Monday, August 29, 2011

A Point of View Challenge

One of my mentors from the Loft Literary Center teaches an entire graduate course on point of view, and I can see why. It’s one of the big challenges my students in fiction deal with. If we are reading a story through Anna’s point of view—say it’s first person, meaning we’re reading a lot of “I”—we would expect to hear her thoughts, her physical and emotional reactions. If we suddenly get a paragraph of Johnny’s thoughts, and there aren’t two narrators in the story, then that’s a slip in point of view.

Philippa Gregory does this in all three of the novels I’ve read. I know, I bashed The White Queen pretty thoroughly, but I was waiting for other books to come in at the library, and the historical period was so interesting, that I picked up The Red Queen. I liked it better. The narrator is a childish, devout woman who spends much of her life separated from court and lives with the singular conviction that she is right: God is on her side: and that means the House of Lancaster, for which her only son is heir, must be king. There are fewer characters to keep track of, and those characters have more space to be developed. Dialogue is more natural, and the huge span of years that weighed down the White Queen for me, works here, because we are forever waiting for the great crowning of her son.

But, Ms. Gregory has a fascinating point of view challenge. She is writing history through the point of view of the famous women who lived it, whose voices we so rarely hear. Through their eyes, we are perfectly placed for court intrigue, scheming, secret messages, and all that great behind-the-scenes stuff. But, the ultimate test of who would be king is determined on the battle field, where the women could not go. This is why we hear so little of their voices in general. They did not fight. They did not publicly advise the king, if they did at all. They were not allowed to be involved in any of the important processes we focus on in history, other than producing sons. Both of the female narrators spend large portions of their stories in hiding; one has sought sanctuary in the church, and the other is under house arrest. We have messengers, yes, but how on earth does one write the battle scenes from their point of view?

If they can’t witness the battle, then in order to stay within first person point of view, the women have to either imagine the battle, which takes away the historical accuracy, or be told about it. But who would tell a woman an account of the battle, in the kind of detail we want to hear? And even if someone did, he could only tell what he saw. We would not get the strategy of troop movement that is so fascinating. Other than breaking the laws of history and placing them on the battlefield, there is no way to keep the women’s point of view and describe the battle scenes, which are my favorite parts. Her solution? Switch point of view to omnipotent for those chapters only. Structurally, it seems kind of an unfortunate decision, but how can we blame the author when what binds her are the unfair rules that bound women throughout history?

1 comment:

  1. Good point about battles written about in absentia! I find myself able to identify with this difficulty with regard to my current novel about Reba. Reba's stories take her through several wars, but so far, she hasn't been on the front lines. She admits readily to being "not very good at war." So I've written battle scenes either from other points of view (which I do allow myself) or from her confused perspective. I find this quite adequate, given that on the one hand these battles are not historical, and thus their details are of little interest to the reader, and on the other hand, I feel like the message that war is confusion is a reasonable one that resonates with the themes of the book. Ms. Greggory's problem was surely a tougher one, and so her solution does seem reasonable.