The Trouble with History and Fiction

Richard Carroll


Historical fiction, a widely-read genre, continues to engender contradiction and controversy within the fields of literature and historiography. This paper begins with a discussion of the differences and similarities between historical writing and the historical novel, focusing on the way these forms interpret and represent the past. It then examines the dilemma facing historians as they try to come to terms with the modern era and the growing competition from other modes of presenting history. Finally, it considers claims by Australian historians that so-called “fictive history” has been bestowed with historical authority to the detriment of traditional historiography.

The Fact/Fiction Dichotomy

Hayden White, a leading critic in the field of historiography, claims that the surge in popularity of historical fiction and the novel form in the nineteenth century caused historians to seek recognition of their field as a serious “science” (149). Historians believed that, to be scientific, historical studies had to cut ties with any form of artistic writing or imaginative literature, especially the romantic novel. German historian Leopold von Ranke “anathematized” the historical novel virtually from its first appearance in Scott’s Waverley in 1814. Hayden White argues that Ranke and others after him wrote history as narrative while eschewing the use of imagination and invention that were “exiled into the domain of ‘fiction’ ” (149-150).

Early critics in the nineteenth century questioned the value of historical fiction. Famous Cuban poet Jose Maria Heredia believed that history was opposite and superior to fiction; he accused the historical novel of degrading history to the level of fiction which, he argued, is lies (cited in de Piérola 152). Alessandro Manzoni, though partially agreeing with Heredia, argued that fiction had value in its “poetic truth” as opposed to the “positive truth” of history (153). He eventually decided that the historical novel fails through the mixing of the incompatible elements of history and fiction, which can lead to deception (ibid).

More than a hundred years after Heredia, Georg Lukács, in his much-cited The Historical Novel, first published in 1937, was more concerned with the social aspect of the historical novel and its capacity to portray the lives of its protagonists. This form of writing, through its attention to the detail of minor events, was better at highlighting the social aspects than the greater moments of history. Lukács argues that the historical novel should focus on the “poetic awakening” of those who participated in great historical events rather than the events themselves (42). The reader should be able to experience first-hand “the social and human motives which led men to think, feel and act just as they did in historical reality” (ibid). Through historical fiction, the reader is thus able to gain a greater understanding of a specific period and why people acted as they did.

In contrast to these early critics, historian and author of three books on history and three novels, Richard Slotkin, argues that the historical novel can recount the past as accurately as history, because it should involve similar research methods and critical interpretation of the data (225). Kent den Heyer and Alexandra Fidyk go even further, suggesting that “historical fiction may offer a more plausible representation of the past than those sources typically accepted as more factual” (144). In its search for “poetic truth,” the novel tries to create a sense of what the past was, without necessarily adhering to all the factual details and by eliminating facts not essential to the story (Slotkin 225).

For Hayden White, the difference between factual and fictional discourse, is that one is occupied by what is “true” and the other by what is “real” (147). Historical documents may provide a basis for a “true account of the world” in a certain time and place, but they are limited in their capacity to act as a foundation for the exploration of all aspects of “reality.” In White’s words:

The rest of the real, after we have said what we can assert to be true about it, would not be everything and anything we could imagine about it. The real would consist of everything that can be truthfully said about its actuality plus everything that can be truthfully said about what it could possibly be. (ibid)

White’s main point is that both history and fiction are interpretative by nature. Historians, for their part, interpret given evidence from a subjective viewpoint; this means that it cannot be unbiased. In the words of Beverley Southgate, “factual history is revealed as subjectively chosen, subjectively interpreted, subjectively constructed and incorporated within a narrative” (45). Both fiction and history are narratives, and “anyone who writes a narrative is fictionalising,” according to Keith Jenkins (cited in Southgate 32). The novelist and historian find meaning through their own interpretation of the known record (Brown) to produce stories that are entertaining and structured. Moreover, historians often reach conflicting conclusions in their translations of the same archival documents, which, in the extreme, can spark a wider dispute such as the so-called history wars, the debate about the representation of the Indigenous peoples in Australian history that has polarised both historians and politicians.

