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Reviving Historical Fiction in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life

Renaissance du roman historique, renaissance du passé dans la fiction britannique contemporaine : le cas de Life After Life de Kate Atkinson
Armelle Parey


Cet article propose une lecture de Life after Life (2013) de Kate Atkinson comme fiction historique contemporaine qui consiste à représenter le passé de façon réaliste sans oublier toutefois les leçons du postmodernisme. Life after Life englobe les deux guerres mondiales par le biais des vies d’Ursula Todd et de sa famille et poursuit de façon idiosyncratique le propos traditionnel du roman historique de créer une forme d’empathie entre hier et aujourd’hui (De Groot 2010, 27), combinant paradoxalement distance et immersion du lecteur. Afin d’examiner la mise en tension de la prétention à l’authenticité et de l’auto-réfléxivité au coeur du roman, cet article examine d’abord le point de vue choisi pour représenter la guerre, celui des femmes en marge des batailles, puis étudie l’assemblage peu commun de stratégies narratives pour reconstruire le passé : d’une part, l’utilisation de la technique de récits alternatifs et d’autre part, l’emphase sur l’affect et les sens qui ensemble contribuent à renouveler le roman historique.

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  • 1 ‘The historical novel did not become a ‘recessive form’ after the First World War as Anderson claim (...)

1I must start with a comment on the title of this article—‘Reviving historical fiction’—which might imply that historical fiction was dead before. There are indeed many articles and books about the rebirth or revival of historical fiction: Joseph Brooker called his 2015 article ‘Reanimating Historical Fiction’ (emphasis added), a position also defended by Perry Anderson in 2011. However, in her response to Anderson’s essay, Diana Wallace shows that historical fiction never disappeared and was always practised by women but that no attention was paid to it and that until recently, women’s novels were excluded from discussion of the genre (starting with Lukacs who only discusses novels by male authors).1

2Having said that, it is undeniably true that, since the 1980s, there has been a marked resurgence of history in English fiction. As Jerome De Groot boldly asserts at the very beginning of his overview of the historical novel 1980-2018, ‘It could be argued that the British historical novel is the most important, influential and enduring literary genre of the last thirty-five years’ (De Groot 2019, 169). However, just as one cannot step into the same river twice, the re-birth of the historical novel is necessarily accompanied by changes and takes new forms. It is thus said of Hilary Mantel who won the Man Booker Prize twice, in 2009 and in 2012, with historical novels centred on the figure of Thomas Cromwell, that she ‘rereads and reinvents the genre . . .’ (Hanson 23; emphasis added). We are talking here of new trends in the historical novels, distinct from Linda Hutcheon’s historiographic metafiction and its disruptive narrative strategies, marked by distance, irony, parody and pastiche. Indeed, in 1991, Fredric Jameson declared that ‘the historical novel can no longer set out to represent the historical past; it can only “represent” our ideas and stereotypes about that past (which thereby becomes pop history)’ (Jameson 25). Since then, this ironic stand has been subsumed in a return to ‘a fresh commitment to what we might call the reality of history’ (Boxall 41) marked by the ‘struggle towards a historical realism that remains beyond the grasp of a narrative that is alive to its own limitations’ (Boxall 64). Looking at contemporary novels that represent the Second World War, Alexandra Stewart notes the presence of ‘the postmodern sense of uncertainty about knowledge of the past’ yet tempered by ‘an eschewal of radical uncertainty’ (3) while Daniel O’Gorman and Robert Eaglestone generally refer to ‘works that maintain postmodernism’s self-reflexive playfulness while also adhering to an underlying sense of emotional truthfulness’ (2). New attempts are made to represent the past realistically without dismissing the lessons of postmodernism in the line of post-postmodernism and ‘new sincerity’ or metamodernism. At the same time, the borders of the genre have been pushed back and made less marked as quite generally, the past and its impact on the present have become a major concern in contemporary fiction, relying on forms and modes usually beyond the remit of historical fiction (see Eaglestone).

