No, You Can't Learn History From Historical Fiction
I stumbled into an interesting debate on the Historical Novel Society Facebook group the other day. It began with the question “what is the purpose of historical fiction?” Someone commented that historical fiction is a good way to learn history. I disagree. As someone who trained to be an historian, I know that historical novels are a terrible way to learn history. As a novelist, I feel that defending the purpose of a novel as a way to learn any factual subject is to devalue fiction.
Let me begin with this: You can no more learn history from an historical novel than you can learn medicine from Grey’s Anatomy or forensics from CSI Miami.
There are several reasons for this. First of all, while many historical novelists are fanatic in their attempt to “get all the details right” there is an important aspect in which very few attempt to be accurate, and that is in representing the views and values of their characters in a way that is authentic to the period. The opinions of almost everyone in any period before our own would be considered some combination of racist, sexist, homophobic, superstitious, and irrational by a large portion of the reading public today. Getting the reader to sympathize with someone with unfashionable views is difficult, so authors tend to give their sympathetic characters much more modern views and seldom allow even benevolent minor characters to hold any view that would be anathema to a modern reader. Historical fiction is very much like historical re-enactment; everyone is wearing modern underpants.
The problem with this, in a book from which one is trying to learn history, is not simply that this portrayal is inaccurate in the particular. The bigger problem is that it paints history as a kind of uniform moral progress towards a superior and enlightened modern moral state. Every character then becomes either a hero or a villain in that progress.
But this is an entirely false view of history. People’s values accord to their circumstances. Even when they have superior moral ideas, such as Christianity’s idea of the individual worth of each human soul, they seldom live up to them. Virtue, for most of us, means living in accord with the mores of our social group. We have an inbuilt fear of exclusion, since for most of human existence, exile was a death sentence. (This is why cyberbullying can be such a devastating thing. You can’t punch someone in the nose over the web. Exclusion is its only weapon, and it can deal a mortal blow.) To avoid exclusion, we accord our opinions and our actions to those of the group.
The opinions and actions of the group are shaped in turn by the sources of its prosperity and peace. We are not one bit different from past people in this, but the things we believe necessary to our prosperity and peace are very different. We condemn things that they felt necessary to their peace and prosperity. They would condemn as vicious and barbaric a number of things that we feel necessary to our peace and prosperity today.
Imperialism, for instance, was an economic theory based on the notion that you needed to own your trading partners. Once it was established that free trade led to greater prosperity, imperial powers ceased to defend and maintain their empires, letting some possessions go free and actually kicking some possessions out, as Britain did with certain Canadian provinces that were reluctant to leave. A change of economic theory over the intervening ninety years made the American and Canadian separations from Britain very different events. (You can rely on it that this interpretation of events will not be shared by all, because history is like that.)
But even if you believe that history is a record of progress towards enlightenment (and there are many who do), putting modern attitudes into the mouths and minds of historical characters is still a falsification, since it actually negates the theory of moral progress if such attitudes have always existed. Whatever the reasons, peoples of the past believed what they believed, and yet few historical novels fully reflect those beliefs. Most notably and consistently, they seldom reflect their religious beliefs and practices. Thus they give a fundamentally false impression of the era.
The second problem with historical novel as history teacher is that a novel, by its nature, is perfectly certain about all it presents. Though historical novelists often obsess over getting the details exactly right, the truth is that history is almost never certain about any of the details. We can be certain about the physical properties of the artifacts that are found by archeology, but we cannot be certain of their meaning or function. And the archeological record is incomplete. The archeology of the Anglo-Saxon period, for instance, produces a wealth of coins, jewelry, weapons, and other metal implements, but virtually nothing of wood or fabrics. Organic matter rots away in an English climate. And this means that the archeology tells us far more about the rich than the poor. But it does not give us a complete picture of the rich either. For instance, we know, or can reasonably surmise, a fair amount about the foundations of their buildings, but what was built on those foundations is largely a matter of speculation.
The written record, what little there is of it, is similarly skewed towards the rich, and also towards the ecclesiastical. A great deal of Anglo-Saxon history depends on one contemporary document, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. But how well informed, and how unbiased, were its authors? We have no way to know. We rely on it because we have few other sources, but ask yourself what faith you would put in a history of the modern world written entirely by monks (or fishermen, or pediatricians, or race car drivers, or any other single profession)?
You might object that the records and artefacts of later periods are better and more complete, and that is true. But are they so complete, so unambiguous, as to give us the kind of certainty one finds in a novel? Not by a country mile. Read the work of actual historians and you will find that a very large part of it is devoted to arguing about what records and artefacts mean. Are they complete? Are they representative? Are they forgeries? When a word is used in the 8th or 15th or 19th century, does it mean the same as it would if it were used today? If it has the same meaning, does it have the same tone, the same implication, the same emotional impact or intent? History is largely forensic in nature. It deals in degrees of probability and consensus, not with indisputable fact.
And when Historians stand back and try to form a picture from all these individual pieces of more or less reliable evidence, how reliable, how fair, are their conclusions? Terms like Dark Ages, Middle Ages, and Renaissance are relics of historical theories that have long since been discredited. Though we still know relatively little about “the Dark Ages” thanks to a paucity of evidence, it now appears to have been a period of considerable prosperity and learning. And the economic, social, artistic, technological, and intellectual progress of the “Middle Ages” has been shown to be enormous, from which the Renaissance was much more a natural progression than a revolution. All of which is to say that history is constantly being rewritten and re-evaluated (sometimes with philosophical motives, often with an ideological axe to grind). It is not a fixed picture to which a novel can be reliably faithful, or which a novel can reliably teach.