The historian’s purpose differs from that of the novelist. Historians examine the historical record in fine detail in an attempt to understand its complexities, and then use digressions and footnotes to explain and lend authority to their findings. The novelist on the other hand, uses their imagination to create personalities and plot and can leave out important details; the novelist achieves authenticity through detailed description of setting, customs, culture, buildings and so on (Brown). Nevertheless, the main task of both history and historical fiction is to represent the past to a reader in the present; this “shared concern with the construction of meaning through narrative” is a major component in the long-lasting, close relationship between fiction and history (Southgate 19).

However, unlike history, the historical novel mixes fiction and fact, and is therefore “a hybrid of two genres” (de Piérola 152); this mixture of supposed opposites of fact and fiction creates a dilemma for the theorist, because historical fiction cannot necessarily be read as belonging to either category. Attitudes towards the line drawn between fiction and history are changing as more and more critics and theorists explore the area where the two genres intersect. Historian John Demos argues that with the passing of time, this distinction “seems less a boundary than a borderland of surprising width and variegated topography” (329). While some historians are now willing to investigate the wide area where the two genres overlap, this approach remains a concern for traditionalists.

History’s Dilemma

Historians face a crisis as they try to come to terms with the postmodern era which has seen unprecedented questioning of the validity of history’s claim to accuracy in recounting the past. In the words of Jenkins et al., “ ‘history’ per se wobbles” as it experiences a period of uncertainty and challenge; the field is “much changed and deeply contested,” as historians seek to understand the meaning of history itself (6). But is postmodernism the cause of the problem? Writing in 1986 Linda Hutcheon, well known for her work on postmodernism, attempted to clarify the term as it is applied in modern times in reference to fiction, where, she states, it is usually taken to mean “metafiction, or texts which are in some dominant and constitutive way self-referential and auto-representational” (301). To eliminate any confusion with regard to concept or terminology, Hutcheon coined the phrase “historiographic metafiction," which includes “the presence of the past” in “historical, social, and ideological” form (302). As examples, she cites contemporary novels The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The White Hotel, Midnight’s Children and Famous Last Words. Hutcheon explains that all these works “self-consciously focus on the processes of producing and receiving paradoxically fictive historical writing” (ibid). In the Australian context, Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang and Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish could be added to the list. Like the others, they question how historical sources maintain their status as authentic historical documents in the context of a fictional work (302).

However, White argues that the crisis in historical studies is not due to postmodernism but has materialised because historians have failed to live up to their nineteenth century expectations of history being recognised as a science (149). Postmodernists are not against history, White avows; what they do not accept “is a professional historiography” that serves self-seeking governing bodies with its outdated and severely limited approach to objectivity (152). This kind of historiography has denied itself access to aesthetic writing and the imaginary, while it has also cut any links it had “to what was most creative in the real sciences it sought half-heartedly to emulate” (ibid).

Furthering White’s argument, historian Robert Rosenstone states that past certitude in the claims of historians to be the sole guardians of historical truth now seem outdated in the light of our accumulated knowledge. The once impregnable position of the historian is no longer tenable because:

We know too much about framing images and stories, too much about narrative, too much about the problematics of causality, too much about the subjectivity of perception, too much about our own cultural imperatives and biases, too much about the disjuncture between language and the world it purports to describe to believe we can actually capture the world of the past on the page. (Rosenstone 12)

While the archive confers credibility on history, it does not confer the right to historians to claim it as the truth (Southgate 6); there are many possible versions of the past, which can be presented to us in any number of ways as history (Jenkins et al. 1). And this is a major challenge for historians as other modes of representing the past cater to public demand in place of traditional approaches.

