Writing the Middle Ages: the boundaries of historical fiction

Aitcheson, James (2021) Writing the Middle Ages: the boundaries of historical fiction. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham.

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Abstract

This PhD thesis consists of two parts: my novel, Flight; and a critical commentary on the process of writing it and its context within the wider genre of historical fiction.

The novel is notionally set in eleventh-century England, at Malmesbury Abbey in Wiltshire. It is inspired by and loosely based upon the lives of two historical figures about whom little is known. The first is the monk, scholar and astronomer Eilmer, whose attempt at human flight sometime shortly after the year 1000 makes him one of the earliest known pioneers of aviation in world history. The other is Ealdgyth, a widowed noblewoman who in 1015 was incarcerated for a short while at Malmesbury on royal orders after her husband, an enemy of the crown, was murdered and his property was seized by King Æthelred II. The novel imagines a series of meetings between these two individuals that in real life perhaps never occurred, and a friendship that might never have flourished. It explores the tensions between faith and scepticism through the deployment of various fantastic elements, including but by no means limited to: dream-visions; auditory and visual apparitions; the appearance of unidentified plant and animal species; extreme weather events; and a seemingly miraculous act of healing.

The critical commentary explores the issues that arise from writing fiction set in the past. Using a practice-based approach that makes particular reference to Flight and the processes involved in its composition, I ask: what is historical fiction in the twenty-first century, what is it for, and what is its future? I show that a text’s ‘historicalness’ cannot be more than partial, regardless of what its author might wish or intend, and suggest that the notion of historical-ethical responsibility – to which many contemporary historical novelists subscribe – unnecessarily constrains the horizons of fiction set in the past and its ability to contribute towards discussion of that past. I argue for a new way of thinking about historical fiction that: (a) reaffirms its own legitimacy, independent of the discipline of history; and (b) recognises the value of a much broader range of strategies by which the past is rendered. Finally, I examine my own novel’s use of fantastic elements, demonstrating how fantastic-historical narratives, by simultaneously defamiliarising the past and also making it more relatable, are particularly well suited to speaking to our present concerns and to offering new perspectives on what the past means to us in the twenty-first century.

Item Type: Thesis (University of Nottingham only) (PhD)
Supervisors: Jordan, Spencer
Lee, Christina
Keywords: creative writing, historical fiction, Middle Ages, prose fiction
Subjects: P Language and literature > PN Literature (General)
P Language and literature > PR English literature
Faculties/Schools: UK Campuses > Faculty of Arts > School of English
Item ID: 66986
Depositing User: Aitcheson, James
Date Deposited: 08 Dec 2021 04:40
Last Modified: 08 Dec 2021 04:40
URI: http://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/id/eprint/66986

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