History as Deception and Digression
It seemed like all his histories involved deception…
Following in her grandfather’s professional footsteps, the unnamed narrator of Daisy Hildyard’s first novel Hunters in the Snow is a history student studying for her Ph.D.,but her real education in the construction and interpretation of history emerges through the close relationship with her grandfather, Jimmy. When Jimmy dies, she finds herself responsible for cleaning out his rural Yorkshire house, where she discovers his unpublished research files. Hildyard interweaves the young student’s reminiscences of conversations and long walks with Jimmy into the four main historical tales that emerge from Jimmy’s files: the years 1461-1471 in the life of King Edward IV; Tsar Peter the Great’s incognito trip through Europe and England of 1697; the life of former 18th century slave Olaudah Equiano, whose controversial autobiography claimed to recount his pre-abduction childhood in Africa; and the mysterious death of Lord Kitchener in 1916.
In Hildyard’s deft hands, the young historian’s accounts of Jimmy’s life and his unfinished historical research become inseparable stories. In trying to retell the histories that Jimmy never finished, the young student begins to understand the lessons that Jimmy tried to give her in person, lessons about the real stuff of history: unreliable narrators, outright lies, questionable facts, distorted perspectives. History, it turns out, is a lot like the reconstructed stained glass window that Jimmy and the narrator examine in the Tower of London:
…the oratory wall was restored in the 1920s, after which the windows were left empty – holes giving onto the river. The invigilator didn’t know what had happened to the original fittings, but he told us that the window had been rebuilt with fragments of old stained glass, some of which dated back to the time when Henry occupied the Tower. He explained how the strata of pictures piled on top of one another gave rise to the word “storey” standing for each layer of the building…each strip giving a series of pictures, each series of pictures telling a story which has been broken up into a row of apparently isolated observation points.
The reassembled window did not tell any such story – the comic strips had been taken apart. It was a jumble of intensely coloured fragments from other illustrative windows – mostly finials, scutcheons and patterns from ornamental borders which had been cut and resituated in the centre. I could see one beanstalk, one white rose, the muzzles of unknown animals, one demon’s jaw, a clipping from an angel’s or a bird’s wing, swatches of beard and several anonymous hands in the irregular latticed framework.
In another example, Jimmy notes that history is often “the study of missing things,”and he proceeds to tell of the damage done to the estate that had been lent to Peter the Great and his retinue when they stayed in London, damage so severe that the architect Sir Christopher Wren and the King’s own gardener were called in to inventory the destruction and loss. “It seems unlikely that we would have so precise a list of what was growing in [John] Evelyn’s garden if it had not been destroyed,” Jimmy notes.
Hunters in the Snow contains fifteen images, including reproductions of artwork, images from within other books, a page from an Asterix comic,and some architectural details. In this case, the images are used pretty much as straightforward illustrations of what is being discussed in the text. As Jimmy says at one point, showing his granddaughter a photograph: “There’s your evidence…if you don’t believe me.”
It is impossible not to think of Sebald – especially Vertigo – when reading Hildyard’s book, and it’s an appropriate comparison. Ostensibly little more than thoughts and memories of a young historian upon the death of her grandfather, this deceptively modest novel contains a finely structured, ambitious, and thoroughly entertaining meditation on the nature of history.
As you say, Terry, it seems impossible not to compare this to Sebald. Does Hildyard’s book feel derivative to you?
I don’t think Hildyard’s book is derivative in any negative sense. Sure, it may owe something to Sebald or other writers, but that’s par for the course. I think she goes about her book very differently than Sebald did.
I also (predictably perhaps) thought of Butor too in L’Emploi du temps – the Old Cathedral and its stained glass windows… I’m intrigued, and will get a copy of this asap.