3Kate Atkinson is part of this trend as, in the last ten years, she has published three novels that are all paradoxically committed to re-imagining the Second World War, striving for accuracy and truthfulness, yet forcing self-consciousness on the reader in various ways. The first one, Life After Life (2013), offers narratives that all together range from February 11th 1910—the day of the heroine’s birth—to 1967 or, mostly, the aftermath of World War II. It thus fits Walter Scott’s ‘Tis 60 years since’ at the outset of Waverley that has been accepted as a benchmark for historical fiction but its narrative structure differs greatly from traditional narratives. In addition to being an instance of a re-birth of the historical novel with necessarily attending changes, the notion of renaissance as ‘rebirth’ is actually illustrated literally in Life After Life which offers successive versions of Ursula Todd’s life as the heroine is born, dies, is born again, lives, dies again and so on and so on, each time hoping to improve the world she lives in by trying to avoid causes of death or misery.

4This article will show how Life After Life straddles two tendencies: the 1990s’ ‘new versions of the genre [of historical fiction] which they [women writers] shaped to reflect their sense of history as subjective, multiple, contingent and fragmented’ (Wallace 2004, 203) and Peter Boxall’s remark that ‘the fiction of the twenty-first century . . . invents new forms with which to narrate the past’ (40). Life After Life pursues the traditional aim to create ‘a living empathy, a live connection between then and now’ (De Groot 2010, 27) but this is achieved in an uncommon way: through a combination of distance and self-consciousness and a form of immersion. In order to explore this unresolved tension between a claim to exactness coupled with self-consciousness, the following pages will initially discuss the chosen perspective on the war, here seen from the margins as the focus is on the women of the Todd family, and then examine the unusual combination of narrative strategies at work to reconstruct the past: first, the use of the forking-path narrative technique and second, the emphasis on affect and the senses that together contribute to renewing the historical novel.

Women’s Experiences of the War

5Even though she was born after the Second World War (in 1951) and did not experience it first-hand, Atkinson considers this book as her ‘bearing witness to the past’ (Author’s note). In Life After Life, she strives to create ‘an atmosphere of authenticity or narrative credibility’ (Author’s Note), which is confirmed by the addition of a list of sources in her ‘author’s note’ at the end. What she bears witness to in this novel are the lives and perceptions of individuals, especially women, in relation to the wars. In this respect, Life After Life illustrates one of the tenets of contemporary representations of the past, which is to focus on previously neglected figures or events which can be considered as a form of revisionism, i.e., ‘the attempt to reconsider historical consensus and offer critique, or to include unaccustomed agents in the historical account’ (Brooker 169). Atkinson’s fiction supplements the historical record in the sense that it makes space for these ordinary lives that are not part of the record. Thus, the re-imagining of female experience in Life After Life and in fiction in general parallels the work of feminist historians: ‘to recover women’s submerged or unrealized past’ (Anderson 130).

6As Life After Life revisits the first half of the twentieth century from the margins, focusing on the home front through the lives of members of the Todd family, war developments and battlegrounds remain in the background. Brief allusions to key historical events are made from the characters’ point of view, with no didactic exposition by the narrator. For instance, the mention of the peace agreement or non-aggression pact signed by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain with Nazi Germany in September 1938 is made in the following terms: ‘Sylvie had been in a good mood that day and they had drawn together over the subject of curtains and the idiocy of people who thought that Chamberlain’s silly little piece of paper meant anything at all’ (Atkinson 250). The narrator refers to a day when Ursula’s mother came up to London and bought curtains for her daughter’s new flat. Not only does the syllepsis that brings together curtains and politics yoke together domestic and political preoccupations and point to women’s double involvement, one foot in the private world and the other in the public one, but the women show perspicacity and are later proved right by historical events.

7The war is thus depicted in terms of its consequences on the lives of civilians. The First World War is seen from a distance through the Todd female household at Fox Corner, servants included, in the countryside as Hugh, the father, has joined up. The narrative repeatedly says they are in a frenzy of knitting ‘to keep their men warm’ (Atkinson 61). The repetition of the activity (Atkinson 64, 85) underlines their narrow range of action. The narrative shows how they are affected through their male relations. If the father of the Todd family returns unharmed, their cook, Mrs Glover, sees her son fatally injured in a gas attack (Atkinson 74). As for their servant Bridget, after the death of her first fiancé (Atkinson 75), she becomes engaged after the war with another local young man whose face is half hidden by a tin mask. He is depicted through the perspective of the child Ursula: ‘The mask had one wide-open eye painted blue to match the real one. ‘Enough to frighten the horses, isn’t it?’ he said and smiled. She wished he hadn’t because his mouth wasn’t covered by the mask. His lips were puckered and strange, as if they were an afterthought, stitched on after he was born’ (Atkinson 80). With this minor character, Atkinson briefly evokes the situation of the men facially disfigured in the war as well as the (few) masks created by Francis Derwent Wood.

