The writing of a historical novel (entitled Chimera), together with an analytical commentary
AuthorsSimon, Christine A.
Rees, Emma L. E.
MetadataShow full item record
AbstractChimera is set in England and France in the present day and at the turn of the nineteenth century. Henri de Saint-Gilles was executed as a spy in London in 1813 on the evidence of his friend Richard Turnbull. Two hundred years later the novel’s twenty-first-century protagonists, Julia Dalton and Peter Marchmont, are both researching the events surrounding this incident. Marchmont, a delusional café-owner, is convinced that his ancestor Saint-Gilles was wrongly accused and that Turnbull was in fact the spy; since there is no evidence for this version of events, Marchmont has decided to produce it through an elaborate forgery. Dalton, an ambitious postgraduate student who has run out of leads in her research, agrees to pool resources with Marchmont. Her research takes her to Paris, where she meets the eccentric academic Mathias Fournier; together they visit the Château Ruffec, the Saint-Gilles family seat, in the Charente. Here and at the university of Poitiers, they discover documents written by Saint-Gilles’s sisters, Rosine and Manon, concerning a visitor to the château in the summer of 1794. This visitor, who is also the father of Rosine’s illegitimate son, is subsequently discovered to be Richard Turnbull, a fact which has dramatic implications for Marchmont’s understanding of his ancestry. Dalton’s boyfriend Miles Carter, a police detective, has meanwhile become suspicious of her relationship with Marchmont and begins his own investigations, looking into Marchmont’s past and his connection with the career criminal Drue Paulin whom he has employed to steal documents to order. In this novel, past and present are interwoven. The historical narrative proceeds through fictional fragments of varying length, such as diaries, letters and memoirs, many of them written by Turnbull. These alternate with the twenty-first-century narrative and occur in the order of their discovery; thus the historical story is not presented chronologically but jumps around in time. It is also incomplete: there are hiatuses in the narrative, some of which are not explained. Running through the novel, but separate from the main narrative, are the sections of Saint-Gilles’s trial; these provide an official version of events which is complicated, and in places contradicted, by the rest of the narrative. A significant element of the plot concerns Turnbull’s hunt for the French spy in 1812. This is narrated in a journal purloined by Dalton early in the novel, but most of which she is unable to decipher until much later. (Her possession of this journal eventually enables her to detect a factual error in Marchmont’s forgery which would otherwise have gone unnoticed.) The concept of the past is here complicated by the fact that the events of 1812 are linked in Turnbull’s eyes with two significant episodes in his past: the death of his mother in 1788 following her entry into an extreme religious community run by the eccentric preacher Ezekiel Juggins; and an episode of both personal and political significance, only partially explained, which took place in Paris in 1793-94. All the characters involved in these earlier incidents (Juggins, Saint-Gilles and the American John Newman) happen to be in London in the summer of 1812 and are investigated by Turnbull; it is not entirely clear, however, to what extent his official remit masks a personal one. The open-ended nature of research and the relative nature of time are emphasized by the novel’s coda, which takes place in 2028; Dalton receives from Mathias Fournier a copy of two letters written by Richard Turnbull from Paris detailing his meeting in 1825 with the son whom he had believed, on Saint-Gilles’s word, to have died at the age of fourteen. Ambiguity is a major theme in this novel, and to express this the wave-particle complementarity of light has been used, both thematically and as a metaphor. Much of the plot of Chimera rests on Turnbull’s identity: was he a government agent, a French spy or a mere wandering scholar? Dalton considers the idea that Richard Turnbull might best be understood, like light, in terms of a ‘both/and’ paradigm rather than an ‘either/or’ one. The purpose here has been to link forms of duality and ambiguity which have long been recognized in literature (paradox, spying and betrayal, for example) with what appears to be a fundamental ambiguity at the heart of the material universe. One of the intentions underlying this novel was to produce a work which combines plot and suspense with intellectual weight. Through its use of subjective narrative as the means by which the historical plot is advanced, Chimera foregrounds the process of research and the slipperiness of narrative, whether historical or fictional. It is meant to raise questions surrounding the nature of textual evidence: the way in which it influences our view of history; the tension between subjectivity and objectivity; the sometimes tenuous relationship between ‘truth’ and ‘fiction’. The accompanying analytical commentary consists of five essays. The first examines various aspects of the writing of the novel; it discusses the origins of Chimera, some of the influences on it and the narrative techniques and decisions which informed it, including the ways in which the quantum theory of light has been incorporated into the narrative. The remaining four chapters discuss the main areas of research which contributed to the writing of the novel. First, two key texts are analyzed: Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, a polyphonic novel which examines the rise of Nazism in Germany, and John Banville’s The Untouchable, a roman à clef based on the life of Anthony Blunt. These untypical examples of the amorphous genre of historical fiction share features, both with each other and with Chimera; in addition, they demonstrate how history may be incorporated into fiction in an intelligent and imaginative way. Chapter IV, ‘Conventicles and Politics’ discusses some of the essential historical research necessary for the writing of Chimera. The themes of dissenting religion and political radicalism are central to this novel (they are brought together in the opposition of Richard Turnbull and Ezekiel Juggins); the complex relationship between them in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was a defining feature of this period and provided a focus for the historical research carried out during the writing of the novel. Chapter V of the commentary combines a discussion of both history and science. First, it examines the historical controversy surrounding the nature of light in the early nineteenth century, a controversy touched on by Richard Turnbull in his account of Thomas Young’s lecture on light at the Royal Society in 1803. Young’s double-slit experiment is then compared with that of Richard Feynman in the twentieth century, and the implications of wave-particle complementarity are discussed.
CitationSimon, C.A. (2006). Chimera. (Unpublished master's thesis). University of Chester, United Kingdom.
PublisherUniversity of Chester
TypeThesis or dissertation
SponsorsUniversity of Chester Gladstone fellowship.
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