Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is a novel written around the year 2018, but the story takes place in the British Isles in 1810 after the battle of Corunna and the British retreat from Portugal. How does the book communicate this information to the reader? More broadly, how does it communicate the plot?
This gets us into the issue of exposition. A definition: Narrative exposition is the insertion of background information within a story or narrative. This information can be about the setting, characters' backstories, prior plot events, historical context, etc. In literature, exposition appears in the form of expository writing embedded within the narrative.
Exposition is different from narration, but may be artfully woven within it. Artful insertions. (What!) Skillful embeddings.
(Innuendo! Stop it! I demand you stop it!)
Stop what, my friend?
(This twisting of words, this playing with meanings. A thing is a thing, not something else—and certainly not sexual).
One way to do this explaining, a way my friend might follow, would be to state in no uncertain terms, “This story is set in the British Isles in the year 1810 during the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon was the Emperor of France and a foe of the British. At this time, people rode horses or walked because cars hadn’t yet been invented. Neither had Netflix.” With this information, you could begin reading Now, and understand many of the references and the behavior of the characters.
A second way, and the way Now follows, is to show the settings and the character’s consciousness and interactions, and let this “tell the tale.”
On page one, a storm is occurring. Horses are pulling a sort of carriage through atrocious weather, driven by a man identified as a postilion, who is trying to find a house in the violent darkness. Back along the road, he’s seen candlelight in a farmhouse window. He has a passenger in the cab, a “poor wretch,” who may well perish unless the postilion finds a particular house.
Several things cue the reader as to time/space context. First, of course, there is the presence of a carriage (probably a post chaise) pulled by horses. This suggests rather strongly that the story takes place pre modern times. The designation “postilion” further establishes that this is no current drama. If you know what a postilion was, or look the word up, you learn it was the driver of a post chaise, that it’s often a term used in novels from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, often European novels. And candlelight—its presence is not conclusive, but it does fit in with a historical context.
On the fourth page, the postilion has found the house. He tells Nell, the housekeeper, that the man he has brought to the house “had come up from the coast the day before. From Portsmouth…there were soldiers back from Spain.”
Nell’s character then communicates exposition via her private thoughts. While unpacking his gear, she recalls when the unconscious man had left for war, how his kit was spread over the bed—his boots and uniform, the shirts she’d sewn for him. “He had been with the regiment three years already, bought his commission the autumn after his father died, but he had not been on campaign before…” From his pack, she takes a cavalry pistol and accidently points it at the unconscious man, thereby delivering a bit of foreshadowing. From these ruminations, the reader learns the man is a soldier who has been away at war. His name, John Lacroix.
The busy doctor helps in explanation. “As for the news the doctor had anticipated, it did not come from John Lacroix but from the brush seller, a pedlar who crisscrossed the county like some industrious insect…He told the housekeeper…that the army had been chased out of Spain, that there had been a battle at a place whose name he could not recall…that the British general had been killed…What was left of the army…had escaped in ships.” At this point, we don’t know if Lacroix was in the battle, but we can infer he was one of those who escaped by sea.
The visit by Captain Wood, one of Lacroix’s fellow officers, fills in more information.
Is this more subtle approach to exposition necessary? A tough question. It makes sense that the postilion would tell Nell what he knew about the soldier. Would Nell think about the soldier’s history while going through his belongings? Maybe. Objects often trigger associations of when we last saw them. However, if she didn’t, the story would be even more open to the reader’s making meaning. The issue here is how much exposition is too much, how much is not enough. It’s a judgment call. Readers often enjoy having elements of the story explained, and this exposition via Nell’s thoughts is artfully done. Without it, there would be more suspense in Now, as the reader wonders what is going on with Lacroix. It is not till Chapter 2, when the story shifts to Portugal and the character of Calley is introduced, that questions like, what is the story about? begin to be answered.
There is another more subtle cue as to when the story takes place. The implied author, whose presence we have previously described as being revealed by a novel’s style, has written a contemporary novel in the style of a book from two hundred years past, utilizing language and the choice of the omniscient narrator, which, two hundred years ago was a common narrative device. So the novel “reads” like a much older book.
We shall further explore these matters, best beloved. Next time.