These short articles describe different elements of the debate and discussion around histroical fiction and academic history. Please either click on a link below or scoll down the page.
Over the last month Dr Matt Phillpott has published on the IHR Digital blog a series of posts describing the results of his investigation into the history of historical fiction. The idea was to provide a brief overview of the subject.
These have now been collated into a short online article which is now available as a pdf file.
For access to each section as blog posts click the links below.
I asked my history class at the Open Studies department of Edinburgh University, who have been attending a course with the somewhat provocative title ‘Rome Caput Mundi: Curia, Cardinals and Courtesans 1300 to 1590’, to give me their thoughts on historical fiction. More particularly I wanted to know what they thought about including it on the course reading list.
The answers I received covered the full range of opinion: clearly some were horrified by the idea while others possibly thought my questionnaire a waste of time, or had more pressing engagements at four o’clock in the afternoon. Presumably those motives, and the fact that I had premised my request by saying I would not be lying in wait for them after class, accounted for the absence of answers from about half the class. However, we had a lively discussion before class ended and some of the written answers were enlightening.
Yes, historical fiction was a useful way of getting into the atmosphere of the time, or ‘setting the scene’, as well as revealing ‘the way of living, perhaps indeed the ways of thinking.’ Many agreed that it offered an excellent quick introduction to the dramatis personae of any given period. Although at least one person felt that a greater danger was posed by television historical series and films: an interesting point because they were content to rely on an author’s written interpretation and their own imagination while reading, but not on the visual, ‘less reliable’ interpretation in films and TV.
Some gave examples: Dorothy Dunnett, an Edinburgh writer, was a favourite for one student who wrote: ‘irrespective of the “romantic” central characters, she leaves her readers very familiar with the geography of mid-15th century Bruges, the relationships between the traders, even how goods were transported. I learned what a “cog” was from her books!’ Historical crime was also popular: C.J. Sansom was noted by two or three as having enticed them into history.
One person commented on what she termed ‘cross-over’ books that manage to keep a foot in both camps: she cited John Guy’s ‘jolly good’ biography of Mary Queen of Scots which she was prompted to read following a course she took at the university this summer. ‘Something by Philippa Gregory or Alison Weir’s book on Katherine Swynford are good cross-overs.’ However, she also added (as did two or three others) that Wolf Hall is ‘unreadable’. (Someone described it as ‘incredibly tedious’ – but then you can’t please everyone). However, for academic writers, the ‘revival of well-presented narrative history can be a plus – although it can be at the expense of analysis.’
A difference in the focus between academic history and historical fiction was identified by three people, also because we had been talking about it in the discussion. When talking about whether literary authors and academics learn from other, someone commented that ‘each reinforces the other. Academics tend to concentrate on the elites, while fiction [and he was thinking particularly of Sansom] provides more insight into ordinary life.’ Someone else also commented that ‘fiction can use isolated facts as a source of story and then use conjecture to elaborate on them’ – very true. The crossover between fact and fiction was also debated: ‘some supposedly academic material, presented as fact, is fiction: i.e. theories of authorship of Shakespeare’s plays.’
At least one person noted that our understanding of history, or of any one period, is constantly evolving in the light of new research, and that it is also affected by our changing understanding of our own times. However, the fact that some historians are turning their hands to historical fiction was generally seen as a money-making wheeze (no harm in that!): ‘Historians write fiction for money, which is fine if they can write good fiction!’ The same person underlined the fact that ‘historical fiction is not correlated to academic history’, adding that ‘fiction should be about people … imaginative and exciting’.
In conclusion, on the question of the popularity of historical fiction and whether it threatens academic history, various people stressed the importance of understanding where the boundaries are. I liked the student’s comment that ‘It may be a problem in schools, but not beyond. No harm in making history accessible, so long as it is accurate.’ This was reinforced by another who wrote that he would read historical fiction as course reading, ‘if I had confidence in the sources – otherwise it’s pure escapism’. Well, that’s the pot of gold at the end of the historical fiction rainbow, isn’t it?
Lucinda is also Features Editor for Historical Novels Review, the quarterly magazine published by the Historical Novel Society. Find out more and join the society at www.historicalnovelsociety.org
Tracey S. Rosenberg
My own website is Writing (mostly)
Researching the Nazis: The Girl in the BunkerEmail: firstname.lastname@example.org Publisher’s Website My novel The Girl in the Bunker, which depicts the final days of the Third Reich from the perspective of Joseph Goebbels’s eldest daughter, was published in July. Since then, I’ve answered plenty of questions about how one researches a novel of this kind, and about the ethics of writing historical fiction at all. In this article, I touch on the research areas I found most useful, and hope my experience will be of interest.
