Thursday, 3 June 2010

Rewriting history

I read that historian of the moment Niall Ferguson has been pontificating about historical fiction to the literatti at the Hay on Wye festival. (see Charlotte Higgins Apparently he no longer reads the kind of books I write because they 'contaminate historical understanding'; the premise presumably being that when a historical novelist puts words into the mouth of one of his non-fictional characters he is somehow distorting the historical record. Likewise he warns against historians inferring beyond the written record 'or else this takes you into the realm of romantic fiction, a world I shall never enter.' What a dull life the man must lead.

I've always felt a bit sorry for 'proper' historians who believe they have to stay within the strict parameters of the evidence and aren't allowed to use their imagination. Some of the best and most readable works on the subject have been by people prepared to break free of that restriction. Professor Mary Beard's Pompeii: The life of a Roman Town is a great book because she's confident enough in her subject to look at the evidence and allow her imagination to take her back 2,000 years. That doesn't make her a bad historian, just a good writer. In Before Scotland, Alistair Moffat writes about a time for which we have no written record, but uses the landscape, etymology, and his imagination, to revisit and recreate a fascinating true Dark Age.

Historians like Mr Ferguson make a living out of re-evaluating history, which is fine if you have a large anthology of written work to start with. Quite often all they achieve is to see what others have seen before them, only to cry out that they've discovered something everyone else has missed, not because it is new, but because they're looking at it through the prism of their own, modern, age. The written record can also be dangerous ground, particularly when it is taken literally. Our knowledge of early Rome is based on only a handful of writers, each of whose work has been, to a greater or lesser extent, 'contaminated' by the times they lived in. Pragmatism meant they could only say so much, and in a certain way. Tacitus and Cassius Dio put words in the mouths of Rome's defeated enemies of a hundred years earlier that sent messages to the readers of their own time. Nobody in their right mind thinks those words were actually spoken.

People who read historical fiction are intelligent enough to understand that what they are reading is just that: fiction. Our knowledge of Boudicca, Calgacus and Caratacus, the three great British heroes of early history, exists only because of the way their defeats reflected on Rome. They play bit parts in large stories and we know little or nothing about the reality of their lives. Does that mean we have to ignore them? Of course not. When, in Claudius, I sat Caratacus down in a mud hut with the leaders of southern Britain, I was attempting to recreate the atmosphere of the times not write a history of them. Likewise, when Valerius looks across the river Colne at the seething horde of Boudicca's army in Hero of Rome, I used my imagination. Yet, in some form, if not in the way I actually portray them, both these events must have happened and I make no apologies for using them to inform, and to entertain. Because, unlike Niall Ferguson, we scribblers of historical fiction are in the entertainment business as much as the literary.
We know our place.


Gabriele C. said...

My favourite part from that article is: mark in bold type the "bits they made up". Can we start bolding Tacitus' stories, please? :)

Of course, a writer of historical fiction should do the best research possible, keep up with the newest essays/books, learn how to critically value the sources, how to look for logic flaws and biases in non fiction (and boy, is there a lot of that), but in the end we need a plot, interesting characters and a good story to tell. Some of this has to be invented, or we could write boring ol' essays no one outside the academic world reads (and I'm one of them). ;)

For me one rule of thumb is if there is no clear proof that it could not have happened that way, it's fair game to invent speeches, character motivations and such. For example, we know nothing about why the Cheruscian 'prince' Arminius, Roman citizen and member of the equestrian order, highly decorated officer who fought for Rome in the Pannonian wars 6-8 AD, a year later decided to turn on the Romans and annihilate three legions in the Teutoburg Forest. We only know it happened because that's something all the sources agree about, and to some extent also how it happened. We may even know part of the battlefield location now. I'm perfectly free to come up with a motivation.

Another example: as cavalry praefect, Arminius was member of the staff, present at Tiberius' briefings and other such meetings, and he will have met Germanicus there, a young man of his own age. Whether they were just fellow officers or became rivals or friends, no one knows. So it's up to me to make them friends because that will have a greater emotional impact when Germanicus a few years after the Varus battle makes another attempt to conquer Germania. Even if there had been romours, Tacitus as well as Velleius would have had good reasons to not mention that detail. ;)

Doug said...

Couldn't agree more!