At its best, history is an attempt to make sense of the artifacts of the past, and to deal with the fragmentary and biased nature of the picture they present. But you will get none of that from a novel. You will get certainty as to what was done, what was said, why it was done, and what it meant. Because that is what a novel is supposed to do. It is meant to create an experience in the most concrete way possible. Those who seek to learn history from historical novels are apt to think historical knowledge far more fixed and certain than it is or ever could be.
And this is not to mention the obvious fact that much of what happens in any historical novel is complete invention. Even in the most extensive of historical records, much remains unrecorded of the moments of life, its texture, its emotions, and its inner life, all of which is the proper matter of a novel. The novel must invent. But how then is the reader supposed to sort the inventions from what the historical record (as far as we can trust it) reveals? The very success of the novel depends on the seams not showing, on the story appearing as an integral whole. Thus if you take an historical novel for anything other than simply a novel, you risk mistaking the author’s invention for historical knowledge.
This brings me to the next problem with treating a novel as a way to learn history. History, as a discipline, is concerned with the big picture. (There are, of course, many uses of history, but that is matter for another day.) History may be full of anecdotes, of human-interest stories, but those stories of individuals and moments serve only as data points for historical study. The big picture is composed out of a hundred little pictures and inferences about what connects them. But the big picture is not just a random collection of little pictures. It is an attempt to make sense of the life of a society that is revealed by its individual incidents.
But a novel by its nature focusses on the incident. Even the most epic of novels follows only a few people and deals in depth with how the events of the wider world affect their particular lives. In this sense, it does the exact opposite of what history does. Where history attempts to widen, the novel attempts to focus on the particular.
There is, of course, a huge appetite for what the papers call “human interest stories,” for the stories of individual people doing individual things for individual reasons. Novels are human interest stories. The past provides an enormous wealth of human interest stories. Historical novels that recount actual incidents from history are adapting those human interest stories into fuller or more easily digestible human interest stories. Hang out on any historical fiction Facebook group and you will find people regularly posting small human interest stories from the past. They are, in form and in the reactions they provoke, absolutely like the contemporary human interest stories you find in more general media. And there is nothing wrong with any of that. We are humans. We are interested in humans. We like human interest stories.
But human interest stories are not history. The events they relate are merely one of the starting points for historical study. Still, history also feeds back to the human interest story. Understanding the big picture of a society helps us to understand what is really happening in the individual anecdotes, the individual human interest stories. Every individual story takes place in a broader social context that gives it meaning. We will inevitably misunderstand the individual incidents of the past if we don’t have some understanding of their context. It is the job of the historian to locate the incidents of the past in their context.
This is certainly something that the historical novelist can attempt too, and this, I think, is why an historical novelist should have a good grounding in the history of the period they are writing about. I certainly attempt to do this in my novels, even at the risk of giving my characters opinions and loyalties that some contemporary readers may find unpalatable. And perhaps it could be argued that a novel might be better able than a history to shock the reader into recognizing the different context in which the characters lived and which explained their attitudes and opinions. A novel, then, could conceivably better dispose the reader for the study of history itself.
But having the experience of recognition while reading a novel still is not learning history. For that, the reader would need to take that shock of realization back to the study of history. To take my novels as a faithful representation of the feelings and behavior of a typical Anglo-Saxon thegn’s wife and daughters of the 8th century would be a serious mistake. I don’t pretend to have achieved that. There is not the evidence available for anyone to achieve that, and certainly no way to verify the accuracy of such a portrait. And in any case, that is not why I set the novel in that time and place.
And that brings me to my second objection: that to treat the historical novel as a way to learn history is to devalue what a novel is for. To be sure, you can use stories, and maybe even novels, to teach all kinds of subjects, from mathematics to business administration. Some may remember the abysmal “business novels” that were in vogue in the business book world a couple of decades ago. Suffice to say that those books remained firmly shelved in the business section of the bookstore, and mercifully faded away fairly quickly. Not all such attempts are as bad at teaching their subject as the business novel. But they are all equally bad as novels.
This is because while all these subjects can be taught as a collection of propositions, novels don’t express things as propositions. They express things as experiences. This is why stories are so important to human beings. They create experiences and we learn from experiences differently from how we learn from propositions. (You learn to play catch from catching balls, not from reading a book on the theory of catching balls.) Novels (and other story forms, and other forms of art) allow us to explore those aspects of human experience that are not reducible to propositions. This is knowledge we cannot define but cannot live without. And that is my answer to the original question of the purpose of historical fiction. It is the same purpose as any other fiction: to create experiences.
The experiences that novels create may be trivial ones, used only to pass the time, or they may be profound ones that reshape how we see life and the world. They may also be false experiences – the world as we would like it to be rather than how it is. But they are all experiences, and as such, complete in themselves and justified in themselves. If you are justifying the novel – your own or the art form in general – based on its ability to teach something propositional, you are devaluing the novel.
The reasons I set my novel, The Wistful and the Good, in 8th century Northumbria was to examine the age-old conflict between inclination and duty in the context of a different culture. I made my characters just Anglo-Saxon enough to suit my literary purpose, and no more. To attempt more would simply have made them less accessible, while still being largely an act of speculation in the face of inadequate evidence.
If the reader is entertained by an historical novel, that is all the justification it needs to exist. If they have an experience that changes how they see the world, so much the better. And if the reader imagines that they are also learning history from the novel, that is not the fault of the author, unless they encourage it. So I am not suggesting that anyone should change how they write historical novels. I am simply cautioning readers that you can’t learn history from an historical novel. That is not what they are for and they are ill suited to the purpose. Read the novel for the story. If you want history, read a history book.