One of the basic questions is essentially chicken-or-egg: which comes first, the research or the story? I gave initial priority to the research, because I couldn’t write within a vacuum populated by vague recollections of Nazi Germany. However, at the same time I was checking library catalogues and compiling lists of possible sources, I also wrote 500-word snippets of fiction – not with the intention of using any of these verbatim, but simply to start pinning down the voice of the narrator, twelve-year-old Helga Goebbels. (At various points in the revision process, I had multiple narrators, but Helga’s voice was always central.) The novel is in the first person, and I knew the book would stand or fall on my ability to create a believable character. I had to know who Helga was, and how she responded to cataclysmic historical events and the dysfunctions of her own family; in terms of narrative, this was even more important than my knowledge of the Third Reich.
Not that this historical knowledge wasn’t vital. I began with the ur-text, Hugh Trevor-Roper’s The Last Days of Hitler, and soon read other treatments of the final days as well as biographies of Joseph and Magda Goebbels. I was quite fortunate in that there’s an enormous quantity of material written in, or translated into, English; for a less significant historical period, I might have been scuppered by not being able to read source documents in the original language.
The key documents for my work were – for lack of a better description – bunker memoirs. Pretty much everyone who got out alive shared their experience in some form, and as far as I’m aware, I read them all, with the exception of Rochus Misch’s account, which is only available in German. These eyewitness accounts contain realistic details that are crucial for a writer, who needs to be able to conjure up the feeling of a place. (At times, I felt that the bunker was a character in its own right.) Yet because these individual accounts are all unreliable and self-serving to some extent, I didn’t have to slavishly adhere to any of them.
I did some general research, but I didn’t feel I had to have the entire Second World War at my fingertips. For occasional trivia – i.e. a minor character mentioning a battle in which his brother died – I called on a friend who’s an expert amateur historian, or consulted memoirs of children who were roughly the same age as those I was writing about. I also visited the Kevin Morrison collection of propaganda from both sides of the war (at that time, held at Glasgow Caledonian University), which produced material ranging from postcards of the Goebbels children to a copy of the Third Reich traffic code.
Personal research is often helpful. On a research trip to Berlin, to gain a sense of the city, I took a tour of Third Reich sites and stood at the Brandenburg Gate to try and calculate airplane trajectories. Finding someone who knew Helga Goebbels was far more difficult; one of Albert Speer’s daughters was kind enough to answer my letter, though sadly, she had had very little contact with the Goebbels children. Still, it was exciting to find an actual link to the person whose story I was attempting to create.
Perhaps the most important part of research is knowing what you don’t need to be accurate about. As my historian friend pointed out, no one was standing in a corner taking notes. Everything comes from eyewitnesses. Moreover, in the final days of the war, with the Russians about to bash down the door, no one wore pristine uniforms that looked exactly the way they do in the Osprey guides. Historical accuracy means understanding the overall context, not just the individual details.
For me, historical events were a framework within which to map the narrative. I can’t change history to suit my novel, but I can manipulate it to make Helga’s story the most important element. Most accounts of this episode would give more attention to Martin Bormann than to Hanna Reitsch, but I made the fictional Reitch significantly involved with the children whereas Bormann was scarcely there at all. I can also use the uncertainty of the bunker memoirs to my advantage. One of the known facts is that Reitsch comes in on either the 25th or the 26th of April. I can find at least three memoirs to prove each date, but it actually doesn’t matter. My job, as the author, is to give that event significance within the narrative of the protagonist – using Reitsch’s appearance to influence Helga’s ongoing development.
Which brings me to the final question: what are the ethics of historical fiction? Who am I to start describing real people and manipulating their lives for my own benefit? One of the primary reasons I chose to write about the Goebbels children is because no one, at the time I began the novel, had focused on their experience within this unique, insane situation. They can be seen singing in many a video now found on YouTube, but they themselves have appeared only as macabre footnotes. Ultimately, I wanted to give Helga Goebbels a voice, and to do so as respectfully and honestly as possible. This meant I had to do the same for everyone in her story – including Adolf Hitler himself – which was a challenge, to put it mildly. However, judging from the positive reviews the novel has had so far, both from war buffs and from those who knew nothing about the Goebbels children, I seem to have done a believable job.
“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.