8Life After Life evokes the changes more or less rapidly met by women after the war through Izzie, Hugh’s single, fashionable, reckless and selfish sister. An ambulance driver during the war, Izzie then adopts a bobbed haircut and declares: ‘The modern woman must fend for herself without the prospect of the succour of hearth and home’ (Atkinson 153). Izzie’s somewhat hyperbolic phrasing, mixing the literary and the clichéd, makes her sincerity somewhat doubtful. At the same time, Hugh and Sylvie’s conservative and hostile reactions indicate the reception met by this change in attitude at the time.

9Life After Life contributes to giving visibility to the very diverse ways in which ordinary women experienced the war years. At the time of WWII, Ursula’s sister Pamela becomes a resilient, motherly but politically-conscious figure along with Sylvie who turns to breeding animals and growing vegetables. They represent different types of nurturers while Ursula lives through the Blitz, dying in the rubble or working as an ARP warden. If Atkinson believes that women ‘had exciting times in the war’ (Schulman) and that she depicts it in Life After Life through the female characters’ various lives, she does not minimise the gender restrictions at work then and later but denounces them through irony. Thus, about Ursula, the narrator caustically reports:

. . . the men who interviewed her for the job in the Home Office, men she would never see again, clearly believed that her proficiency in the Classics would somehow stand her in better stead when opening and closing filing-cabinet drawers and conducting endless searches among a sea of buffcoloured folders. It wasn’t quite the ‘interesting job’ she had envisaged but it kept her attention and over the next ten years she rose slowly through the ranks, in the bridled way that women did. . . . Now Ursula had her own junior clericals to chase down the buff folders for her. She supposed that was progress.’ (Atkinson 241, emphasis added)

  • 2 See A Woman in Berlin, quoted by Atkinson in her list of sources.

10World War II is represented mostly through Ursula’s experiences, in London at the time of the Blitz (September 1940–May 1941), whether working for the Home Office and/or as an ARP warden. But one of Ursula’s lives takes her and the reader to Germany, at the time of Hitler’s rise, then later to Hitler’s Berchtesgaden as she is invited by a friend of a friend (August 1939) and spends time with Eva Braun. This life of Ursula’s in Germany broadens the scope of women’s experiences depicted in the novel, as it evokes the bombing of Berlin and the consequences on the civilians.2

11The depiction of a wide range of women’s forms of involvement (whether passive or active) in the wars is facilitated by the unusual narrative structure of Life After Life.

Variations on Traditional Historical Fiction: The Forking-path Narrative and the Anti-mimetic

  • 3 A counter-example is Sarah Waters’s The Night Watch (2006) that tells events backwards, starting in (...)
  • 4 ‘Historical novels are often judged in this way, reviewed according to their evidentiary weight and (...)

12Despite a few notable exceptions, historical fiction rarely challenges traditional narration (with a beginning, middle and end)3 as it tends to be both written and judged in relation with the realist mode,4 a mode that is taken up by neo-historical fiction too (see Rousselot 4) but from which Life After Life strays.

13First, the table of contents at the start of Life After Life clearly indicates an unusual non-linearity as the dates dart back and forth. For instance, the first headings indicate (in this order): ‘Be Ye Men of Valour November 1930,’ ‘Snow 11 February 1910,’ ‘Snow 11 February 1910,’ ‘Four Seasons Fill the Measure of the Year 11 February 1910, May 1910, June 1914,’ ‘Snow 11 February 1910’ etc. Throughout the table of contents, there are jumps and leaps in time, sometimes big ones: from the 1918 armistice to ‘Peace’ which is in fact set in 1947 (after the Second World War and not the First as expected).

