History v historical fiction

tags: Niall Ferguson

Jane Smiley is the author of Some Luck.

... The condescender was Niall Ferguson, a conservative historian about 15 years younger than me, who wanted to be sure that I understood that the historical novel is all made up, but that historical non-fiction, written by historians is truth. He referred to his research. I referred to my research. He wasn’t convinced. I suggested that the demands of history and fiction are slightly different – that since a novel is a story, it must be complete, and since a history must be accepted by the reader as accurate, it must be incomplete. He was not convinced. He kept talking, I subsided, the programme ended, but he did have the last word (apart from the host) – he and the other historian agreed that the historical novel – even War and Peace – was a secondary form, at least compared with what they were doing. 

I do not consider literary forms to exist in a hierarchy; I think of them as more of a flower bouquet, with different colours, scents and forms, each satisfying and unsatisfying in its way, but if there is one thing that I do know about history, it is that it must be based on the author’s theory of what happened. He or she may change the theory as the research is completed, but without a theory, and if the research doesn’t fit into the theory, then the text has no logic, and therefore makes no sense. If it makes no sense, then readers will not read it. A history book is, therefore, a construct. Because of archaeology, because of archives, because of historians, we live in an age where historical novels as a form are having a bit of a boom. Reading Pulitzer prize-winning historical novelist Geraldine Brooks’s list of her favourite historical novels in a magazine this week, I can only marvel at the variety of subject matter: Alexander the Great, the Lewis and Clark expedition, Ovid, the American civil war. Of Wolf Hall, she writes: “Mantel seems to know Thomas Cromwell on the cellular level.” I am sure that my historian-of-the-day would say that such a thing is impossible in a mere novel, but I would say that such a thing is possible only in a novel, because the job of a novelist is to do her (or his) best to see the world through her character’s point of view – to imagine simultaneously what she and her subject are thinking and feeling as human beings, no matter how far apart they are, and also what is different about them – what has changed over the years and therefore indicates the passage of time and the change in the way people perceive things. This can be a challenge for a novelist, but it is also a pleasure, and the reason, after all, to write a historical novel. ...

Read entire article at The Guardian

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