“Manage with as little as you can”, Fritz von Hardenberg, secretary to the Saxony Salt Mines Inspectorate, recorded in his minutes in 1795. Hardenberg – who became famous as the Romantic author Novalis – is the subject of The Blue Flower, the fourth and last of Penelope Fitzgerald’s historical novels. Through extreme economy of means these slim books manage to create an uncanny sense of time and place that leave the reader puzzled – in the words of Frank Kermode:
it cannot be the case that she lived in pre-revolutionary Moscow, or the Cambridge of Rutherford, or the Germany of Goethe. Yet she not only knows how people talked, worked and loved in these settings, but casually, and with every appearance of accuracy, mentions innumerable details that give substance to these lives.[i]
Fitzgerald showed how well it can be done, and through careful reading of her work, it should be possible to explain at least some of her methods.
The novels are Innocence (1986), set in Florence in the 1950s; The Beginning of Spring (1988), set in 1913 Moscow; The Gate of Angels (1990) gives us Cambridge in 1912; and The Blue Flower (1995), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, although Fitzgerald did not attend the ceremony, claiming she had too much ironing to do.
We cannot learn much from Fitzgerald herself. Her mischievous claim that the research for The Beginning of Spring, which Kermode calls “a virtually miraculous vision of pre-revolutionary Moscow” [ii], came from reading the city’s entry in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica is not very credible.
The first thing to note is that by the time she came to write historical novels Fitzgerald had already mastered the craft of novel writing and was about to become, according to Julian Barnes, “the finest living English novelist”[iii]. She had already won the Booker Prize for Offshore and been nominated for The Bookshop.
Fitzgerald was born in 1916 and worked in an assortment of jobs before beginning to publish novels at the age of nearly 60. She really did work at the BBC during the war, but by the time she published a novel with that setting (Human Voices, 1980) she had to do the work of a historical novelist: to evoke a time many of her readers were unfamiliar with. She must have learned from the experience because from then on she wrote only historical novels proper.
Above all the novels are balanced between precise period detail and timeless human concerns. One way this is done is through aphoristic remarks, usually by the narrator but here, in Innocence, in the head of a character:
‘It’s not that Beppino is mean’, he thought, ‘but he’s indifferent to material pleasures, which has much the same effect.’
This kind of thing is so common that it must be a deliberate technique, placing us firmly in the past and then showing us that the people there are rather like us:
Like most rescuers, Fritz felt suddenly furious with the loved and saved.
Another mainstay is comedy. This allows Fitzgerald to impart detail without ever appearing to be didactic or flaunting her research. At the very beginning of The Beginning of Spring the Moscow printer, Frank Reid, receives a letter, via a messenger, telling him that his wife has left him and taken their children to England:
‘Where is he now?’ asked Frank, taking the letter in his hand. It was in Nellie’s writing.
‘He’s gone about his business. He belongs to the Guild of Messengers, he’s not allowed to take a rest anywhere.’
Frank walked straight through to the back right hand quarter of the house and into the kitchen, where he found the messenger with his red cap on the table in front of him, drinking tea with the cook and her assistant.
This little joke tells us a lot: about Frank’s undemonstrative practicality, about his house and servants, about Moscow and the flexibility of its rules and regulations, and about Frank’s knowledge of the city and its people.
Although very short, the novels teem with detail, offered with a casual precision which seems at first merely loving, but is closely tied to the novels’ overall concerns. In The Gate of Angels Daisy Saunders, a working-class Londoner, goes to her local library:
The Library was connected with the public wash-house by the municipal fumigation rooms, where books could be disinfected after an outbreak of disease and old clothes could be boiled before redistribution to the needy.
At first reading this might seem plausible but gratuitous historical detail. But the novel is about two worlds, deprived London and privileged Cambridge, colliding, literally, on the Guestingly Road. Fred Fairly, the young academic, inhabits very different libraries from Daisy. Sure enough, back in Cambridge 60 pages later Fitzgerald slips this line in:
‘They all want libraries put up, even the parasitologists.’
The connection beween fumigation and parasitologists is beautifully done, and illustrates the way that novelistic effect is always at the forefront of the author’s mind: the historical details seem like grace notes because they are grace notes.
Another example comes from The Blue Flower. When Fritz is a student he asks his father, a member of the nobility, for an increase in his tiny allowance. He is sent to see their steward, who is at a distant family property:
The German diligence was the slowest in Europe, since all the luggage, which was loaded onto a kind of creaking extension of the floor extending over the back axle, had to be unloaded and re-loaded every time a passenger got in and out.