14Secondly, the second and third part quickly establish the premise of the narrative: in the second part, Ursula dies at birth and in the third one, we understand the same scene is replayed but this time the doctor has arrived and she lives. In a later example, she dies in pursuit of her doll on the roof (Atkinson 65–66) while in another version, ‘Ursula had been about to plunge out of the window . . . when something made her hesitate’ (Atkinson 73). Even though the decisions are at first made for her and they are later more or less conscious, as the novel is structured around Ursula’s death or survival at diverse precise junctures, Life After Life reads as a forking-path narrative on the paradigm described by Borgès:

In all fiction, when a man is faced with alternatives he chooses one at the expense of the others. In the almost unfathomable Ts’ui Pen, he chooses—simultaneously—all of them. He thus creates various futures, various times which start others that will in their turn branch out and bifurcate in other times. This is the cause of the contradictions in the novel. (98)

  • 5 Ilana Shiloh considers Paul Auster’s 4321 to be a forking-path narrative because of its ‘four paral (...)

15Borgès’s story explains the principle of the forking-path but does not employ it itself. Possibly because of their extreme complexity, forking-path plots are little used in novels.5 Life After Life however really is ‘a multi-nexus organization’ (Gallagher 23) as it works around more than one moment of choice or chance in Life After Life and the possibilities seem endless. Indeed, if we often return to the day of Ursula’s birth, this is however not the same fork that presents itself at different stages of the character’s life. One of the effects of the forking-path narrative is to stress the cause-and-effect connections, the consequences of the past on the future or the present. For instance, after being assaulted by Howie, a friend of her unpleasant brother Maurice, Ursula loses confidence and dies under her husband’s blows whereas, when she derails the assault in another life, she continues a life over which she has a little more control.

  • 6 Conversely, in Auster’s 4321, the final version of Archie Ferguson (not his ‘real’ name) is reveale (...)

16Life After Life is remarkable for its combination of history and fantasy or the anti-mimetic. Ursula’s unexplained ability to be born again every time she dies disrupts the verisimilitude expected by the reader and introduces a strong element of fantasy. There is no (rational) explanation for Ursula’s succession of lives and the enigma remains unresolved.6 However, Life After Life does not depict counterfactual history and as Ursula’s multiplicity of lives is the only way in which the narrative really contravenes the rules of the real world, we will put aside the word ‘fantasy’ that tends to suggest alternative worlds, for the adjective ‘antimimetic’ which Brian Richardson uses for represented events that ‘do not copy or extend but rather violate some of the laws of everyday existence; these events cannot happen in real life’ (Richardson 3).

17Over these narratives that repeat themselves with significant variations, it appears that Ursula manages to live longer each time as she learns to steer away from events with disastrous consequences. Life After Life could thus be argued to be a novel of self-realisation as Ursula is shaped and formed into an adult by the events she encounters and overcomes, gradually learns to survive a little longer each time by making the right decision. However, rather than offering just one development from A to B (even allowing for errors and obstacles), Life After Life offers several developing processes that cancel each other in their coexistence. None is privileged over the other. In this respect, Life After Life is like an anti-Bildungsroman as the multiplicity of possible lives suggests a rejection of temporal linearity which is associated with masculine time: what Julia Kristeva identifies as ‘a certain conception of time: time as project, teleology, linear and prospective unfolding; time as departure, progression, and arrival-in other words, the time of history’ (17).

  • 7 Ursula’s name is Todd, which sounds like the word for death in German: ‘Der Tod.’
  • 8 Drawing on Norman N. Holland’s work, Mangen and van der Weel sum up: ‘The pleasure the reader deriv (...)

18The forking-path structure multiplies the lives of Ursula but it also multiplies her deaths,7 which repeatedly brings the narrative to a halt, introduces discontinuity and thwarts the reader’s expectations. And if the reader’s natural movement is to trust referential illusion (Jouve 108) and enjoy the unfolding of the narrative,8 is not this tendency held in check by every sudden stoppage in the narrative, every re-birth of Ursula’s in Life After Life?

  • 9 Richardson places Life After Life among contradictory plots (73), i.e., plots that include contradi (...)

