|Image courtesy of D33p1x, Creative Commons, Flickr|
In the genre of realistic historical fiction, setting is a crucial element. There are genres in which you can dispense with setting almost entirely, but historical fiction is not one of them. Fans of the genre demand not only a realistic setting, but also one interwoven believably with the plot and characterization. This does not mean that the setting needs to be described in intricate detail. What historical fiction fans look for is authenticity. This is a tall order: for the writer, it means your characters must seem like real people, behaving in believable ways in a place that was real.
In the second novel of The Adventures of Henry Innes, called The Voyage of the Trade's Increase, my protagonist finds himself on the island of Mauritius. It's January of 1790, and although the inhabitants of this French colony have heard rumors of tumultuous goings-on in France, they have yet to receive any official notification of the outbreak of the French Revolution. For Henry and his fellow travelers, Mauritius is another unexpected port of call during a long, eventful voyage to India.
In the case of Mauritius - which will be featured in more than one Henry Innes novel - political complexities are only one layer of what I call "setting." The political background of Henry's stay on Mauritius is itself rooted in a peculiar historical and socio-economic context - the Anglo-French rivalry in the region, the French Revolution, and so forth. This larger context pervades the story, since it is central to understanding the long-term conflict into which Henry is being drawn, and some of the key figures in that on-going battle. But all this is abstract, and could be conveyed by means of dialogue and simple narrative. Conjuring into being the Mauritius of 222 years ago requires a lot more than a thumbnail understanding of history and politics.
Today, the majority of Mauritians are of Indian descent, but in 1790, the majority of the population was African or Malagasy, consisting mostly of slaves brought by the French to labor on the sugar plantations. One estimate is that African captives comprised 83 percent of the population of Mauritius. Clearly, if one represents the Mauritius of Henry Innes's time accurately, one must portray a society with a different ethnic balance than one finds today. However, contemporary accounts suggest that the culture of late-18th century Mauritius was strongly influenced by India, partly because of the prevalence of Indian servants and traders in Port-Louis and other towns, but also because most European residents either had come to the island from India, or had extensive business dealings with South Asian markets. Slave culture was fractured and suppressed, finding new outlets in the selective adoption of a Creole French language, Sega music and dance, and a Franco-Indian material culture.
|A French map of Mauritius, c. 1791|
In fact, this was a demographic trend that continued on Mauritius even after the gradual abolition of slavery in the 1830s. As slaves left the plantations, indentured workers were imported from India and - to a lesser extent - from China, although conditions on the European-owned farms remained hellish. Year after year, the number of deaths almost equaled the number of births, growth rates suppressed by endemic malaria, in particular. However, the island also suffered serious population setbacks until about 1919, mostly due to tropical storms, subsequent starvation, and outbreaks of disease, which could double, even triple the normal, already high death rate. There is no reason to believe that these conditions, carefully recorded in the 19th century, did not also exist in the late 18th century.
Understanding demography was just the beginning of my quest for the real Mauritius of 1790. Although the colonial regime regulated slavery, punishing slave-owners for illegal "abuses," thousands of captive laborers died on the island's plantations. To comprehend this, I decided to find out why, exactly, working on a sugar plantation was so deadly. I did this by reading a guide to plantation management written by a sugar plantation manager who had worked in the West Indies in the 1780s. This book helped me realize that large-scale sugar-growing and processing was really an industrial enterprise, involving long hours of brutally noisy, sweaty, dirty labor constantly surrounded by razor-sharp canes, crushing iron gears, raging fires, and the incessant swing and slash of machetes. As this research progressed, the sugar plantation described in The Voyage of the Trade's Increase became real to me. Having seen for myself how hard agricultural and industrial workers toiled in India, I could imagine the level of exploitation that existed in early colonial Mauritius. I also had an opportunity to visit the rural Hawaiian islands - remarkably similar to Mauritius in some ways - where I saw for myself the environmental and social impact of sugar planting and colonialism.
|Port-Louis waterfront, c. 1835|
The plantation in my story is fictitious, although loosely based on a real place. It is situated (in my imagination) just east of Chamarel Falls - also called Tamarin Falls - the dramatic waterfall depicted above, at the beginning of this post. The plantation house I modeled on descriptions found in the memoirs and diaries of early 19th century travelers and residents. These accounts were invaluable, including detailed descriptions of what happened when Mauritius was struck by a massive hurricane - accounts of how people prepared for storms, how they took shelter, how they dealt with the mass destruction, afterward. I never would have imagined, for instance, that the islanders built hatches into their roofs and literally tied their houses down, inside and out. According to the Mauritius Almanac of 1869, no hurricanes visited the island between 1786 and 1806, so I had to conjure one into being for the sake of my plot.
|Port Louis, image courtesy of NLA, Map Room 1928/1|
An example of a descriptive passage that emerged from this map, period accounts, videos, and other resources is the following little scene, in which Eliza (carried in a palanquin) proceeds into the town, followed by Henry, who is on foot. This is their first close-up glimpse of the town.