This a perfect example of the use of historical detail, deftly giving us the impression that the author knows not just all about Saxony in the 1790s, but about the whole of Europe. But the novelistic aims are still met: the cumbersome phrasing is like the diligence itself, giving an idea of Fritz’s journey: “loaded…unloaded…re-loaded”. And, as Kermode points out, the abundance of things (in this case the troublesome luggage) is part of the novel’s engagement with Fritz’s Romantic impatience with materialism. But after the creaking description, Fitzgerald gives us, when Fritz finally arrives, an immediate payoff:
‘Herr Revenue Steward, I think my father has commissioned you to give me some money.’
Steinbrecher took off his spectacles.
‘Young Freiherr, there is no money.’
‘He sent me a long way to be told that.’
‘I imagine he wanted you to remember it.’
In nearly all of her novels Fitzgerald makes great use of children. In terms of historical technique this has two advantages. It is a useful way of smuggling in historical nuggets, because children accept the situation they are living in, like Frank Reid’s son, Ben, in pre-Revolutionary Moscow:
He produced a toy revolver, made of wood and tin. ‘It’s a Webley, that’s what all the students have now.’
This is far more effective than a conversation between adults about the current political situation. The adults in Fitzgerald novels generally have more immediate concerns: love and money – especially money.
The second advantage is children say unexpected things, and unpredictability again reminds us that people living in the past were autonomous and individual, and not archetypes created by historical circumstance. So Frank offers his daughter paper, in case she wants to write to her absent mother:
‘I shan’t need the paper,’ said Dolly, ‘because I don’t think I ought to write. I can only write properly in Russian, in any case.’
‘Why not, Dolly? Surely you don’t think she did the wrong thing?’
‘I don’t know whether she did or not. The mistake she probably made was getting married in the first place.’
Nevertheless the characters are constrained by historical circumstance, especially women. Hardenberg’s mother is referred to by her aristocratic title, the Freifrau (equivalent to Baroness, literally ‘free lady’). At first this seems slightly pedantic, but gradually we realize that the ‘Freifrau’ is the least free character in the novel:
Fritz had asked his mother to meet him in the garden simply so that they would not be overseen by his father, without reflecting what an extraordinary thing it would be for her to do. Auguste nowadays scarcely ever went out at all, never alone, never at night, and certainly never without the Freiherr’s considered permission.
Amid all the specificity of detail the narrator gives us, the reader barely notices what is being withheld: the larger historical context. Fitzgerald simply trusts her readers to make the connections. Fred, who falls in love with Daisy, is a physicist; a lesser novel would have him thinking or talking like a physicist constantly (think of the science journalist who narrates Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love and can’t turn on a light switch without thinking of photons) but Fitzgerald is subtler than that.
For example, Ernest Rutherford does not appear in The Gate of Angels but is an important presence. Towards the end it is mentioned that his assistant, Hans Geiger, will give a lecture about the nuclear atom. Clearly we are meant to contextualize this for ourselves: Rutherford’s experiments showed mysterious collisions of particles that should have passed through the atom, according to the prevailing theory. Fitzgerald shows us Fred and Daisy mysteriously colliding not once but twice in her story.
The First World War is looming for Daisy and Fred after The Gate of Angels ends in 1912, but war is never mentioned. The reader is left with the historical work to do. Surely Fred would join up or be called up. Scientists were not exempt from the front line, as is shown by the case of Henry Moseley, the brilliant Oxford physicist who was killed at Gallipoli in 1915, aged 27. It was Rutherford who wrote Moseley’s entry in the Dictionary of National Biography:
The premature death of a young man of such brilliant promise and achievement was everywhere recognized as an irreparable loss to science.[iv]
We cannot avoid thinking about what will happen to Fred Fairly and his young colleagues, or to the Reids and their Moscow circle of merchants, expatriates and disciples of Tolstoy. By trusting people to muse for themselves on the history in her historical novels, by treating them as historically aware, subtle readers, Fitzgerald shows us how to write books that stay in the mind, along with a complete sense of time and place.
[i] Frank Kermode (introduction), Penelope Fitzgerald, Three Novels: The Bookshop, The Gate of Angels, The Blue Flower (2001), ix
[ii] Ibid. xi
[iii] Julian Barnes ‘How Did She Do It?’, Guardian newspaper, 26 July 2008 (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/jul/26/fiction, accessed 3 October 2011).
[iv] Ernest Rutherford, ‘Moseley, Henry Gwyn Jeffreys (1887–1915), experimental physicist’, ODNB (1927) (http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/olddnb/35125, accessed 3 October 2011)
Would you like to hear more from authors, historians and others about history and historical fiction? Here we present several short articles discussing the genre in general or about specific authors/works.
These articles will go live during the week of the conference (21-25 November 2011)