19It is indeed a view commonly held that ‘high levels of readerly self-consciousness tend to be incompatible with affective involvement’ (Daly 235). As Vera Nünning reminds us, ‘Readers’ emotions and feelings of empathy with the characters are closely connected to the degree of immersion’ (Nünning 39). In Life After Life, the multiple endings and breaks in the narrative, the unrealistic re-enacting of Ursula’s life with significant differences rupture the reader’s immersion and could lead to a lack of concern and involvement in the fate of the character. In a contradictory novel like Life After Life, Richardson admits: ‘Our immersion is interrupted, dissolved, and largely restored, though in a diminished form’ (77).9

Suzanne Keen observes that
Postmodern fiction is often regarded as more cognitively pleasurable than emotionally inviting, with its emphases on ironies, parody, pastiche, and metafictional moves that draw attention to the artifice of the work . . . but contemporary novels often combine surprising formal experiments that lay bare the devices of fictionality with invitations to share in the intensities of embodied experience. (2019, 64; emphasis added)

  • 10 According to Daly, ‘the character-based, plot-driven is very much the dominant, and even the more k (...)

20This is exactly what Atkinson does in Life After Life.10 Each new life of Ursula is a challenge to verisimilitude and realism yet we, the reader, still care about the character and the situations she finds herself in. Ursula’s many deaths, and the playfulness the structure entails, do not prevent the reader from being emotionally involved, just as in Atonement, even after it has been revealed as an invention of Briony’s, ‘the richly embodied account of [Robbie’s trek to beach at Dunkirk] suffers no erasure’ (Keen 2019, 65).

21Life After Life operates a departure from realism with this ‘anti-mimetic’ set-up (it is generally understood that you only live once...) and in its narrative rendition but not in terms of theme as historical events and characters remain unchanged (Life After Life is not a counterfactual narrative). For instance, two chapters are headed with the same date 2 Sept 1939. The same day unfolds with the only apparent difference that Ursula buys or does not buy a yellow crèpe de chine dress with different follow-ups in each case (Atkinson 248, 273). But these variations at an individual level do not change the background fact that 2 Sept 1939 is the day before Britain and France declared war to Germany (and when British children were evacuated from the cities). The forking-path structure does not entail that Life After Life is about the subjectivity or the fragmentary dimension of historical knowledge, as in the fiction of the 1980s and 90s (Wallace 2004, 204), but mostly enhances the notion of chance and of decision-making at an individual level while offering a wide panel of women’s war experiences.

  • 11 Lisa Ottum aptly ‘contends that attending to the impact of writerly style on readerly response offe (...)

22The remaining pages of this paper will focus on how an affective and emotional response is solicited from the reader in order to participate in the re-imagining of women’s war experience, relying on the premise first, that readers do not form a judgement on a book and a character through reason only (see Ruth Leys 436) but also through affect and secondly, that this response is guided by narrative strategy (and writerly style).11

Strategies for a Readerly Experience of WWII

  • 12 In James’s words, ‘You may multiply the little facts to be got from pictures and documents, relics (...)

23David Lodge reminds us that Henry ‘James disapproved of historical fiction as a genre, on the grounds that it was impossible to reconstruct life as actually experienced by people in the past’ (50)12 and yet writers like Atkinson somehow attempt to make the reader experience the past . . . This attempt is precisely what Keen calls ‘an old project of the English novel, the education of the sympathetic imagination, by employing narrative empathy strategically in a wide array of generic contexts’ (Keen 2019, 74).

24In Atkinson’s version of historical fiction in Life After Life, in order to make the reader experience the past, the forking-path narrative is thus harnessed with strategies meant to engage the reader’s emotions and/or attention. Richardson explains that despite the breaches in the narrator’s immersion, Atkinson maintains suspense and interest in her character’s fate because she plays on surprise and defeats the reader’s expectations in terms of pattern. Richardson thus points to the change during the narration of the Blitz when Ursula dies three times in a row almost on the same spot in a street undergoing or having undergone bombing in London (Richardson 75). This acceleration or change of rhythm with Ursula’s death occurring in the same place also indicates the heightened danger in wartime and illustrates the variety of civilian casualties.

  • 13 The French-speaking reader can also turn to Vincent Jouve, Pouvoirs de la fiction (97–108).
  • 14 Also what Dorrit Cohn describes as consonant narrator (‘a narrator who remains effaced and who read (...)
  • 15 ‘It has been a commonplace of narrative theory that an internal perspective, achieved either throug (...)

