Last spring semester, a history professor at my old college used my book, Beyond All Price, as a a reading assignment in a class for 4th-year history majors. I was slightly disappointed, although not surprised, to learn that while the students enjoyed the story, they felt it was somehow "out of place" in an academic setting. After all, the faculty had just spend the better part of four years teaching them to document their papers and to be sure of their facts. They were conditioned to regard historical fiction with skepticism, and the fact that this particular book had been written by an emerita member of their own faculty did not help much. In light of that experience, I found the following article from the "Novel Approaches" website to be quite interesting. I particularly like the statement at the end of the article by a student who recognized that the question was only a problem within a school setting.
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-15 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.