History…Fiction…Now: Upon Waverley’s Bicentennial, a Look at Historical Representation

by Jerome de Groot

In the Wolf's Mouth by Adam Foulds

In the Wolf’s Mouth by Adam Foulds

In 2009 I was asked to review historical novels for History Today. What seemed then a pioneering act on the part of the magazine seems obvious now….

Of course historical novels should be looked at alongside works of mainstream scholarship.

Of course historical novels can give us insight into the key questions asked by all those who investigate the past and our relationship to it.

Of course we should be concerned about how the past is rendered in fiction and its effect on our historical imaginations.

On the bicentennial anniversary of that fabulous, foundational and wise novel, Waverley, it seems to me that historical representation is finally gaining a kind of legitimacy. Sir Walter Scott sought to create a form that would transform writing and change the way that readers might think about themselves in the present. The radical possibility of that kind of text has been central to the importance of the historical novel ever since. This is why as a form it can contain such seemingly disparate writings as Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, James Joyce’s Ulysses and Leo Tolstoy’s War & Peace. The ways in which we think about, represent, and challenge versions of the past has serious and far-reaching consequences for the way that we think about ourselves, our society, our culture, and our identities.

In 2014 the import of historical fiction of all kinds – from novels to television series to film – for the way that we conceive, imagine, and engage with the past seems relatively obvious. Representation of the past in fiction is incredibly important to the way that we think about the world. We are astute readers of and consumers of historical texts. We go to them for enjoyment, for education, and to be challenged. From The Luminaries (2013’s Man Booker prizewinner) to Argo (winner of the 2013 Oscar for Best Picture), historical fictions are lauded with prizes and seen as an entertaining-serious way of thinking about how the past works, how we imagine it, and what this means for how we live now.

That is not to say that things are simple! For a scholar like me, the question is to observe and study how these iterations of the past in the present work, and why.  What is at stake? What are the ethical implications of this shift, if it exists, to allowing for the importance of fictional narratives? What do these books, novels and films suggest about the way that we think about and understand history? How do they resource the historical imagination?

I am often asked why historical fiction should be so important now. One of my answers is that it never went away, really – what we are experiencing is a regular upturn in its literary fortunes and hence the legitimacy of the form. Historical fiction is something that ‘serious’ literary writers would attempt without blanching now, where in the 1980s they might have had to do this undercover or from a different angle. So we might compare the different aesthetic practice of Jeanette Winterson, Salman Rushdie, Angela Carter, Kazuo Ishiguro, Rose Tremain (all of whom wrote historical novels in the late 1980s) with that of Sarah Waters, Hilary Mantel, Eleanor Catton and Adam Foulds.

I wonder, too, whether the historical novel allows for a complex discussion to take place about nationalism, globalisation, and identity. Post-9/11, post-2008, post-1989, post-Arab Spring, the institutions and organisations that give our lives structure and identity are increasingly challenged. The historical novel is a cosmopolitan, rather than a nationalist, genre. It allows the reader to imagine and to travel throughout space and time, and in that liberation enshrines a sense of openness and plurality. It allows us to imagine new identities, ways of thinking, modes of being. It enables empathy across time, and strives to translate into contemporary experience the meanings of being alive in a particular moment.

Historical fiction is also honest about its dishonesty. It tells us that it is lying, that it is incomplete, that there are other stories out there. In doing so it earns our acceptance. As the narrator in Jeanette Winterson’s novel, The Passion, says, ‘I’m telling you stories. Trust me.’ Perhaps we are happier to read acknowledged fictions rather than have oppressive myths imposed upon us. As a form, therefore, the historical novel seems fundamentally anti-authoritarian in spirit, always allowing for other points of view and ways of thinking. This multiplicity and diversity is central to its appeal in the contemporary world. This playful approach to the past is much more liberating than constrictive views. Historical fiction then might be seen as a place of dissent, or at least of challenge to narratives of prejudice, control, and oppression.

