I suppose to some it might seem strange that one should choose to write historical fiction. Or, indeed, to read historical fiction. Those who believe only the present day matters may snarl, ‘Escapism!’. They quite fail to see the point. Many even condemn the academic study of history. I remember a former colleague of my husband’s, in the history department of his university, who held an academic position as an ‘historian’, yet who believed it was not worth studying any history earlier than the late nineteenth century and sneered (yes, I do mean sneered) at my interest in earlier periods, dismissing them as irrelevant.
How many politicians might one mention who have neither studied the past, nor learned the lessons that history can teach us?
Alas, far too many.
‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ George Santayana.
Then there are those who find the study of factual history acceptable, but dismiss historical fiction as trivial. Now, in the case of some historical fiction, I do see their point. Some historical fiction is just any old fiction in fancy dress, with no real sense of the period in which it is set and riddled with anomalies. That kind of writing gives historical fiction a bad name. And there have been times when that was the predominant form of historical fiction available to the reader. Nowadays, I am glad to say, a large proportion of the writers of historical fiction undertake careful research and know their periods thoroughly.
How has this come about? Partly, perhaps, because of wider access to university education, with its insistence on meticulous research. Partly, perhaps, due to the greater availability of research materials. Partly, perhaps, to a general raising of standards amongst the community of historical fiction authors.
So, if we take it that the accuracy of historical fiction at present is – generally – at its highest ever, what are the advantages of writing and reading historical fiction over, on the one hand, contemporary fiction, and, on the other, factual history?
I have nothing against contemporary fiction. I read it myself. I have even written it myself. My first three published novels had contemporary settings, although, if you have read them, you will have noticed that I sneaked an historical dimension into all of them, even if it was only the earlier part of the twentieth century. Why? Because even in contemporary fiction I wanted to explore the ways we carry our past around with us, and past events continue to affect the way we live our lives. In the very first, The Anniversary, I wove together a modern story, taking place over twenty-four hours, with the pasts of the characters reaching back as far as Russia before the 1917 revolution.
It is the depth found in historical fiction which is largely absent in contemporary fiction. Our present is inextricably interwoven with our own personal past, and with the shared past of the human race. We can neither ignore that nor escape it. I am afraid that is firmly my outlook on life. So historical fiction, by exploring the past, enables us to understand a vital aspect of life which most contemporary fiction does not address.
As for the advantage of historical fiction over historical fact? Well, perhaps ‘advantage’ is putting it too strongly, for the two go hand in hand. In an earlier blog I wrote about the relationship between historical fiction and historical fact, and I won’t repeat that here, but I think the main advantage of the former is that it provides a doorway, an accessible route, into understanding the past. Certain types of factual history, heavy on data, tables, statistics, can hardly warm the heart and awake any empathy for our forebears. Very worthy and useful, of course. Sometimes very informative, such as statistical trends in life expectancy over the period of the Industrial Revolution. However, reading novels like those of Mrs Gaskell and George Eliot gives us a much greater understanding of people at that time of huge upheaval in society. (Yes, I know they were portraying a period only slightly earlier than the time at which they wrote, but they were already able to put it in perspective.)
Also, from my own point of view, academic histories frequently deal (naturally) with major figures – monarchs, great generals – or with large social groups en masse, while I am interested in the individual lives of the smaller, unrecorded people, the people like you and me. Our ancestors.
In that earlier blog I wrote about this, and I’ll repeat a short passage here:
For myself, I have never felt the desire to write about the larger-than-life figures of history – the kings and queens, the heroes and villains – whose personal stories form part of that large factual world of the serious academic historian. What interests me intensely are the lives of ‘ordinary’ people, those who have gone to their graves unsung and unrecorded, but who form the majority of the population at any period in history. How did they live? What did they believe? What did they wear, eat, drink; what were their homes like? How secure were their lives, or did they live in constant fear of disease, war, cruel masters? How did they enjoy themselves? Above all, in what ways do we all share common aspects of life?
Unconsciously, perhaps, I seem to have written about these ordinary people living at far from ordinary times. My series The Chronicles of Christoval Alvarez is set during the latter part of the reign of the last and greatest of the Tudors, a time of life-changing discoveries in the geography of the world, and religious upheavals whose aftermath we still feel today. Oxford Medieval Mysteries begin shortly after the Black Death, when around half the population of Europe was wiped out in the space of a couple of years and society would never be the same again. The Fenland Series deals with the struggles of the people of East Anglia to save their land and livelihood from the clutches of unscrupulous profiteers, during a period made even more desperate by the Civil War and vicious witch-hunts. Also during the Civil War, This Rough Ocean faces the problems of retaining one’s integrity when faced with public violence and personal danger. And as for The Testament of Mariam, well, that tells the story of the greatest upheaval in Western history from the point of view of a woman of no account.
I see that I seem to have a common theme here.
The times I write about are difficult or downright dangerous, but in my historical fiction I look at the ordinary lives of those ordinary people I am drawn to. Kit may work for the intelligence service, but she has her daily care of the patients in London’s hospitals. Nicholas’s family was decimated by the plague, but he looks to the future of his young children and enjoys the work of his bookshop and the company of his friends. Ordinary people living ordinary lives, despite desperate times.
I think it is by looking at these people who are, fundamentally, so very much like ourselves that we find the past coming alive for us. Yes, they lacked some of our modern technology. Yes, their clothes were a bit different. But they ate and drank, worked and slept, loved and hated, laughed and cried, just as we do.
That is why I write historical fiction. I have gone in search of them. And I have found them.
Till next time,
I’ve included, for your entertainment, a random selection of ordinary people, doing ordinary things, which I find moving.