25Moreover, as Suzanne Keen indicates, ‘The generic and formal choices made by authors in crafting fictional worlds play a role in inviting (or retarding) readers’ empathic response’ (2006, 215).13 The reader of Life After Life is and remains drawn to Ursula and her experiences of the past because of ‘formal means by which texts shape a reader’s or viewer’s access to character,’ which Rita Felski calls ‘alignment’ in her attempt to clarify the notion of ‘identification’ (93). In Life After Life, these formal means include third-person narration coupled with internal focalisation14 which court reader empathy—when ‘we feel what we believe to be the emotions of others’ (Keen 2006, 208)—through immersion in the character’s thoughts as ‘the interior representation of characters’ consciousness and emotional states’ is one of the ‘devices supporting character identification, contributing to empathetic experiences’ (Keen 2006, 213).15 The reader thus feels Ursula’s sense of entrapment and despair when she realises she can no longer leave Nazi Germany (Atkinson 339, 343) as well as her mixture of resignation and self-loathing in her life as a battered wife. Moreover, even if a specific date is given for every chapter, the text does not necessarily correspond to this date only, as it espouses the protagonist’s rambling train of thoughts so that analepses feature largely. For instance, Sylvie’s visit to Ursula in Germany in 1934 (Atkinson 339) appears in a chapter dated 1939. This fluctuation between moments in time also reinforces the notion, enhanced by the forking-path narrative that everything is connected.

26Another way to enlist the reader’s empathy to convey access to the past is the emphasis on materiality and on the senses. The materiality of the war period is conveyed through lists of objects that denote referentiality and act as codes for the atmosphere of the time, as indicated by the depiction of Ursula’s preparation for the war on the day before the declaration (2 Sept 1939):

  • 16 A similar description of Ursula’s activities is given in her life in Germany, also on 2nd September (...)

She had spent the morning on Kensington High Street, stocking up—batteries for her torch, a new hot-water bottle, candles, matches, endless amounts of black paper, as well as tins of baked beans and potatoes, vacuum-packed coffee. She had bought clothes too, a good woollen frock for eight pounds, a green velvet jacket for six, stockings and a pair of leather brogues that looked made to last. (Atkinson 247)16

27The part entitled ‘A Long Hard War’ is set during the Blitz and Ursula is then an ARP. As a result of the bombing, houses and streets are reduced to a list of fragments from homes: ‘The rubble had been homes half an hour ago, now those same homes were just a hellish jumble of bricks, broken joists and floorboards, furniture, pictures, rugs, bedding, books, crockery, lino, glass. People. The crushed fragments of lives, never to be whole again’ (Atkinson 352). The elements act as synecdoches for people’s ordinary lives and their disjointedness conveys the sense that all is irremediably destroyed.

28As the narrative returns for the fourth time to the bombed site on Argyll Road, the dual position of the reader—brought about by the forking-path structure—who both espouses Ursula’s viewpoint through internal focalisation and remains distant as s/he remembers Ursula’s previous and alternative lives raises a form of ethical awareness. Every time, the same horrible trick of the eye applies as Ursula first identifies a dress before she realises that she is looking at a woman’s headless body. However, in this fourth occurrence, Ursula looks at the scene with an external detached perspective when the reader recognises ‘the woman’ (390) as Lavinia Nesbit since she was introduced earlier as one of Ursula’s neighbours on Argyll Road. This repetition of the perception of the headless dress allows for a self-reflexive reflection on narrative empathy as Ursula’s external perception of the scene in ‘A Long Hard War’ (as in that life she does not know Lavinia Nesbit) now deprives the situation of sentiment and emotion.

  • 17 Dorrit Cohn points out the intertwining of thoughts with sense perception as a way to convey unicit (...)
  • 18 I am drawing here on what Collela says of the use of smells in The Crimson Petal and the White
  • 19 Of course, this is not accurate because what Lowenthal says of actual organs is also true of our im (...)

