All history lies to us, but at least historical fiction admits it

Illustration by Glen McBeth

As everyone knows, historical fiction is enjoying an unprecedented boom. No matter what your taste in time period or type of book, you can find it catered for, whether it be Viking, Roman, colonial, Restoration, Regency, family epic, detective, medical, conspiracy, thriller, romance or horror.

Celebrated literary fiction writers from Julian Barnes to David Mitchell write heavyweight tomes, or you can head for the more satisfying genre crunch of Harry Sidebottom, Philippa Gregory, or Robert Harris. Readers this summer will have taken historical novels with them for the beach, luxuriating in the chance to spend some time with, say, The Crimson Petal and the White or the latest from James Forrester or Alison Weir.

Literary prizes are now regularly awarded to a form that not so long ago was dismissed as a “bodice-ripper with a bibliography”. The success of Hilary Mantel’s monumental Wolf Hall and crossover writers such as Sarah Waters has given legitimacy to a type of writing that throughout the 20th century struggled to be accepted by the mainstream.

The market is booming, the novels are receiving prizes galore, and the public rush to meet their favourite author at events. Hollywood now uses writers like Gregory, Tracy Chevalier, Patrick O’Brian and David Peace for its source material. Even professional historians, for a long time rather sniffy about the historical novel, are using them in their teaching (and increasingly turning their hand to writing them).

So why is this the case? Why are we so fascinated by these fictional versions of the past? How have they become legitimate ways of thinking about history? More to the point, should we be worried by this?

Well, one answer is: this isn’t actually anything new. Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley (1814) sparked an explosion in historical novel writing that makes this current blip look very minor indeed. One could easily argue that without Scott we would not have most of the classics of European literature – Flaubert, Manzoni, Tolstoy, Eliot, Dickens, Pushkin and Victor Hugo all wrote in his shadow.

Those writers saw in Scott a new way to think about the nature of history itself. Fiction allowed them to explore, interrogate and imagine the past. They thought that using fiction as a means of comprehending and representing the past was as valid – and as important – as any other kind of historical writing.

Historical novels do historical work. Their unique combination of education and escapism allows the reader to think about the ways in which what we call ‘history’ works.

As the results of a survey I recently conducted of readers of historical fiction make clear, people turn to historical novels to educate themselves as much as to seek enjoyment (you can take the survey yourself at www.meetthereaders.blogspot.com). They recognise that fiction is as legitimate a way of thinking about the past as ‘real’ history.

Historical fiction can give readers a more profound insight into the past, and illuminate an issue in a way that non-fiction prose can never hope to achieve. As one of the survey respondents said, in a phrase that I adore, “reading historical fiction adds a dimension to historical fact”. Yet beyond this, the historical novel boom suggests readers are comfortable with the ambiguities of the past and its representations.

Jonathan Nield, writing in 1902, argued that in reading such work we “allow ourselves to be hoodwinked”. I like this idea: that the books try to fool us and – crucially – we let this happen, even though we know better. Letting the reader in on the deception, the historical novel enfranchises us and makes us part of the process. We know we’re being fooled, but we don’t mind. All history lies to us, but at least historical fiction admits it. It empowers the reader and lets him or her reflect upon the ways in which all ‘history’ works through a system of narratives that strive to legitimise themselves.

Readers are aware that what they are reading is not ‘true’. However they also know that all historical representation is subjective, and that fiction is just one way among others to comprehend the strange other time we call the past. Historical novels are as legitimate a way of thinking about the past as any kind of ‘real’ history. They strive to educate the reader but also to entrance them.

 

We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here