“Prefer not, eh?”: Re-Scribing the Lives of the Great War Poets in Contemporary British Historical Fiction
Keywords:British war poets, First World War, Historiographic metafiction, Contemporary British historical fiction
AbstractAlthough the First World War has become history by now, the memory of the war continues to be repeatedly fictionalised: retrospectively inspired narratives are often regarded as more genuine and far-reaching than historical or documentary accounts in their rendition of the past. Yet, memory is creatively selective, reflecting a highly-conflicted process of sifting and discerning what should be remembered, neglected or amplified from the stream of war experience. In his book about Pat Barker, Mark Rawlinson argues that “historical fiction has been transformed in the post-war period by the way writers have exploited the porous and unstable demarcation between fiction and no fiction, stories and history” (14). Jill Dawson’s The Great Lover (2009), Geoff Akers’s Beating for the Light: The Story of Isaac Rosenberg (2006) and Robert Edric’s In Zodiac Light (2008) have not become best sellers like Barker’s Regeneration trilogy; yet, they too represent the predominant commemorative drift in contemporary British fiction about the Great War. Without doubt, these three authors have followed in Barker’s steps in their purpose of holding a mirror to real people and real events in the past and of deciphering the deleted text of ‘the war to end all wars.’ However, while Barker chose to write about the often-anthologised Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, Dawson, Akers and Edric base their narratives on the writings, and lives, of Rupert Brooke, Isaac Rosenberg and Ivor Gurney respectively. My discussion of these three novels will explore the various ways in which the past can be accessed and interpreted from the present and represented in fiction. The authors’ decisions as to what historical instances to unravel do not just reveal the relation that contemporary British fiction entertains with the Great War and with history, but also how the past erupts in the present to interrogate it. Taking three salient features of Hutcheon’s “historiographic metafiction” (1988)—intertextuality, parody and paratextuality—as my theoretical points of departure, I will explore the dominant frameworks and cultural conditions (that is the propagation of either patriotic or protest readings) within which the Great War has been narrated in the novels and the new approaches, opportunities and ethical implications of using historical and literary sources to re-scribe a previously non-existent version of the lives of the iconic Great War Poets.
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