The problem of truth in history and fiction: a speech by Richard Lee

Richard Lee

History is but a fable agreed upon: the problem of truth in history and fiction

This speech was given by our founder Richard Lee to the Romantic Novelists’ Association at their annual conference in York in 2000.


“People frequently ask me why I set up the HNS – and actually, it’s a question I’ve found hard to answer.  It’s not that I don’t know, it’s just that there are so many different answers.

But one answer – probably not THE answer, but a good one nevertheless – is the British press.  I don’t know whether any of you make a habit of reading book reviews – as I do.  But there is one unerring rule: even the most intelligent people can say the most fatuous things about historical fiction.

‘At war with itself’

Here’s something from the Telegraph last month. It’s the opening to a review of a novel, and the article is written by ANDREW GRAHAM-DIXON – the chap who did that television series about the Renaissance over Christmas last year.

Here’s what he says:

“The historical novel has always been a literary form at war with itself. The very term, implying a fiction somehow grounded in fact – a lie with obscure obligations to the truth – is suggestive of the contradictions of the genre.”

A ‘fiction somehow grounded in fact’, ‘a lie with obscure obligations to the truth’. Well – yes – but ALL fiction is ‘a lie somehow grounded in fact’. Just think about it for a moment. What Graham-Dixon says of historical novels can just as easily be said of something contemporary.

Think of Trainspotting or Bridget Jones’ Diary. No-one thinks that these two books are true. Yet no-one would bother to read them if they didn’t believe that they were in some way drawn from life. Call this a ‘contradiction’ if you like, but it’s an absolute fundamental – perhaps THE absolute fundamental quality of art. Not just fiction but sculpture, painting, poetry – all art. All art is, to use Graham-Dixon’s words ‘at war with itself’. It seeks, at the same time, both ACCURACY and ILLUSION. It is ludicrous to say that this is ONLY a defining characteristic of historical fiction – it’s a defining characteristic of ALL fiction.

So why do these intelligent people get it so wrong when they think about historical fiction?

The root of the problem, I think, is in the name of genre. This is certainly what trips Andrew Graham-Dixon up. He hears the word ‘historical’ first, and so he thinks of historical fiction as a sub-category of ‘history’. History is always searching for the truth. Fiction is not. Therefore historical fiction is bad history. QED. Whereas really, (as one would think is self-evident) historical fiction is a sub-category of fiction – and so the truth issue only arises in a fictional context.

All fiction has to seem ‘true’ according to its own rules – this is even so with fantasy fiction, like Gulliver’s Travels or The Lord of the Rings. But fictional truth has more to do with the suspension of disbelief than with anything scientific or objective. Truth, in fiction, is no more and no less than what you can make your reader believe.

And in fact, as far as historical fiction is concerned – as I’m sure many practitioners here today will confirm – it’s sometimes easier to make the reader believe in something entirely made up, than in something that you’ve discovered by painstaking research.

History and fiction within historical fiction

All of which brings me more or less to the centre of what I want to talk about today, which is the relationship of history and fiction within historical fiction. We all think we know what we mean by history – but what is history? And, having worked out what history is, what is historical fiction?

The first thing I would like to say about history is that – whatever else it may be – it is NOT truth. I don’t think I would go quite as far as Henry Ford in saying that ‘History is bunk’, but it’s a lot closer to bunk than some people would have us believe.

Is history objective truth?

The first piece of evidence that history is not the objective truth it claims to be comes from historians themselves. After all, what is ‘revisionist’ history if not an accusation that some previous historian didn’t get it right? Each decade throws up new approaches to history, finds new or previously overlooked sources and gives entirely new weight to the facts they do agree on.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

I can think of no better example of this than the Second Edition of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, now nearing completion. The first edition, as you’ll know was completed earlier this century and was intended to be definitive. It was always going to be updated, but only as new names became available (ie, people died).

Now though, the whole thing is being revised. No-one who was originally featured is to be excised (as a matter of policy), but many entries will be cut, re-organised, ‘corrected’ and otherwise refashioned. And what are the main areas of change? Well, above all, they need more women. A friend of mine working on the Eighteenth Century part of the dictionary was actually given a (rough) quota of women that she had to find to even things up. Meanwhile, the main things that are being ‘corrected’ and cut are to do with military men and imperialists.

History, in other words, is tailored for its audience. The DNB was tailored when it first came out. It’s being revised now. No doubt it will be entirely refashioned in another generation or two.

Changing interpretations

I was thinking of making a short list of areas that have been fundamentally re-interpreted by historians in just the last few years – but the short list becomes long almost at once. Instead I’ve come up with headings.

