places and writing down what I see, reconstructing what it might have been like. I might be standing on a traffic island in the middle of Montreal or on a headland overlooking the Ottawa River, but I’ll still scribble down impressions, details.

There are some bits of research where I get experts to help me. One scene in my current novel describes yawls sailing around the Calf of Man. I managed to talk to a man who had worked on the Port St Mary lifeboat for 25 years. As we talked I took loads of notes, and then after I’d written the scene, I said to him ‘Would you mind reading this?’. It was a very good thing he did, because I had made the tide flow in the wrong direction!

There is no end to the material one can accumulate, but you have to stop. This is where it’s important to remember that if you’re writing a novel set in 1812, you actually don’t have to know what happened in 1815. Time stops at the end of the novel.

Your books create a tangible reality through minutely detailed observations of the physical world and historical detail. It is intimately connected to the characters and to our ‘belief’ in the world you have recreated. How does the process of ‘bringing the past back to life’ act as a foil for your writing?

I think this is actually what historical fiction is about. When Scott invented the historical novel, he was looking at what it was like to be the individual in a community instead of looking at a society in history. A historian can speculate about individual people, but she is not allowed to talk about their emotions, whereas the fiction writer can enter their minds, imaginatively.

However, the situation has to be real and this is achieved by focusing on what is the same. I mean, human emotions stay the same: fear, anger, love, joy, all that. Therefore, the empathy comes through those. But you always impose your presence on the past. You can’t escape from being a 21st-century writer or reader. Sometimes I read historical novels, like George Eliot’s Romola, and it’s Victorian. It isn’t the Renaissance. This is a Victorian construct of the Renaissance. I’m sure people will look back – if anyone’s reading my stuff in two centuries time – and say The Sea Road is such an early 21st-century construct of Viking times.

You create very powerful characters in each book. How do you blend your real and fictional characters?

Sometimes I have quite deliberately picked bits and pieces from people I know, but the main characters are absolutely constructed from within – they are fictional. However, I try to make all the minor characters real. In Voyageurs, their names are real – William McGillivray is real, as are most of the people at the Mosedale meeting in Cumbria. Quakers have such amazing records. Not many readers know that the Johnsons’ house in Sault Ste. Marie is real, and the Johnsons are real people. I found a document written by one of their great-granddaughters, reconstructing the family history. So I just used the whole family.

What I like to think is that I haven’t imagined anything that couldn’t have happened. There were stories of people being taken by the Indians. There are endless records of Quaker missionaries, of women going out together – often an older women with a younger woman. You can trace loads of their journeys because they’re very well documented.

The Sea Road is based on the sagas, but they were written in that very terse style so I had to invent Gudrid’s inner life. This happened while I was walking round Iceland with the sagas in my hand. All the place names are the same, the farmhouses are the same. But, for example, I found the sacred well where Gudrid goes. Gudrid tells her tale to the monk Agnar, who, of course, is totally fictional – although again, there were Icelandic monks in Europe at the time. It does say in the saga that Gudrid made a pilgrimage to Rome in her old age, but we know nothing more about it.

Your books seem to focus on the ‘blurring’ of edges: the co-existence of paganism and Christianity, the crossing of boundaries between the old world and the new, between Quakers and Indians, fact and fiction. Is this an area of particular interest?

You’ve put your finger on one of my main interests. I like boundaries, frontiers, edges, cultural clashes, as you say, blurring. Certainly for Voyageurs I picked a time and place where you’ve got a maelstrom of cultures and peoples: you’ve got French, English, Scottish, native peoples all there. I never think, well I’ll write about a cultural confrontation. It’s a subconscious interest, but it’s what leads me to my subject.

In The Sea Road, I was fascinated by the whole Icelandic thing and how, in about the year 1000, they decided that everyone had to be Christian, if not they’d be killed. I mean what sort of Christianity was that? There were missionaries and believers, like Gudrid, but what kind of believer can you be in that Christian/Pagan world? I find that very interesting. I see Gudrid’s Christianity as an overlay, but when she is put in a situation where her deep psychology emerges, then it’s her pagan side that comes out.

Do you think your books have something to say to today’s world? Can the past help us to understand what is going on now?

You inevitably address the concerns that affect you, because if it wasn’t a concern in the modern world, no one would want to read about it.

I am deeply interested in episodes like the Peace Testimony in Voyageurs. Here is an 1812 Quaker, who finds himself involved in a war. I have created this confrontation between him and the three warriors because it gives me a chance to explore the issue. I am a Quaker myself, but it’s not that I’m trying to tell anyone anything.

I think it’s similar to my earlier novels that were called feminist. Of course, strong women emerge from these novels because they’re more interesting. One cultural boundary that interests me – particularly in Islanders – is that women were not at all weak in patriarchal societies. Viking women were certainly not weak. I’m interested in exploring how gender really worked because it’s not a simple story of oppression. Men wrote the history books, but women were very busy doing something else. Certainly, in Shetland right up until recently, the men were at sea and the women were minding the croft.

Which authors inspired (inspire) you as a writer – in particular, which historical novelists?

I had a very traditional library when I was growing up: Stevenson, Buchan and twentieth-century historical novelists like Margaret Irwin. I’m also a great fan of Georgette Heyer. I read all of her books between the ages of about twelve and seventeen – and still have little binges! People misunderstand her work so much. They think she’s a romantic novelist, yet she’s so ironic. I fall about laughing, and so did my father. That’s how I learnt to like her. I also grew up with and still love writers writing about their own period, for example, the 19th-century authors. I read Jane Austen about once a year, and of course she’s a contemporary writer in her time but time seemed to fascinate her. Nobody has ever beaten her as an observer. I also love the Brontës. Of course, it’s different writing historical fiction when you choose periods where fiction was already being written – as I have, in Voyageurs and my latest book. I mean, in 11th-century Iceland no one was writing fiction. Are you working on another historical novel?Yes, my current novel [Light, Edinburgh: Canongate, spring 2006] is set in 1831 on a small island off the Isle of Man. The trigger that set this idea in motion was again cultural confrontation. I read that the Commissioners of the Northern Lights took over the Manx Lights in 1815 as the result of a quarrel between the Liverpool merchants and Trinity House (the English lighthouse keepers). The upshot was that the Manx lights were run from Edinburgh. And when I got further into it, I discovered that the Isle of Man had been owned by the Dukes of Atholl for about one hundred years, so Scots had been seen as ‘oppressors’ and ‘colonials’ by the Manx.

_____________________________________________________________________ Her books are published by Canongate, Edinburgh.
© Lucinda Byatt

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