Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Truth and the Historical Novel

By Stuart Sharp

I’m sure that at some point, most of us will have been told to “stop making things up,” probably by well meaning parents. In addition to prompting the question of how many authors find themselves suffering from vague feelings of guilt every time they write, it does raise the issue of whether truth and fiction are really that far apart.

Take the field of History, for example. At first glance, it seems pretty straightforward. On the one hand, there are books of serious History, designed to inform, and which rely on facts. For the most part, they aren’t that interesting. On the other, there are books of historical fiction, designed to entertain, which rely on made up things.

If only the situation were that simple.

For a start, who decided that history books couldn’t be entertaining? As far back as Bede, there were historians who understood the need to include all the juicy stories so that people would keep reading. If someone asks, for example, about the history of the Third Crusade, they’re probably more interested in hearing about how Phillip II of France developed a sudden ‘illness’ so that he could go home and take large parts of Richard I’s Norman lands than in the fine detail of the logistics.

There are more modern historians who understand that, of course, and for the non-historian looking for an entertaining historical introduction to a particular period, a biography of one of the major figures of the period is usually a good way to go. Philip Mansel’s biography of Louis XVIII, for example, is about as good a guide to late eighteenth and early nineteenth century France as you can get, because it manages to convey the facts in a way that is actually readable.
That seems important. After all, telling the truth about history must surely require that someone is listening. Just finding things out isn’t enough. If we don’t tell people what happened, what’s the point?

All this comes before we get onto the tricky theoretical issue of whether it’s even possible to tell the truth about the past through history. A lot of people have spent time arguing along postmodernist or narrativist lines to explain that it’s impossible for historians to do their jobs. Admittedly, the historians have then done the perfectly sensible thing and ignored the arguments completely, mostly because that way we get to keep our jobs. It does suggest, however, that the foundation of ‘fact’ on which historical writing is built is a little shakier than we’d like to think.

More to the point, why should historical novels necessarily involve huge liberties being taken with the facts? Sure, most of the characters will be made up, or made to behave in ways that they didn’t, but almost by definition, historical novels are written by people with an interest in history. They might not have the fine detail of research that a non-fiction history book would have, but they do tend to be backed up by research.

Take Domini Highsmith’s books, which are set around the town of Beverley in the central Middle Ages. I was doing some research on Beverley Minster’s history when I first ran into a copy of Master of the Keys. I found myself slightly embarrassed when I realized that a couple of events it mentioned had actually happened, and that I’d completely failed to notice them in more conventional sources the first time around.

Of course, there are times when this goes wrong, and people end up believing that a best-selling author’s grand conspiracy theory is the truth, but most of the time, fiction provides a pretty good view of the past. In particular, one of the best ways to get a feel for a particular point in time is to read a novel set at that time, or better yet, one written then.

A few years ago, when I was an undergraduate history student, a lecturer of mine surprised everyone by including only one book on the reading list for the first week’s seminar on the Franco-Prussian war. It was Emile Zola’s Debacle, and it probably did more to convey a sense of time and place than any textbook could have. In a similar vein, reading a few translations of Old French chansons de geste is a great way to understand the society of medieval Europe.
Like most pieces of fiction, they try to convey a sense of place, and they also try to comment on the society around them. Where they try to hold a mirror up to life, we get to see the reflection a few hundred years on. They have the added advantage of mostly being great stories, too.
The Old French work Raoul de Cambrai is a good example of this. On the surface, it’s mostly a story of revenge, where the hero, Bernier, ends up killing his lord over a series of wrongs done to him. But it was also intended to be a commentary on duty, lordship, the nature of obligation, and kingship. To make those comments, the book shows Raoul technically doing all that is required of him as a lord, while still managing to be a complete monster. From a historical point of view, that’s like gold dust, because suddenly we have a guide to the kind of relationship that was expected between a lord and his vassal.

It doesn’t have to be this particular work. I picked it mostly because I had a copy to hand. Cretien de Troyes’ works achieve much the same effect, as indeed do the works of a lot of other historical authors. The only thing to watch out for is the historical author who is writing about something still further in the past. Just as we wouldn’t use Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar to understand Rome, so too we must be careful of something like the Song of Roland, featuring Charlemagne but written centuries after his death.

So it isn’t foolproof, but when this approach works, it works well. I’m willing to bet that most people’s understanding of Louis XIV’s France owes more to Dumas’ words than those of the historians that have followed.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that anybody with an interest in history should just ignore history books and reach straight for fiction. Since I am mostly a historian, I’m not sure that would help my job prospects much. What I am suggesting, instead, is that the clear definition between the ‘truth’ of historical research and the ‘fiction’ of the historical novel isn’t all that clear. Instead of ignoring half the picture because it’s either ‘boring’ or ‘made up’ it’s far more useful, and fun, to dip into both sides of that divide.


Fence said...

Interesting article. I'm reading Sharon K Penman's The Sunne In Splendour (about Richard III) at the moment, which, being fiction is of course made up. But at the same time, so is much of what might be thought of as the "true history". Afterall, propaganda and lies aren't recent inventions.

Taminator said...

I'm all for historical fiction taking *some* liberties with history as long as there is some clear line delineating it as such. I'm thinking specifically of Philippa Gregory's enormously popular historical ficiton works, including The Other Boleyn Girl, The Virgin Queen, and The Constant Princess. While Gregory tells a walloping good tale most of the time, some of her allowances with history are just so off the mark that it bothers me to think of those especially younger readers, taking every word as fact rather than reading a wide variety of authors and deciding for themselves.

My other point is this one: So much of history is so surreal or exciting on its own, why go to the lengths some (such as Gregory) do to "spice" it up? You can't make up facts better than the messenger dropping the arrest papers for Katherine Parr on the way and a servant finding them and warning her ahead of time.