Still, as a historian, I have to say that I love well-done historical fiction. By “well-done,” I mean more than the quality of the writing and the dimensionality of the characters. Really good historical fiction has to be “factual,” as far as it can and it has to make use of the novelist’s skill in implanting the reader into the scene and the characters’ mentalité from an earlier period. Very few historians are good at these arts and, having reading a fair number of monographs and articles, the percentage of good scholarly history works which are “page-turners” is quite small.
(I also want to insert a nod and distinction vis-à-vis “alternative histories” (e.g., Len Deighton’s SS-GB about England after a successful Nazi invasion, or Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policemen’s Union about a post-Israel Jewish settlement in Alaska). These are often fun, but they are future-oriented, speculative fiction, set in the past; they send the world off on a new vector and, thus, are illustrations of the vast complexity of the world and human choices. They can also be a useful route to understanding the “meaning” of events by highlighting the assumptions which are embedded in “history as it actually happened.”
In terms of historical fiction as such, just borrowing a historical setting for a story isn’t enough. By this standard, even Tolstoy wasn’t a great historical novelist. War and Peace has been overpowering readers with its characterizations, intricacies, and philosophical insertions (more about which in a later posting) since it was published in 1869. It is set during the Napoleonic Wars, starting in 1805 and culminating in Napoleon’s grand and disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812-13. However, it’s hard to see Prince Andrei and Natasha et al. as distinctly creatures of the early 19C (ditto for Tale of Two Cities). Portraying the mindsets of earlier times wasn’t the goal for either Tolstoy or Dickens, it seems to me, and so it’s not fair to judge them by that standard.
I feel quite differently about Hillary Mantel’s trilogy centered on the life of Thomas Cromwell during the tumultuous years of the reign of Henry VIII in the early to mid 16C. I read the three books last year, starting with Wolf Hall (which, together, are even longer than W&P!) and they are excellent as novels and psychological character studies. Rigorously researched (as far as historical facts were available), they shine even more as attempts to transport the reader to the different mindset prevalent in Tudor England. Their interior vividness carried me further than yet another retelling (“factual” or “fictional”) of the complications of the royal life and death of Anne Boleyn. The “fiction” part of historical fiction is, generally, “fill-in-the-gaps,” which, given our limited access to the conversations (much less thoughts) of most historical actors, is the only way to get at that detail and texture of humanness. A few created characters are only literary license and hardly detract from the effort to understand what it was like to be the confidant of Henry VIII.
By contrast, I read Diarmaid MacCulloch’s hefty biography of Cromwell right afterwards. Mantel notes that she utilized MacCulloch’s work in her own research. It’s a fine piece of biographical writing, but it doesn’t sing or envelope the way that Mantel does. It’s also entirely true (at least within the parameters of historical aspirations). Mantel makes no such claim. As she has acknowledged, she invented a few characters and virtually all the detailed scenes, interactions, and dialogue. MacCulloch allows himself a smattering of historian’s interpretations and speculations.
So, which is closer to the “truth”? MacCulloch wins on footnotes, but because, as a historian, he limits himself to plausible/reliable/documentable sources, there is much outside his reach. Mantel, unconstrained, gives us an immediate connection with the past; the predicate to a type of historical understanding unavailable to those who stay within the academic discipline.
As a history teacher, I often remark that gaining this immediacy, this connection with the mentalité of another era, is the historian’s greatest challenge. It’s especially hard for young people who usually lack enough of their own history to have a perspective on the differences wrought by time. But, at any age, the ability to unthink our modern milieu is tough enough. L.P. Hartley, the English novelist, notably said: “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” As a result, writing history (fact or fiction) is akin to translation from one language to another. We are limited to the tool-kit of the English language which, in either its British or American versions, falls short in conveying the formidable langue Francais or the complexity of Mandarin or the nuanced angst of Yiddish.
Of course, the suggestion that we history teachers might use historical fiction as a vehicle by which our students could understand history is fairly heretical. Perhaps it is lack of imagination, perhaps it’s just a pedagogical rigidity. I once suggested to an early modernist colleague that they use Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle in conjunction with standard historical works to explore the world of the 17C. In addition to increasing the chances of students actually reading (it’s a rollicking good tale), it’s likely the students would have understood that world/period in a more visceral way than a textbook, or even a primary source. Moreover, it would have provided the opportunity to show the difference between history and fiction, and framed the same types of analytic/critical thinking skills as some actual “history” of that period. My colleague wouldn’t bite: “but it’s not true!, we can’t use that.” Too bad.
History (whether scholarly or popular) isn’t true either; although we aspire to truth. It’s just that writers of historical fiction approach truth from a different angle.