29As said above, Life After Life is mostly narrated through internal focalisation and this takes the form of a rendering of the external diegetic world through the senses of the protagonists,17 which can read as a move towards a form of realism. Indeed, ‘perception is the first operation of all our intellectual faculties, and the inlet of all knowledge into our minds’ (Locke §15, 69), i.e., we first access the world through sensory perception (Hogan 2010, 76). This has a specific appeal in the case of historical novels as the past is made to appear concrete18 through visual, aural and olfactory indications to the reader.19 In an interview on the writing of Hamnet (2020) set at the end of the 16th-century-early 17th-century, Maggie O’Farrell mentions the use of sensory details to convey a sense of the distant past:

if you’re going to animate people who lived so long ago, their lives are so different from us, so unfamiliar to ours, you need to have something that the reader can hang, can sort of grasp, so something like the smell of leather or the sound of a horse, just something that feels familiar that they can get a foothold in the narrative.20 (my transcription)

30The Blitz in Life After Life is thus narrated through Ursula’s senses when, in a chapter set in November 1940, Atkinson seemingly buries her reader along with her heroine under the debris caused by a bombing through the emphasis of Ursula’s senses, starting notably with the sense of smell emphasised in the first 9-line-long paragraph: ‘smell . . . fetid stench . . . stink . . . smell’ (249). This chapter alternates between the moment of Ursula’s imminent death as she is lying in the debris and memories of more or less distant events in a stream of consciousness that follows Ursula’s wandering thoughts triggered by her senses (for instance, the vision of the window’s curtains brings back the time when she bought them with mother Sylvie (249–250)). In another version of September 1940 in which Ursula works as an ARP warden, the narrative also relies on a description of her physical reaction (vomiting after a failed rescue (358)) and senses to convey a feel of the situation: unseeing by ‘a moonless night,’ she is hit by ‘the stink . . . the smell’ and guided by her hearing with the sound of voices and of the ‘rumble’ of a bombed building (Atkinson 352). The appeal to the reader’s senses through the depiction of the character’s works as a way to experience the past.

31To conclude, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life can be read as an illustration of the contemporary renaissance or rebirth of historical fiction in that it confronts its reader with a representation of the past which invites the reader to experience the past but also somehow to reflect upon it. The forking-path narrative structure complements the historical record as it enables multiple versions of women’s lives during and in-between the two world wars. Its challenges to, and constant interruptions of, traditional historical narration however do not destroy the reader’s interest all the more so as it is coupled with techniques that solicit the reader’s empathy and ‘alignment’ (Felski).

32What does such an imaginative return to the past tell us? First, contrary to the recurring charge of escapism, recent instances of historical novels seem to be vehicles for contemporary issues. Life after Life, like most of Atkinson’s novels, is about women (presented as victims or empowered) and the limits set on them because of their gender. In one of her unhappy lives, Ursula is raped by a friend of her brother’s and later dies under the blows of her violent husband, which resonates with today’s lasting situation regarding unreported rapes (performed by friends of the family) and with the current focus on hitherto ignored feminicides. Secondly, the fact that the experimental (with the use of the forking-path narrative) and the appeal to reader empathy can be combined and are not merely to be opposed may illustrate a trend both in writing and in reading.

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1 ‘The historical novel did not become a ‘recessive form’ after the First World War as Anderson claims. Instead it became, in Britain at least, a predominantly female form. Writers as disparate as Naomi Mitchison, Rose Macaulay, Georgette Heyer, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Bryher, Hilda Vaughan, Kate O’Brien, D.K. Broster, H.F.M. Prescott, Rosemary Sutcliff, Mary Renault and Jean Rhys reinvented the genre in radical ways’ (Wallace 2011).

2 See A Woman in Berlin, quoted by Atkinson in her list of sources.

3 A counter-example is Sarah Waters’s The Night Watch (2006) that tells events backwards, starting in 1947 and ending in 1941.

4 ‘Historical novels are often judged in this way, reviewed according to their evidentiary weight and realist purpose’ (De Groot 2019, 170).

5 Ilana Shiloh considers Paul Auster’s 4321 to be a forking-path narrative because of its ‘four parallel segments of the protagonist’s personal history’ (§8). In the theatre, Alan Ayckbourn’s play Intimate Exchanges faces the protagonists with either/or decisions and explores the consequences of the choices made. Alternatively, gamebooks in children’s literature and young adults’ fiction offer different paths to their protagonists: these are instances of hypertext fiction that actively involve the reader as s/he is asked to make choices.

6 Conversely, in Auster’s 4321, the final version of Archie Ferguson (not his ‘real’ name) is revealed to be the author of the other 3.

