The Virtues of Historical Fiction

Scott, Waverley (1814)
One of the first historical novels: Walter Scott’s Waverley (1814; pictured in an 1871 edition)

“Historical fiction,” observes editor Kathryn Sutherland, “has always been popular, of course, but it rarely enjoys high critical esteem.” While it has drawn its share of readers ever since the days of Walter Scott, historical fiction often suffers by comparison to more academic engagements with the past. But Sutherland thinks that historical fiction has often done better than historical non-fiction in certain regards — in particular, “supplementing the official record with the lives of the marginalized or those who appear not to have been there at all,” such as women.

And at their cores, Sutherland finds much that’s similar between the two approaches to the past:

Part of the difficulty of finding a place for historical fiction lies with our belief that history (being fact) and fiction (being invention) are such completely different entities, when in truth the historian’s techniques (of retrospection, selection, and re-engagement) and tools (narration) are also those of the novelist. All history, however scrupulous its record, is written, like fiction, out of an excess of material, constrained and shaped by hindsight, and from a sense of significance unavailable to those living through it.

While granting the second and third points in that last sentence, I’m less sure about the first claim: “All history… is written, like fiction, out of an excess of material…”? I think most of us academic historians would complain that we face a fundamental scarcity of material: only traces of any past survive in any present.

Now, that does mean that anyone who interprets the past necessarily fills evidentiary gaps with some degree of imaginative understanding. But as historian Tracy McKenzie points out, the more “material” that exists, the less historians have license to behave like novelists:

…the range of valid interpretations is not limitless. The historical evidence that survives constitutes a boundary that the historian can’t cross without leaving the domain of history for the realm of historical fiction. Unlike the fiction writer, the historian is constrained by the historical record. The more extensive the surviving evidence, the greater the constraint. (The First Thanksgiving, p. 27)

Mantel, Wolf HallI think the response of some historians to Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall novels — and the popular TV series based on them — illustrates McKenzie’s principle. Mantel makes Thomas Cromwell the protagonist in her rendering of the English Reformation. Ignoring considerable historical evidence to the contrary, she imagines him to have been a largely sympathetic figure, especially by comparison to his Catholic rival, Thomas More. Here’s Simon Schama’s critique (behind the Financial Times firewall) of Mantel’s characterizations:

I don’t pretend to be an authority on the Tudor Reformation, but when I was doing research for A History of Britain, the documents shouted to high heaven that Thomas Cromwell was, in fact, a detestably self-serving, bullying monster who perfected state terror in England, cooked the evidence, and extracted confessions by torture. He also unleashed small-minded bureaucratic “visitors” to humiliate, evict and dispossess thousands of monks and nuns, not all of whom had their hands up each other’s robes or were passing off pig bones as holy relics. On at least one occasion he had the fake relic and the custodial friar burnt side by side. Witty, that. The fact that Thomas More (who could use some help right now) was likewise not averse to burning people as well as books, if they strayed from sound doctrine, does not mean that Cromwell, in comparison, was a paragon of refreshing straightforwardness. Sure, he was a good family man. So was More. So was Himmler.

Does this mean that Wolf Hall has no value as an interpretation of the past? Surprisingly, Schama “doesn’t much mind that historical novels and films take liberties with the facts, commit sins of omission or make imaginative interpolations provided they do not pretend to claim the same kind of authority in telling you how it really was as accounts based on documented fact seek to do.”

Indeed, with that proviso, Schama finds that historical fiction and non-fiction have much in common:

The mindset of historians and historical novelists is not all that divergent. Both strive for what Oxford philosopher RG Collingwood exhorted as the imaginative “re-enactment”; the getting inside an event. Without a grip on evidence, the historical novel is empty fable; without imaginative empathy, history is all bones and no flesh and blood. For some historians, who see their work essentially as the political science of the past, this may sound like a dangerous flirtation with romance. But then there are some who don’t mind admitting we were drawn to the subject in the first place precisely because of that romance.

For Schama, early 19th century founders of historical fiction (like Walter Scott) and academic history (like Thomas Babington Macaulay) “felt instinctively that they were embarked on a common endeavour of storytelling from which historical truth could emerge.” The Charles Dickens who wrote A Tale of Two Cities and the Thomas Carlyle who wrote a history of The French Revolution shared a “belief in the power of literary narrative and their healthy respect for its complexity.”

Schama celebrates a work of history that has “the imaginative grip of a novel but is grounded on the bedrock of the archives.” Have you read books like this: historical novels rooted in archival research, or academic histories written with Schama’s “romance”?


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