The longstanding ability of the historical novel to transport the reader to the country of the past now coincides with a spreading desire to make that journey. How is it that reading fiction is arguably the best way to understand and apprehend our history? There are many reasons and here I only share what I believe to be the strongest and why this might contribute to historical fiction’s recent surge in popularity. I am sure you can add your own.
The past as it exists for all of us is history synthesized by imagination and fixed into a picture by something that amounts to fiction. When we think of the past, we are already halfway to thinking of it as pages in a novel. Professional historians have tended to consider any analogies with fiction even more invidious than comparisons with memory. They sought to distance themselves as scholars, emphasizing that history is scrupulous to the facts of the past and open to scrutiny whereas fiction is heedless of such a constraint. The constraints the historian has traditionally adopted are intolerable to writers of fiction. To the traditional historian the past is the entire process of development that leads up to the present, but to the novelist it is a strange world to tell tales about. The historian will claim a bounty on truth, but there is something else now termed as ‘imaginative truth’ that outdoes the dry chronicles historians provided. Professional historians attempt to avoid fictional rhetoric in their own narratives and claim to remain scrupulous to the facts. As a result, they have retreated to the arid confines of academic rigor. There is nothing, of course, wrong in this, they bring us knowledge. But it remains arguable that this approach does little to take the reader into the past.
I do not mean to discount the work of the historian. Should you ever wish to truly understand the tortuous path leading to the first World War, then it is difficult to imagine a better starting point than Barbara Tuchman’s TheGuns of August. In fact, her work is suggestive of the recent convergence between academic history and fiction that I believe has occurred, with the boundary between the historian and novelist now not quite sharp as it once was. Each has encroached on the domain of the other, history has grown more like fiction, fiction more like history. But the original point remains – it is more than learning about the past, it is about acquiring a true sense of what it was like to those who lived it.
Another option for exploring the past is a visit to historically themed parks, outdoor museums and the like. Take, for example, Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts. It describes itself as a “living history” museum attempting to provide the experiential interpretation of the original settlement of the early Plymouth colony established in the 17th century by the English colonists. The landscape and architecture come close to appearing as a movie set while the inhabitants extend this simulation by answering questions in the dialect of the original inhabitants, as if we know how they sounded. You are invited to be a time traveler to the 17thcentury. This and other re-enactment settings may be faulted for an antiseptic authenticity, but that is not where they fail to engage. The visitor is on an historical site, but they are not of it. The more such settings are appreciated for their own sake, the less real or relevant they become. When you visit one, you are visiting something that has been objectified. You are not part of it. You are simply an observer much as if you were observing a painting on a museum wall. The point is to allow for immersion into the past. This is not achieved through simple physical placement. Preservations such Plimouth Plantation may broaden our knowledge of the past, but they dampen creative use of it. It is the novel that does this best. Moreover, fiction places its readers in the past like people of the time, who could not know what was coming next.
William Styron wrote that ‘An historian can tell us just what happened at Borodino, but only Tolstoy can tell you what it really was to be a soldier at Borodino’. Hilary Mantel advises that ‘History, and science too, help put our small lives in context. But if we want to meet the dead looking alive, we turn to art.’ What any good writer will do, when creating a scene, is imagine the reader’s engagement within it. It must allow the reader to experience the scene as the writer does. Robert Frost best explains this as ‘No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader’.
The historical novel was a significant genre before its current resurgence. If the past is a foreign country, then only historical fiction can truly take you there. This has always been the case. But why the current resurgence in its popularity? Others have recently addressed this. Megan O’Grady in the New York Times Style Magazine, Crystal King in the Literary Hub, and Melissa Gouty in Literary Lust are but a few who offer many valid explanations for this recent phenomenon, but I feel the most important one has been left out.
A distinction can be made between wanting to visit the past and wanting to escape the present. Has the latter motive ever been stronger in our history? Dystopian novels only take us further in a direction we no longer wish to be heading. Apprehension of an uncertain future also fuels our nostalgia. A safer, more easily understood past beckons, a past with meaning and structure unlike the present with no grand narrative, no story to tell. We are either in denial about this or it is something we do not face up to. By ‘grand’ I mean something shared and acquiesced to by all, or most of us anyway. Instead, our fractionated stories clash and grate. We have no guiding mythologies, no strongly shared codes and must determine for ourselves the meaning of life. We can we can sniff at time honored religions but at least they reduce life’s complications to a more mundane level. There are also narratives such as making money and buy yourself nice things, but such as these are rather shallow. We are probably living in a stage of human history where we might be among the first people who have absolutely no explanation for what we are doing here.
This condition may be strengthening, but it did not begin recently. If I may quote one of my own characters, ‘It was simpler for those who came before Copernicus to have the comfort of believing we sat at the centre of all God’s creation, but no longer. We have been displaced. What are we now? Even the Sun is not a special star, and she herself moves on merrily across the heavens. To where? To what? I fear the more we learn, the less significant we become’.
It is arguable that one way a response to this condition manifests itself is a wish to return to a more structured, more cohesive society. At the risk of being redundant, I will again state that Historical Fiction is the most important genre in this regard. Others, such as Mystery and Romance, tend to the formulaic. There is nothing wrong in this and successful authors who work in these genres are well attuned to the expectations of an established audience. Historical novels, however, must make the added achievement of creating another world entirely, the plot notwithstanding. There will be a story, the unfolding of a plot, characters will clash or associate. In short, all the ingredients for a successful novel will be present. However, all of this must occur within a wholly resurrected milieu, a world whose language, customs and social dynamics no longer exist.More than tell a story they must also accurately recreate an entire society within which readers can convincingly immerse themselves. An added challenge for the writer then is not to modernize it in either large or small ways. I recall a comment from an early reviewer of Goodricke’s Time – they did not use the word ‘hello’ in eighteenth century England. At the same time the writer must take care not to pervert the past by larding it with painstakingly genuine detail.
An awareness of the past is essential to our well-being. Historical fiction is more than mere entertainment. It reveals how people and societies once functioned prompting thoughts about the human experience in other times and places. People did not always act and think as we do. Sometimes it was for the better, sometimes not. The experience of these remote pasts teaches us empathy, understanding and a renewed look at our own aesthetic goals.