Public interest in history has grown over the last 20 years (Harlan 109). Historical novels fill the shelves of bookstores and libraries, while films, television series and documentaries about the past attract large audiences. In the words of Rosenstone, “people are hungry for the past, as various studies tell us and the responses to certain films, TV series and museums indicate” (17). Rosenstone laments the fact that historians, despite this attraction to the past, have failed to stir public interest in their own writings. While works of history have their strengths, they target a specific, extremely limited audience in an outdated format (17). They have forgotten the fact that, in the words of White, “the conjuring up of the past requires art as well as information” (149). This may be true of some historians, but there are many writers of non-fiction, including historians, who use the narrative voice and other fictional techniques in their writings (Ricketson). Matthew Ricketson accuses White of confusing “fiction with literariness,” while other scholars take fiction and narrative to be the same thing. He argues that “the use of a wide range of modes of writing usually associated with fiction are not the sole province of fiction” and that narrative theorists have concentrated their attention on fictional narrative, thereby excluding factual forms of writing (ibid). One of the defining elements of creative non-fiction is its use of literary techniques in writing about factual events and people. At the same time, this does not make it fiction, which by definition, relies on invention (ibid).

However, those historians who do write outside the limits of traditional history can attract criticism. Historian Richard Current argues that if writers of history and biography try to be more effective through literary considerations, they sometimes lose their objectivity and authenticity. While it is acceptable to seek to write with clarity and force, it is out of the question to present “occasional scenes in lifelike detail” in the manner of a novelist. Current contends that if only one source is used, this violates “the historiographical requirement of two or more independent and competent witnesses.” This requirement is important because it explains why much of the writing by academic historians is perceived as “dry-as-dust” (Current 87). Modern-day historians are contesting this viewpoint as they analyse the nature and role of their writings, with some turning to historical fiction as an alternative mode of expression.

Perhaps one of the more well-known cases in recent times was that of historian Simon Schama, who, in writing Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations), was criticised for creating dramatic scenes based on dubious historical sources without informing the reader of his fabrications (Nelson). In this work, Schama questions notions of factual history and the limitations of historians. The title is suggestive in itself, while the afterword to the book is explicit, as “historians are left forever chasing shadows, painfully aware of their inability ever to reconstruct a dead world in its completeness however thorough or revealing their documentation . . . We are doomed to be forever hailing someone who has just gone around the corner and out of earshot” (320). Another example is Rosenstone’s Mirror in the Shrine, which was considered to be “postmodern” and not acceptable to publishers and agents as the correct way to present history, despite the author’s reassurance that nothing was invented, “it just tells the story a different way” ("Space for the Birds to Fly" 16).

Schama is not the only author to draw fire from critics for neglecting to inform the reader of the veracity or not of their writing. Richard Current accused Gore Vidal of getting his facts wrong and of inaccurately portraying Lincoln in his work, Lincoln: A Novel (81). Despite the title, which is a form of disclaimer itself, Current argued that Vidal could have avoided criticism if he had not asserted that his work was authentic history, or had used a disclaimer in a preface to deny any connection between the novel’s characters and known persons (82). Current is concerned about this form of writing, known as “fictional history," which, unlike historical fiction, “pretends to deal with real persons and events but actually reshapes them—and thus rewrites the past” (77). This concern is shared by historians in Australia.

Fictive History

Historian Mark McKenna, in his essay, Writing the Past, argues that “fictive history” has become a new trend in Australia; he is unhappy with the historical authority bestowed on this form of writing and would like to see history restored to its rightful place. He argues that with the decline of academic history, novelists have taken over the historian’s role and fiction has become history (3). In sympathy with McKenna, author, historian and anthropologist Inga Clendinnen claims that “novelists have been doing their best to bump historians off the track” (16). McKenna accuses writers W.G. Sebald and David Malouf of supporting “the core myth of historical fiction: the belief that being there is what makes historical understanding possible.” Malouf argues, in a conversation with Helen Daniel in 1996, that:

Our only way of grasping our history—and by history I really mean what has happened to us, and what determines what we are now and where we are now—the only way of really coming to terms with that is by people's entering into it in their imagination, not by the world of facts, but by being there. And the only thing really which puts you there in that kind of way is fiction. Poetry may do so, drama may do so, but it's mostly going to be fiction. It's when you have actually been there and become a character again in that world. (3)

From this point of view, the historical novel plays an important role in our culture because it allows people to interact with the past in a meaningful way, something factual writing struggles to do. McKenna recognises that history is present in fiction and that history can contain fiction, but they should not be confused. Writers and critics have a responsibility towards their readers and must be clear that fiction is not history and should not be presented as such (10). He takes writer Kate Grenville to task for not respecting this difference.