  • Anything to do with Colonial History and Imperialism (particularly its early stages)
  • Anything to do with Women (particularly wives: behind every great man there is a much more titillating woman!)
  • Anything to do with yesterday’s heroes (even Churchill is being criticised now for having beggared this country by forcing an extended Second World War on us).

Fact or fiction?

It’s not ONLY this constant change in interpretations that should worry us, though. Historians are also forever giving too much credence to what I’ll call, for the sake of argument, FACTS.

Let me take an example from my own area of research. I’m working on a novel set at the time of the First Crusade, and one of the things that is most important to my book is why people would choose to embark on anything so mad as a crusade.

What motivates a man to march to virtually the end of the known world, to fight for something he has never seen, in the face of all manner of hardships?

Let me say, for those of you unfamiliar with this period of history, that the death toll amongst the knights who went on the crusade was about 40% – much worse than the Somme. And that’s just the people we know about – the knights and lords. We can guess that it was worse still for the peasants and pilgrims along the way. It was a truly horrendous thing.

So why did people go?

Well, if you are an historian, you must base your opinion on ‘fact’. The facts, in this case, come from a few eye-witness accounts, from a handful of letters, but most importantly from legal charters – the wills left by the crusaders, and land transfers made on their departure.

The picture created by this evidence is of people who were abundantly pious but rather ropy financially. In other words, people who proclaimed great fear of hell-fire, but who were probably wanting to go abroad to escape debt.

And even the piety sometimes seems a little impure to modern eyes. Penance, where it is mentioned, is for crimes like killing archbishops, burning churches, stealing land or over-taxing peasants. The penitents walk naked to shrines or wear hair shirts. They have themselves scourged with whips. One of them had himself put in a halter, tied the weapons with which he had committed his crimes to the halter, and crawled on hands and knees to the Holy Sepulchre!

It’s out of these sort of records that we get our modern picture of a crusader – in other words, an immoral thug, marching into other people’s lands with no thought in his mind but war and looting – and possibly imperialism – yet all the while professing great spiritual faith.

An incredible distortion

The records, though, are an incredible distortion, even if the events they describe are in themselves true (which is by no means certain).

Firstly, you only get mentioned in the records if, for some reason, your financial settlements fall through. In other words, all the crusaders who are financially solvent simply don’t exist in the records. So this is why we think of all crusaders as in it for the money: because the only ones we have records about were in debt up to their eyes.

Secondly, penance only gets mentioned if it is really bad (remember, confession is generally a private business, between the confessor and his priest) – and in fact there aren’t many examples at all. The ones I’ve just mentioned are actually the fruits of about 200 years of charters, and not one of them is immediately concerned with the First Crusade. They are the scandals, as it were. For each one of these there are a hundred (at least) mentions of simple, boring piety that no-one chooses to remember.

Thirdly – let’s think about these records again. They are only a tiny fraction of the records that must once have existed. In fact they all come from just a couple of regions in France. And they only refer to land-owning types – peasants are not mentioned at all.

So what kind of ‘truth’ is this?

The facts that survive are absurdly inadequate. The interpretation that is put on them is a huge distortion even of those few facts.  And yet – if I had a pound for everyone who told me what terrible people crusaders were, I wouldn’t need to write my novel at all…

The trenches of World War One

Set against all this, of course, you have Art. Fiction. The stuff that historians say can’t be true.

When you look at the art, though, you realise how much historians rely on it for their own views of history.

The most obvious example that springs to mind is our image of the trenches in World War One. Just think about the weight of documentation there is about the trenches. Letters. Newspaper articles. Photographs. The history is vast. But letters home from the front were almost universally couched in the same sort of language. They were brave and understated, they talked about everyday things like food and clothes. They rarely complained. They rarely gave any detail of battles. Even if they did, they generally talked about ‘doing our bit’. Often, in fact, all that was sent were postcards, with pre-printed messages, and the relevant boxes ticked.

Against this weight of evidence, ALL of which says that people were generally bearing up, coping, and accepting their situation – tons upon tons of evidence – are rested a few poems by an eighteen year old sensitive, whose reading was mostly Keats and Shakespeare, and who was just coming to terms with the discovery of his own homosexuality. Hardly the archetype of the First World War Tommy. I’m talking, of course, about Wilfred Owen. But it is this man that historians believe – who they set up against all the tons of other evidence.

Now I’m not saying that Owen misrepresented the War – rather the opposite. What I am saying is that the fact of his poetry, the truth of it, works like yeast in our minds, whereas the thousand truths of the great mountains of other ‘fact’ simply disappear in the face of it.

Which is truer, history or fiction?

It is at this point that you must ask yourself which is truer, history or fiction?

