What is historical fiction? British historical fiction writer Jill Paton Walsh says, “a novel is a historical novel when it wholly or partly about the public events and social conditions which are the material of history, regardless of the time at which it is written.”
These public events and social conditions must be accurately portrayed when used in historical fiction. The author of historical fiction must blend historical facts with imagination and creative style to master his art. He must be a master of the past so as to portray accurately ideas, attitudes, tendencies and themes and weave his story—accurate in all its details—into the thematic materials. If he is successful, he can appeal to the reader on an emotional level and reveal significant insights about the past. The writer develops the characters, setting, plot and theme so they elucidate the past. If he wants to call his writing historical fiction certain basic elements must be included. Historians and novelists often differ in their points of view about the historical novel and its purpose. However, both agree that the writer of historical fiction must not distort past reality; the writer must not manipulate historical facts to make the novel more interesting or exciting.
Historians generally agree that the fiction writer does not pay enough attention to historical detail. They feel much of the fiction called historical fiction is merely romantic literature that manipulates historical data at will to make the novel seem more exciting. Ms. Walsh calls these kinds of novels “costume” novels. In the “costume” novel the writer simply plunks fictional characters in a historical setting, but they do not participate in public events or interact with other characters to reveal social conditions or dominating tendencies of a particular era. This “costume” treatment of historical fiction is probably the single most frequent objection voiced by historians in their criticism of historical novels. Good historical novelists and historians agree on this point and express themselves explicitly about what the historical novel must be.
MacKinlay Kantor, the author of the Pulitzer Prize winner,
is adamant about the novelist’s obligation to history. He says, “The term ‘historical novel’ has a dignity of its own, and should be applied to those works wherein a deliberate attempt has been made to recreate the past.”
He feels that the historical novel is an important genre of literature because an awareness of the past can help the general reader confront the fear and perplexities of the present and future. He feels that the historical novel helps the reader to profit from the lessons of the past with “ . . . its agonies, its triumphs, its dreams, its disillusionments . . . .”
Kantor believes that the historical novelist approaches the reader on an emotional level, but the good historical novel can evoke an intellectual response. Like the historian, the good historical novelist searches for the truth in history, and infuses this truth into his fictional work. The writer of good historical fiction uses research and realizes the importance of accuracy. The historical novelist is as interested in conveying history as he is in originating fiction.
Bruce Catton, the distinguished Civil War historian and editor of
The American Heritage
, believes that the historian is performing the same function. He says:.
Once the historian addresses himself to the general reader—the historian has to face the fact that he is engaged in the literary art . . . what he writes is finally going to have the effect of expanding his reader’s horizon. It is going to move the reader emotionally just because a true account of man’s unending struggle with destiny is always moving. To discharge his obligation fully—to meet the challenge which the writing of history presents—the historian must always bear in mind that he is for the moment acting as an artist . . . .
The writer of good historical fiction recreates the past with an immediacy neither expository history nor pure fiction can achieve alone. Good historical fiction must not only be good history, but must also be good literature. The historical novelist presents the reader with characters caught up in a conflict and builds his narrative from historical details. As the reader becomes involved with the characters and story line, he begins to absorb the historical data and begins to recognize the many human qualities of the character . Gradually the characters become real to the reader and the reader begins to “root” for this character if he or she is being treated unjustly. The reader might question in his own mind the need for law or government to protect this character’s individual rights.
And, at this moment, the reader is unconsciously using his cognitive ability to sort and group these historical details; he compares them to his own society, and begins to discern the differences in the historical period he is reading about and to compare it to his society today. If the historical novelist accomplishes this kind of reader involvement, he has made some impact on the reader’s conscience. He has made the reader think, consider, discover, and, most important, begin to realize the importance and usefulness of studying history. He has, of course, as his central purpose, also described and explained some significant historical tendency.
Bruce Catton believes that the historian who is writing history for the general public is writing literature too. He believes “ . . . that when it becomes literature history does not in any way cease to be history.”
He explains that if history is simply the record of what really happened then historians would simply repeat this record. But in the course of his research. the historian finds many half-truths, many unspoken words and many different views of the same incident. He is looking for the fact, but it is difficult to say what is fact and what is not, and it is even harder to say which facts are meaningful and which are subsidiary. He determines what data to use, and in performing this fact he is interpreting the past. He chooses the facts and he says what these chosen facts mean. He sets his ideas down in writing. He is writing for people about the past and in writing this history he is writing literature. It is not fiction like the historical novel, but Catton believes the historian does use the skills of the literary writer.
. . . when he undertakes to put his findings into words he is bound to attempt the artistic approach simply because he does want other men to read what he is writing, and to succeed he is obliged to use the skills of the creative artist.
lf the historian succeeds, then his writing will take its place as literature. Bruce Catton says “Good history is literature.”
Since written history is interpretation, it is important to consider the importance of historiography in the historical novel. Historiography is the methodology of historical research and the study of varying historical interpretations. The writer of good historical fiction is aware of the various interpretations of the same period of history and, if he is sophisticated about the historiographic view, he will integrate historiography in his novel. James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier, authors of
My Brother Sam Is Dead
, attempt to deal with the histoiographic dimension in this novel. They include the Whig, Progressive, and Imperialist interpretations of the American Revolution within the framework of the novel. The Whig interpretation is that the American Revolution was justified because of the tyranny of George III against the colonists. The Americans were patriots who organized to fight for freedom. This historiographic view is expressed through the character of Sam, the hero of the novel.
The Imperialist point of view is that the Empire protected the twenty-four colonies. From the British perspective only a few colonists in only thirteen colonies were dissatisfied. The Imperialist view is expressed by Sam’s father who is loyal to England.