Another answer is to suggest that current readers are interested in revisionist versions of the past (hence possibly the success of Wolf Hall) and novels that challenge the received opinion or the stories that we are told. This ‘conspiracy’ society, brought up on WikiLeaks and The Da Vinci Code, might seek alternatives and challenges in their fiction. Certainly this would also account for the hundreds of alternative narratives that strew the Internet, as people seek to make their own stories out of the materials available.

We might also say that fiction can allow us to understand history in a more profound and complex fashion. Fiction elaborates on the details of history, gives it a more profound meaning, allows us to empathise and understand in a way that other historical writing struggles to achieve. Importantly, fiction allows the exploration of other kinds of identity, whilst also suggesting to us (as Scott was so keen to demonstrate) that our own abilities, lives, and agency are circumscribed by forces often outside of our control. This is the ‘self-conscious historicity’ that Georg Lukacs claimed Scott ushered in – the historical novel allows the reader to think about themselves in history, as connected to the past (and therefore with the possibility of a future, which therefore might be changed).

Another reason for the current popularity of the fictional past in all forms is genealogy. It is not an anomaly that we have experienced a ‘genealogy’ boom around the world over the past decade. Ordinary people want to use the materials of historical investigation (archives, libraries, research) to discover their own stories and those of their ancestors. Recent historical fiction has tended to concentrate on the ‘ordinary’ experience of the past, encouraging a sense of connection. The genealogy boom is also about a desire for roots, to render oneself part of an historical continuum, to gain traction in an increasingly fast and unmapped world. It also expresses the need, through an understanding of historical narratives, to encounter the vast archive that is the past and the Internet and to comprehend it somehow. This sense of a need to ‘understand’ the present through going to the past is key in the rise in historical fiction, too.

Education is another key reason why people are increasingly turning to historical novels. There is a sense that we can understand the past in a different way through reading about it in fiction. This kind of comprehension is not antithetical to mainstream historical work, but complementary. Historical fiction sits alongside historical textbooks as a way of allowing us to discover more about the past, and to understand it better. Not only do we comprehend the things that happened in a more sophisticated way, but historical fiction enables the reader to see how historical narratives themselves are made, and to possibly challenge the way that things have been represented to them. The unique quality of the historical novel – the ability to teach and delight simultaneously – means that it has great power.

In War & Peace Tolstoy used the analogy of the chaos of war as a way of thinking about the past. No one knows how it works, no one understands their own situation within it, no one can direct it. Many people strive to make it mean or to impose some kind of structure or shape upon it, but they are doing this in vain. Historical fiction allows us to see that the past is chaotic and our versions of it, whether they be fiction or factual writing, are continually striving to make meaning in a vacuum. Historical fictions might bring us comfort, then, when faced with the confusion of the contemporary world. They certainly bring us succour when faced with the implacable and incomprehensible past.

What happens now, then? Well, I look with some interest at the hybridisation of historical novels. There are now plenty of mash-up novels that bring us historical crime, historical horror, pastiche, adaptation. The great historical zombie and vampire novels are yet to be written. On the back of the success of Mantel and Catton I anticipate a whole new generation of literary authors thinking seriously about how the past might be represented, and looking carefully at how narratives from history might provide rich material for novelists.

In all these things I may be wrong. I probably am. The thing I think is magnificent about historical fiction is its ability to contain multitudes, to mean in so many different ways and to allow for so many different iterations. Every historical novelist has an opinion about what they are doing, how they are doing it, and why they are doing it. They all have a sense of their relation to ‘history’ and the evidence of the past. Yet each of their answers is different, unique, and precise. Alison Weir has a different attitude to David Peace to Philippa Gregory to Ian Mortimer. Some are professionals, most are simply practitioners who have evolved through their own work a keen and thoughtful sense of how to represent  the past in fiction.

What do you think? Why do you read historical novels, or write them? Why is this type of writing so popular now? Where do we go from here? Let me know: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/FFJ8B7K

About the contributor: DR. JEROME DE GROOT is senior lecturer at the University of Manchester and author of The Historical Novel (Routledge, 2009).


Published in Historical Novels Review  |  Issue 67, February 2014

Posted by Bethany Latham

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