I should perhaps say that there are lots of other examples of where historians actually take art as their chief resource – be it fiction, poetry, or painting – whatever. Again and again historians will cite passages from Chaucer, or from Piers Plowman, or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to bolster their picture of fourteenth century England. In the same way people will quote attitudes in Jane Austen, or Dickens, to elucidate their ideas about the Nineteenth Century.

To give a very extreme example, one of my contemporaries at Oxford was writing a doctoral thesis. Her subject was this: the novels and other books mentioned in Dickens and George Eliot. In other words, she would read all the books by these authors, noting down when a character was reading another book. Then she would find that book (often obscure to modern day readers) and explain what it was. By this means she could show what Dickens (say) was intending by having Nicholas Nickleby reading Peregrin Pickle. Her thesis, in other words, was a study of well-known Victorian fiction, to discover what other Victorian fiction was commonly read – all in the service of social history.

People’s minds

The normal historical sources, you see, are not very good on people’s MINDS. They may be able to pin-point where someone is on a given day. They could tell you what that person did – who they met, what they bought, what it cost. Sometimes they can even tell you what people said – although reported speech is always extremely dubious. But historical sources – and indeed, historians – are almost never able to say what people FEEL about what happens. Even though what we feel about what happens is often the most important thing about it.


So where have we got to?

I hope I’ve managed to show you that all art, and especially fiction, is about CONTRADICTION. We create illusions, but the illusions must be accurate and convincing, or they mean nothing. And – at its best – the seeming lie of ART can show more of the TRUTH than many a collection of more easily verifiable FACT.

I hope I’ve also managed to show that history is not quite the out and out truth that it seems. At its best it is only one historian’s selection of what he or she BELIEVES, at any particular time, is most relevant from the body of material that survives. At worst – well at worst, it is no more than the sort of bigoted opinion and blatant manipulation of sources that we’ve recently seen exposed in the work of holocaust denier, DAVID IRVING.

The main stem of the plant we call fiction

So where does this leave historical fiction?

Well, I said earlier that I think that historical fiction is a sub-category of fiction – but actually, I wasn’t being entirely honest. Really I think that what we now call historical fiction is the main stem, as it were, of the plant we call fiction; it is contemporary fiction – and science fiction, or detective fiction, or fantasy – that are the off-shoots, the sub-categories.

This is not just me banging a drum – think about it for a moment. Historical fiction is the most primal, the most NATURAL of literary forms. If you look at all early literature in all cultures – even oral cultures – you find that the first stories that they tell are hero stories about their own ancestors and forebears. A man who boasts about himself is simply that – a boaster. But a man who boasts about his pedigree: well, he’s giving you REASONS why he is superior!

As I say, there is this tendency in all early cultures – Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Chinese, Norse, African. Whether the story is fantastical, for example, the sort that proves a king’s descent from a god, or more earthy, like the Odysseus style of story, which praises tribal or national cunning, the impulse is the same: to present an idealised, dramatised form of the past.

The most natural form of story-telling

So in all cultures, historical fiction is the most natural form of story-telling.

Think one step further and you will realise that this isn’t just the preserve of ancient peoples – it’s the way we tell stories of our own families. If we sit down to tell our children or grand children about someone they have never met – someone, perhaps, who was dear to us – we don’t try to sum up that person’s life, or give any balanced picture of the facts. We tell anecdotes. We tell stories that make SHAPES and CHARACTERS out of the past – which either glorify or anaesthetise struggles. Most of all, we tell the things that we hope will catch the listener’s interest.

And we are not always too worried about whether or not these stories are precisely true – and certainly not in an historian’s “verifiable” sense of truth. We want them to be amusing to tell, to make the past come BACK to us, and to bring it alive for our listeners. And we make heroes – often, actually, comic heroes – of those we have known. Anything, so long as what is dear to us is not forgotten. That’s historical fiction – and it is probably the most fundamental human literary need.

Past and present

Historical fiction, then, is the artistic form that springs from this impulse to give a shape to the past. But it’s not JUST to give a shape to the past. It is to bring part of the past ALIVE into the present.

Stephen Crane, the author of the American Civil War classic The Red Badge of Courage, was once asked why he had chosen to write his book as fiction rather than history. You see he was a scholar. The reason, he said, was because he wanted to FEEL the situations of the War as a PROTAGONIST, not from the outside. And it was only by writing a novel that he could do this.

And this is what all historical fiction does. It makes us feel, as a protagonist, what otherwise would be dead and lost to us. It transports us into the past. And the very best historical fiction presents to us a TRUTH of the past that is NOT the truth of the history books, but a bigger truth, a more important truth – a truth of the HEART.”

About the author

Richard Lee founded the Historical Novel Society in 1997. Find out more about him in Who’s Who.

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