7 Ursula’s name is Todd, which sounds like the word for death in German: ‘Der Tod.’

8 Drawing on Norman N. Holland’s work, Mangen and van der Weel sum up: ‘The pleasure the reader derives from a fictional narrative thus depends on the reader being passive and being “transported” by the reading experience’ (Mangen and van der Weel 5).

9 Richardson places Life After Life among contradictory plots (73), i.e., plots that include contradictions. Richardson adds: ‘Though one might think that a series of major contradictions in the story line would kill off narrative interest, it turns out that many of these works are compulsively readable despite the contradictions—including the multiple deaths of the protagonists’ (Richardson 73).

10 According to Daly, ‘the character-based, plot-driven is very much the dominant, and even the more knowing and experimental novels of recent years offer a vacillation between estrangement effects and emotional engagement’ (Daly 2015, 237).

11 Lisa Ottum aptly ‘contends that attending to the impact of writerly style on readerly response offers the critic a way to factor in the affective charge of the text’ (Ahern 18).

12 In James’s words, ‘You may multiply the little facts to be got from pictures and documents, relics and prints, as much as you like,’ writes James, but ‘the real thing is almost impossible to do, and in its absence the whole effect is nought; I mean the invention, the representation of the old consciousness.’ (Letter to Sarah Orne Jewett dated 5 October 1901 quoted in Knox 131).

13 The French-speaking reader can also turn to Vincent Jouve, Pouvoirs de la fiction (97–108).

14 Also what Dorrit Cohn describes as consonant narrator (‘a narrator who remains effaced and who readily fuses with the consciousness he narrates’, 43).

15 ‘It has been a commonplace of narrative theory that an internal perspective, achieved either through first person self-narration, through figural narration (in which the 3rd person narrator stays covert and reports only on a single, focal center of consciousness located in a main character) or through authorial (omniscient) narration that moves inside characters’ minds, best promotes character identification and readers’ empathy.’ (Keen 2006, 219).

16 A similar description of Ursula’s activities is given in her life in Germany, also on 2nd September 39: ‘She stocked up on batteries and torches and candles, she bought canned goods and blackout material, she shopped for clothes for Frieda in Wertheim’s department store—one and two sizes bigger in case the war went on for a long time’ (Atkinson 342). This repetition that forwards her wariness and ability to anticipate can read as an indication of Ursula’s unicity of character but also as a sign of the similarity of women’s lives and fates on either side of the conflict.

17 Dorrit Cohn points out the intertwining of thoughts with sense perception as a way to convey unicity between the narrator and the character (31, 49–50).

18 I am drawing here on what Collela says of the use of smells in The Crimson Petal and the White

19 Of course, this is not accurate because what Lowenthal says of actual organs is also true of our imaginary ones: ‘twenty-first-century sensory organs cannot see, feel, hear, taste, or smell old things as they first were’ (300) because our senses are marked by contemporary flavours and sounds so that ‘we can glimpse something of past sensory worlds, but remain in the dark about how they were once felt’ (Lowenthal 301).

20 Encounter with Maggie O’Farrell, 29 April 2021, Centre Culturel Irlandais, Paris

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Armelle Parey, « Reviving Historical Fiction in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 62 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2022, consulté le 22 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Armelle Parey

Armelle Parey is a senior lecturer at the Université de Caen-Normandie, France. Her research focuses on contemporary English-speaking fiction and she has co-directed several collections of essays and special issues on the question of endings: Happy Endings and Films (Michel Houdiard, 2010); Literary Happy Endings, Closure for Sunny Imaginations (Shaker Verlag, 2012), L’Inachevé ou l’ère des possibles dans la littérature anglophone, Récits ouverts et incomplets (Presses universitaires de Caen, 2014); Character Migration in Anglophone Literature (E-Réa, revue électronique d’études sur le monde anglophone 13.1, 2015); Adapting Endings from Book to Screen (Routledge, 2019). She also co-edited A.S. Byatt, Before and after Possession: Recent Critical Approaches (PUN-Editions de Lorraine, 2017), Reading Ian McEwan’s Mature Fiction: New Critical Approaches (PUN-Editions de Lorraine, 2020) and edited Prequels, Coquels and Sequels in Contemporary Anglophone Fiction (Routledge, 2018).

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