The Progressive interpretation is that the colonists were more concerned with local economic and political conflicts than with libertarian ideology or imperial relations. This view is portrayed in the events of the story and in the relationship of Sam with his father.
In including the historiographic dimension, the Colliers incorporated facts about American history that are important to readers’ understanding of the past. These facts are important because the people and the story cannot be understood without knowing them. Christopher Collier cites this important historiographic distinction in his essay entitled “Johnny and Sam: Old and New Approaches to the American Revolution,” published in the anthology,
Crosscurrents of Criticism
In addition to attention to the historiographic dimension the good historical fiction writer incorporates accuracy in specific detail. Only an honest portrayal of the past events illuminates the times accurately. Jill Paton Walsh says a good historical novelist “ . . . has to believe, I think, that what really happened is bound to make the best story of all.”
It is a demanding art form because if the writer honestly writes historical fiction he will have to spend a commensurate amount of time on research. MacKinlay Kantor warns, “The past is buried deep and cannot be torn from its tomb without devotion and perseverance . . . go and live in that other time, before you would tell of it.”
Some historians and some novelists realize the importance of historical fiction. Catton and Kantor are masters in the art of historical fiction. British writers such as Jill Paton Walsh, Penelope Lively, Rosemary Sutcliff, and Hester Burton have a large public following because of their strict attention to historical detail. American writers such as Eather Forbes, Anya Seton, Christopher Collier and James Lincoln Collier write historical novels for young adults. They, too, combine historical accuracy with fictional form in exciting and interesting literature. These writers of historical novels provide an invaluable experience for readers.
When the history teacher brings this kind of fiction into the classroom he is providing the student with another understanding of the past. The historical novel uses imaginative and figurative language to entice students into a historical exploration. The character and drama interact with past events in such a way as to involve the student in a study of the past on an emotional level as well aa a cognitive level. This student involvement is a logical reason why history teachers should be persuaded to use historical fiction.
Once students become immersed in the novel’s setting, character, plot and theme, they become interested and stimulated by the novel’s story. They begin to draw inferences while reading the novel, about geography, governmental organization, religious beliefs, social attitudes manner of dress, types of food, size of towns or cities, modes of transportation, distribution of wealth, social classes, and laws. They begin to absorb the historical details in the novel without even realizing they are being instructed. In contrast, if these same historical facts were presented in a textbook and the teacher asked the students to memorize or know them, it is likely that little information would be retained by many students.
The events become more significant because the students must understand them in order to understand the novel. Students retain the historical information more easily because it has been understood within the context of the plot, character, setting and theme of the novel. Students begin to consider the relevancy of this segment of the past in relation to the society they live in. The students begin to see how a study of the past helps them to understand the present.
The impact of a historical novel on students cannot be minimized. The range of their imagination and understanding can be broadened. If they respond to a good historical novel, they might be motivated to research the novelist’s use of historical data. They begin to discern the novelist’s biases and they might decide to search for historical data to support or contradict the point of view expressed by the author.
By studying and analyzing historical fiction students can become more discerning readers and develop critical thinking skills. This has many kinds of ramifications for the students and teacher. When students become critical thinkers they are able to discern what is fact and what is fiction. They begin to think about what is good and what is bad, and why it is good or why it is bad, and what is wrong and what is right, or why it is wrong or why it is right. They see the value of objectivity and learn to consider the many different possibilities before they decide on an answer or solution. They begin to recognize biases, review judgements, identify values, and develop criteria for making generalizations. They are thinking about ideas, theories, and philosophies. They attempt to consider and to discuss, intelligently, the various interpretations of history. If a historical novel can inspire these kinds of learning experiences, then students can understand the importance of studying history as a means to understanding themselves, understanding their place in the world, and understanding their role as a part of humanity.
And, perhaps they begin to grasp what is meant by a historical perspective. If a particular historical event is described in a novel and they perceive that event as a problem that still exists in the present as well as the future, they might begin to comprehend the significance of the study of history.
All the King’s Men
by Robert Penn Warren is an example of a historical novel that deals with the theme of how men use power in the political arena—a universal and eternal problem.
When students delve into the past as depicted in the historical novel, they become immersed in characters moving through time and place; they begin to perceive the continuity of time. By reading about a historical character in a novel, they begin to place that character’s life in the past; they more readily grasp the process of age and the progression of time. This leads to an understanding of the concept of the present and the past and leads to a consideration of the interaction of the past and the present.
History is the study of change over time. Students can learn that their attitudes, their surroundings, their language, their folk heroes are transient in nature and that the elements of the past must be understood in order for them to understand their present. They will begin to understand the process of change; their present will soon change. They will learn to control or to adapt to change.
Historical fiction can help students to resolve some of the hopelessness they feel as they face the complex problems in the world today. They will understand the courage needed to face conflict as they identify with characters dealing with conflict in a historical period. The form of a well written historical novel allows students’ imagination to meld into the time frame of that novel. They begin to understand history as a human experience, rather than a series of isolated events, and, most important, learn that it is not merely a series of dates to be memorized for a test.
Students admire, respect, identify with, or reject as unworthy, some of the characters involved in historic struggles. They begin to understand the courage needed to deal with challenges, the personal risk involved in fighting for a social cause, they agony in accepting defeat, and the determination needed to succeed.
Are the people of history any less human that the people of today? Are we all not part of the same human experience? Can the study of history make students realize that they can help shape their destiny and, in doing so, help shape the destiny of others? Can students realize that an understanding of the past is a means of dealing with the challenges of the present and the future? History teachers who bring historical fiction into their classrooms can help their students to realize some of the answers to these important questions.