An interesting program on the BBC this morning concerning the writing of history: four historians with new books out discussed the difference between history and fiction (a subject dear to my heart!), the factors that influence history, and the sources of our historical knowledge. Here's a brief summary of their conclusions.
Norman Davies, Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe, published by Allen Lane. This book makes the case for the selectivity of historical memory. He argues that our present circumstances influence our views of the past. To illustrate his point, his book concentrates on kingdoms and empires that have been forgotten because they did not last. But their demise does not mean that they were not vitally important in their own time. In their place, we now focus on the history of those countries with which we are most familiar today. One example: most medieval historians focus on England, France, and Germany, because we remain involved in their cultures and politics. He claims that the real medieval juggernaut was Alt Clud. Ever heard of it? Me, neither. Guess he has a point!
Peter Englund, The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War, published by Profile Books. This Swedish historian draws his history of the First World War from the intimate lives of ordinary people who were caught up in the conflict. His book does not re-tell a well-known story, and it fairly ignores those powerful individuals whose actions are familiar to us. He uses characters from both sides of the war and emphasizes both the horrors and the amazing acts of courage experienced by otherwise unimportant individuals. His argument strengthens Norman Davies' point that much of history has been forgotten.
Boris Johnson, Johnson’s Life of London: The People Who Made the City That Made the World, published by Harper Press. Johnson is the mayor of London and justifiably proud of the role of his city as one of the great cites of the world. His book discusses well-known London citizens from many historical periods--people who changed London, and thereby the world, because of their talents. The stories he tells are not new or unknown; the virtue of his book is that their re-telling forces us to view history in a new light.
Alison Weir, Mary Boleyn: ‘The Great and Infamous Whore’ , published by Jonathan Cape. Weir has written both history and fiction, but she sees them as clearly separated. She worries that modern world's exposure to movie epics that play fast and loose with history will lead us to blur the line that separates truth and invention. Her current book attempts to take a temptingly colorful historical figure and strip away all the rumors and gossip that helped to create her fictional reputation. (Note the warning quotation marks in her title!).
These authors spoke directly to my own views -- a pleasantly affirmative start to a Monday morning. I can't hope to reach the levels of talent displayed by these writers, but it is comforting to know that they believe in my two guiding principles: (1) I continue to focus on the forgotten characters of history -- Jim McCaskey of my A Scratch with the Rebels, Nellie Chase of Beyond All Price, and Laura Towne and Ellen Murray of The Road to Frogmore.
And (2) I continue to believe in the primacy of historical research and the responsibility of a novelist not to sacrifice a historical fact for the sake of a dramatic plot element.