McKenna argues that Grenville has asserted in public that her historical novel The Secret River is history: “If ever there was a case of a novelist wanting her work to be taken seriously as history, it is Grenville” (5). The Secret River tells the story of early settlement along the Hawkesbury River in New South Wales. Grenville’s inspiration for the story emanated from her ancestor Solomon Wiseman’s life. The main protagonist, William Thornhill (loosely based on Wiseman), is convicted of theft in 1806 and transported to Australia. The novel depicts the poverty and despair in England at the time, and describes life in the new colony where Grenville explores the collision between the colonists and the Aborigines. McKenna knows that Grenville insists elsewhere that her book is not history, but he argues that this conflicts with what she said in interviews and he worries  that “with such comments, it is little wonder that many people might begin to read fiction as history” (5).

In an article on her website, Grenville refutes McKenna’s arguments, and those of Clendinnen: “Here it is in plain words: I don’t think The Secret River is history…Nor did I ever say that I thought my novel was history.” Furthermore, the acknowledgements in the back of the book state clearly that it is a work of fiction. She accuses the two above-mentioned historians of using quotes that “have been narrowly selected, taken out of context, and truncated” ("History and Fiction").

McKenna then goes on to say how shocked he was on hearing Grenville, in an interview with Ramona Koval on Radio National, make her now infamous comments about standing on a stepladder looking down at the history wars, and that he “felt like ringing the ABC and leaping to the defence of historians.” He accuses Grenville of elevating fiction above history as an “interpretive power” (6). Koval asked Grenville where her book stood in regard to the history wars; she answered:

Mine would be up on a ladder, looking down at the history wars. . . I think the historians, and rightly so, have battled away about the details of exactly when and where and how many and how much, and they’ve got themselves into these polarised positions, and that’s fine, I think that’s what historians ought to be doing; constantly questioning the evidence and perhaps even each other. But a novelist can stand up on a stepladder and look down at this, outside the fray, [emphasis in original audio] and say there is another way to understand it. ("Interview")

Grenville claims that she did not use the stepladder image to imply that her work was superior to history, but rather to convey a sense of being outside the battle raging between historians as an uninvolved observer, “an interested onlooker who made the mistake of climbing a stepladder rather than a couple of fruit-boxes to get a good view.” She goes on to argue that McKenna’s only sources in his essay, Writing the Past, are interviews and newspaper articles, which in themselves are fine, but she disagrees with how they have been used “uncritically, at face value, as authoritative evidence” ("History and Fiction"), much in contrast to the historian’s desire for authenticity in all sources.

It appears that the troubles between history and fiction will continue for some time yet as traditional historians are bent on keeping faith with the tenets of their nineteenth century predecessors by defending history from the insurgence of fiction at all costs. While history and historical fiction share a common purpose in presenting the past, the novel deals with what is “real” and can tell the past as accurately or even in a more plausible way than history, which deals with what is “true”. However, the “dry-as-dust” historical approach to writing, and postmodernism’s questioning of historiography’s role in presenting the past, has contributed to a reassessment of the nature of history. Many historians recognise the need for change in the way they present their work, but as they have often doubted the worth of historical fiction, they are wary of the genre and the narrative techniques it employs. Those historians who do make an attempt to write differently have often been criticised by traditionalists. In Australia, historians such as McKenna and Clendinnen are worried by the incursion of historical fiction into their territory and are highly critical of novelists who claim their works are history. The overall picture that emerges is of two fields that are still struggling to clarify a number of core issues concerning the nature of both the historical novel and historiographical writing, and the role they play in portraying the past.


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historical fiction; historiography.

Copyright (c) 2011 Richard Carroll

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