Period artwork is another important source for me. There are very few paintings of Mauritius in the 18th century, but quite a few drawings and paintings were made in the 19th century. In particular, I paid attention to images from the first half of the 1800s, which depict the island much as it would have appeared to Henry Innes and his friends. An especially fine painting of Port-Louis from the Champs de Mars - a horse track built by the British after their conquest of the island in 1810 - was exhibited in Paris in 1867 and recently sold at Christie's auction house for nearly nineteen thousand pounds. An earlier image from 1835, from Cyrille Pierre Theodore Laplace's Voyage Autour du Monde, shows the Port-Louis waterfront, scarcely changed at all since the 1790s. Although I may only write a few descriptions, I usually examine dozens of images like these, which help me build a strong mental image of the setting - an image that helps me evoke an authentic mood.
Waved through the gate of the custom’s house, they proceeded at a rapid jog which Henry – afoot – could match only with difficulty. The street extending into the town from the wharf was paved, its gutters three feet deep, lined with slabs of stone, and bridged with wooden planks, at intervals. Colonnades fronted the buildings, wood being the favoured building material, Henry noted, although masons and brick-layers had erected the more substantial structures belonging to the colonial government, all gleaming white with chunam plaster. Projecting eaves cast verandas in perpetual shadow, while powder-blue shutters stood open, offering glimpses of gloomy interiors.
|Bernardin de Saint-Pierre|
Language, of course, plays a major role in shaping the feel of a place, but I want to deal with the problem of non-English languages in a separate post. In any event, there are a great many other aspects of setting one must take into account in the quest for authenticity. For all my settings, I try to establish what the major existing flora was, trying to be careful not to include cultivars imported during a later period. I study plants and animals, and in the case of blossoming trees and flowers, I try to make sure nothing is in full bloom out of season. Since the setting is the 18th century, I also try to put seasonal foods on the table. Describing cuisine is a wonderful way of evoking a setting - especially in a place like Mauritius, which has such a rich culinary heritage. One of my favorite scenes in The Voyage of The Trade's Increase is where the retired French spy-master and alchemist, Francois Lamont, regales Henry and Eliza over his dinner.
"Some idealize woman," he said, "or country - or religion, or personal honour. Me? I am moved by taste, smell, texture." His brown hand slapped the edge of the table, rattling the dishes and silverware. "Food, my friends, is the most honest institution in the world - the most essential, perhaps even the most pleasurable!" Lamont wagged his right index finger, for good measure. "And it is worth fighting for - perhaps the only thing worth fighting for."
Your novel doesn't have to read like a travel guide. This is a trap even skillful veteran authors run into, especially if they are unfamiliar with a setting. But perhaps the worst pitfall of all - and one I have seen experienced authors tumble into - is employing the voice and even the vocabulary of your sources. In the excerpt above, my description of the main street of Port-Louis is taken, at least in part, from an account written by the American consul, Nicolas Pike, published under the title Sub-tropical Rambles in the Land of Aphanapteryx, in 1873. His tone is very negative, however, while I felt that Henry - coming from 18th century London - would have a positive response to what he saw, and would hardly think Mauritius was "dirty." However, Pike eventually spent a long time on the island and paid close attention to what he saw, and I found some of his descriptions useful - especially his account of the Port-Louis bazaar.
I suppose the important thing to remember, when you're reconstructing a historical setting, is to recall that it is not the present-day, touristic locale with actors running around in costumes. Mauritius under French rule, dominated by slavery and privateering, was not the tropical honeymoon destination of today. A writer of historical fiction should realize that what may be interesting or picturesque to us might not seem that way to someone actually living in the past. For instance, Henry and his friends must face Mauritius's tropical climate during a period of frequent rains with no electric laundry facilities to dry their clothes, no air conditioners, no fans, no refrigeration, no cool drinks filled with ice, not even punkhas! Eliza Graham could not wander around in shorts and a tank top, never mind parading along the beach in a bikini. She arrived wearing a corset and a long gown with petticoats. These simple facts put the concept of "tropical island paradise" in a very different light.
© William Lailey, 2012. Copyright applies only to text. Images are from Creative Commons sources.