“Your book reads like a novel,” is a comment that popular historians often hear. When said by a general reader, it is a compliment: an acknowledgement of the fluency of the writing and a compelling story. If a historian uses those same words, however, it is an insult. It means ‘you cannot be trusted on your facts’. Hence the title of this piece is bound to infuriate every reader of this journal, for it implies that historians should tell lies. After all, that is what novelists do, isn’t it? Make it all up if they don’t know the facts?
I ought to explain at the outset that I am a novelist (James Forrester) as well as a historian (Ian Mortimer), and I write history for the mass market as well as scholarly articles. As a novelist, I tell lies. Whoppers. All historical novelists do. In my case, I have historical characters like Sir William Cecil and Francis Walsingham say and do things that they never really said or did. I make people die from causes that they did not die of, use modern langauge in their speech, and I change people’s names. As a historian, I do not tell lies. I scrupulously note primary and secondary sources. However, I have learned a great deal about history from writing historical fiction. And it is because of this learning experience that I want to recommend it.
Two factors in particular underpin this positive experience. The first is simply the very testing nature of ‘recreating’ a past world. Historical fiction requires you to know about many aspects of life you have not thought about before. How do people speak to their children, wash their hair, lock a door, clean their teeth and get undressed for bed? Why was it difficult at low tide to row under London Bridge, did taverns provide meat in Advent in 1567, did physicians wear beards, and so on. You suddenly find that your evidence-orientated knowledge of the period is just not enough; it does not equip you to describe in detail how a man or woman passes one whole day, let alone a number of different men and women across the period of several weeks. All the fourteenth-century evidence you have ever read will not tell you enough to describe the experience of simply walking down a street in London in 1359 and ordering a pint of ale in a tavern. How clean is the floor? Are there husks on top of the ale? Is the barrel in a cellar? For this reason all historical fiction is, in respect of its historical content, unsatisfactory. You would always like to be able to do better.
The construction of characters is similarly testing. A historian writing history never has to create character: he allows it to emerge from the evidence. He never needs to guard against the inconsistency of his character’s traits. Nor does he need to invent ways in which one character influences another. Historians reveal human interactions through examining the evidence for a man’s words and deeds in relation to that other individual. Creating fictitious characters who interact with one another goes beyond just imagining the past: it requires you to imagine it and then to change it, gradually and believably, in the reader’s imagination.
This is why historical fiction is so difficult. It doesn’t matter whether you base it on reality or make it all up, you still have to create another believable world – something that can pass for the past in the minds of readers. Given that your readers might well be other historians, the deceit has to be pretty damned good.
This is not the end of the difficulties: next there is the writing. Academic historians have normally lost the ability to write dramatically or with empathy. It has been trained out of them. The traditional obligation to be ‘objective’ impedes them from writing a stirring account of a battle, or a romantic account of a love affair. Even though battles were undoubtedly stirring in real life, and love affairs are the epitome of romance, academic historians do not wish to be seen to be moved by their subject. Scholars have learned too well the craft of distilling evidence to its very essence, the clear liquid of a synthetic truth, and in an educational establishment that is all that is required. It is easy to forget that it is not the essence that most people are interested in but the wider world that created the evidence in the first place.
Form and content are kept poles apart in academic history. In biography, fiction, film-making, drama and poetry they come together naturally, and are regarded as complementary. But why not write scholarly history dramatically and thereby bring scholarship to tens of thousands of readers? Why not write in the present tense? Why not write a day-by-day diary of another person? Why not be inventive? Why not write fiction? Why not write a biography of someone as if you are that someone, as Peter Ackroyd did in his biography of Oscar Wilde. I cannot help but feel that if a few of our Agincourt experts were to write an ‘autobiography’ of Henry V they would ask themselves very difficult questions about why he did what he did, and discover a fear and a resolution quite apart from the current view of the man.
The second reason for saying that historical fiction is a great educational exercise is more philosophical. All the difficulties above really add up to identifying lacunae – a lack of knowledge of aspects of everyday life, the lack of literary form in academic historical writing, and the failure to recognise alternative points of view. Much more profound is the realisation that history is not primarily about the past. It is about human nature. What makes it historical is that it examines human nature through the prism of a different age.
To be honest, it was not in the course of writing a novel that I realised this. It was after writing two novels and while writing The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England. The latter describes what you would find if you really could go back to the late sixteenth century. At one point I was finding it very hard going – inexplicably so, for I love the period, had plenty of source material, and everything was planned out. What I found was that, in trying to replicate the format I had used for my medieval Time Traveller’s Guide (a similar guide to the fourteenth century), I was constantly in danger of repeating myself. Several of the points I felt had to be said about education, old age or cleanliness were repetitions of things I had said in the earlier book. What that meant was that my points did not arise from the period I was studying, they arose from my similar reactions to these different past criteria. What I was writing about was my understanding of people in all ages, not just this or that century.
That realisation led to another – that this is what good historical novelists do. Often without realising it, they will choose a historical period to bring out some aspect of human nature. In my case, I had chosen to set my fiction in the sixteenth century because I wanted to write about loyalty and betrayal. Loyalty to one’s spouse, to the state and to one’s faith have huge resonance in a sixteenth century context, much more so than in today’s easy going world. I used the historical setting of the 1560s to amplify what I wanted to say about people.
History allows us to see human nature in a deeper way. It is all very well describing the world today, with its wars, commercial greed, philanthropy, courage, fear, etcetera; but when you start to contrast the past with now you become aware that humanity has far greater depth than appears from a knowledge of the here and now. The ‘we’ of us becomes not you and me but something hundreds, even thousands of years old. At times we treated our neighbours with huge suspicion, yet we defended each other frequently against enemies. We survived repeated epidemics that wiped out huge swathes of our population, and burned people alive for what they believed. Betrayal, loyalty, love and deceit – all human life is there, as they say, but amplified beyond what we personally may experience in the modern world.
That is why historians should write historical fiction. It teaches you how little you really know about the minutiae of the past, and destroys professional complacency. It humbles even the most experienced researcher. It demands that you think deeply about human character, and how it is formed, and how people integrate. But most of all it shows you that there is a different sort of truth beyond the measurements of facts and dates: truths about human nature which are timeless, or, at least, very slow-moving. And it leaves you thinking that these truths, although they are unproveable, are probably the most important historical conclusions of all, for they reflect what we are, and what we can be, both as individuals and as a society.