Sunday, March 21, 2010

Timeless, epic, legendary: reading the past through fiction

We Public History students seem to be running on a similar track these days. It isn't surprising considering that most of my ideas for this blog come out of our class discussions or conversations with friends. At any rate I thought I'd echo the Perpetual Student and write on historical fiction this week. As many of my colleagues know, I am an avid reader, a long-time devotee, and sometimes (though embarrassingly so) dabbler in this area of literature.

Last week our Public History class discussed the role of history in film. We considered the fact that history is molded into a narrative, is told through the lens of epic characters, and is able to extract strong emotions from its viewers. Historical fiction is the same in these respects. But a film is the product of so many: it passes between writers, the director, producers, actors, cinematographers, etc. before being relayed to its audience. Fiction, on the other hand, is more direct and I think, more personal. Like academic history it is passed from writer to reader and depends on the craft of language to convey ideas, and to convince his or her audience- whether academic or layman- to believe in the narrative.

But like film, history is formed into a story with main characters that we sympathize with, hope for, or hate as the enemies of our strong protagonists. These stories can range in their dependence on history. History might merely serve as an inspiration for fantasy (say, for example, Lord of the Rings), or an author might attempt to recreate a time and place through the eyes and ears of its characters. Sometimes historical fiction serves as an excellent medium to explore the weaving of history and legend. But does the label of "fiction" allow authors to claim history and mould it into an appealing narrative? Should they be held to higher standards, considering they influence the popular consumption of history?

Mary Stewart, an author who wrote a series on the Arthurian legends, wrote that her book should not be considered "serious" history. Her books were based on extensive research, but play with what we know to be literature. But she was writing in the 60s. I wonder if nowadays we might call her works public history. Maybe not, considering that Arthur (at least to historians) is more of a literary figure. But other authors, like Elizabeth Chadwick (see her blog Living the History) and Philippa Gregory do practice a historical methodology and really seek to understand the history within which their characters live and breathe. In one of her books, Chadwick writes of her novels that "rather like a plait, there are three strands to the story: the facts that are verifiable history; the facts that are massaged by the 'tabloid journalist' skills of [the character's] chronicler; and my own interpretation of the two with a seasoning of personal imagination" [1]. To me, Chadwick is a public historian, or at least thinks like one. There must be imagination and creativity for it to be meaningful and engaging to the public without overshadowing the accuracy of the historical record.

At the end of her novels Chadwick includes a list of sources she used to write the novel with recommendations for further reading, a feature that I think should be part of any work that propounds to be "historical fiction". Readers have a right to know where the author got his or her grounding in history, even if half of them don't bother to read past the final page.

There will always be the question of what is 'real' or 'true' history. It all has an interpretation, a mediator. Perhaps historical fiction is simply taking it one step further. All historians must use their imaginations to some extent; to craft those arguments and see the links; use language to explain it in the most engaging way. The characters may be imagined but they have a base in what was real, or what we can only believe to be real from the pieces of the past we have. At the same time, I have had enough time in academia to believe that public history should still be accountable to its public. By maintaining that delicate balance we seek to achieve between academic and public worlds, historical fiction may allow us to step into the past and learn something of history based on the weaving of historical knowledge with the colour of an author's imagination.

[1] Elizabeth Chadwick, Lords of the White Castle (London: Little, Brown Book Group, 2000), 674.

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