Beyond the Bar Sinister
This historical detritus, this furniture of the mind, has been piling up in there for a while. I’d like to claim that I went about acquiring it in a logical and responsible way, textbook by textbook. In fact, most of the jumble was acquired far earlier, from a far more haphazard source: historical fiction. Whether I like it or not, most of my images of what various historical periods feel, smell, or sound like were acquired well before I set foot in any history class. They came from Margaret Mitchell, from Anya Seton, from M.M. Kaye, and a host of other authors, in their crackly plastic library bindings. Whether historians acknowledge it or not, scholarly history’s illegitimate cousin, the historical novel, plays a profound role in shaping widely held conceptions of historical realities.
I can just picture various academic friends of mine shuddering at that, and shaking their heads over the misconceptions undoubtedly being perpetrated by these works of—gasp!—fiction. There are certainly overt abuses in the fictional canon. My favorite example comes from a work of fiction… mocking other fiction. In one of Rumpole of the Bailey’s cases, Rumpole pokes holes in an author’s probity by pointing out that she wrote a so-called “historical” novel by jumping over the Interregnum entirely, going straight from Charles I to Charles II with her heroine aging only a year or two in between. Most novelists aren’t quite so bold as to ignore the difference between 1649 and 1660 like that, but we all take liberties, some deliberate, some accidental. More insidious than the overt anachronisms are the unconscious ones, such as the use of modern slang (I was struck recently by how much Georgette Heyer’s Regency bucks sound like the men about town in her contemporary mystery novels) or the antedating of rituals such as afternoon tea, unwitting transpositions of the modern consciousness into the historical world.
On the other hand, scholarly history is prey to the same weaknesses. Novelist or scholar, we all view the past refracted through the lens of our own time and experiences. Geoffrey Elton, the grand old man of Tudor studies, brought to the field his experience of totalitarian Europe, creating a narrative of centralization and power. A whole generation of English scholars, educated in the height of Communist chic at Cambridge, did their very best to explain the English Civil Wars as a narrative of class struggle in the Marxist paradigm, a theory that has since been extensively refuted. Academic “certainties” come and go, leaving their mark on both scholarship and historical fiction. Don’t get me started on Philippe Aries’ Centuries of Childhood.
In an age where history is often taught in a haphazard fashion, historical fiction can provide the fundamental historical literacy that was once the province of textbooks. I had a friend at Yale who had no idea who Henry VIII was. Thanks to The Other Boleyn Girl, hundreds of thousands fewer people will suffer from that handicap. Historical fiction also has the power to serve as a corrective to scholarly history, showcasing details, people, and events that fall between the academic cracks. Although scholars like Laurel Ulrich have brought material culture into academic view, for a long time those physical details of furniture and costume that are a novelist’s bread and butter—and that can tell one so much about the mores and economics of a period—were largely beyond the scholarly pale. The female players in history have also shown to much better advantage in fiction than in the classroom; Anya Seton’s Katherine put Katherine Beaufort on the map for a whole generation of readers, while Jean Plaidy’s Queens of England series shone the spotlight on everyone from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Caroline of Ansbach, narrating the distaff side of the historical narrative. Forgotten events and intrigues also come back into view. Susanna Kearsley’s recent novel, The Winter Sea, showcases the little known Jacobite rising of 1708, while Karleen Koen’s Through a Glass Darkly makes splendid use of the South Sea Bubble.
In a little over a week, I’m delivering a paper at the Popular Culture Association on the tangled relationship between historical fiction and the practice of history. What are your feelings about the interplay between scholarship and fiction? Does historical fiction have a role to play in the shaping and teaching of history? On the other side of it, what responsibility do we, as fiction writers, have to the historical narrative? Any and all thoughts, ideas, or advice much appreciated….