Historical Fiction vs Historians Again!

4 June 2010 in The Mistress of Nothing

It sounds like heavy-weight historian Antony Beevor and right-wing historian Niall Ferguson have been bigging it up at the Hay Festival, condemning fiction that deals with history to the dustbin yet again.  According to reports, Niall Ferguson says he never reads historical fiction because it ‘contaminates historical understanding’; Beevor says he thinks that historical novelists ought to mark in bold type ‘the bits they made up’. 

Nice to see two such hardy fellows claiming their unparalleled access to the truth. 

The same day I read about this, I also happened to read an essay by Arthur Schlesinger Jr, ‘History and National Stupidity’.  You can read the beginning of this 2006 essay online at the New York Review of Books, though I came across it in a book of collected NYBR essays called ‘The Consequences to Come:  American Power After Bush’. 

Schlesinger’s essay is remarkable - short, pithy, and very moving.  In it he discusses his own book about American President Jackson, ‘The Age of Jackson’, which Schlesinger wrote in the 1950s, in relation to a new book about Jackson and the causes of the Civil War by Sean Wilentz.  Schlesinger pithily and mercilessly lays bare the problems with his own book which, as he explains, was a product of a certain time and place, as all books - history and fiction - inevitably are.  Schlesinger says ‘I was hopelessly absorbed in the dilemmas of democratic capitalism made vivid for my generation by FDR and the New Deal, and I underplayed and ignored other aspects of the Age of Jackson.  The predicament of slaves, or the red man and the “trail of tears”...the restricted opportunities for women of the period… were shamefully out of my mind.’ 

Schlesinger begins this essay with the following statement:  ‘History is not self-executing.  You do not put a coin in the slot and have history come out.  For the past is a chaos of events and personalities into which we cannot penetrate.  It is beyond retrieval and it is beyond reconstruction.  All historians know this in their souls.’

This is why history is fascinating.  This is why each generation reconstructs the past anew.  This is why there is room for yet another book about D-Day, and yet another book about power and money.  This is why my attempt to write the ‘true’ story of Sally Naldrett, a humble maid, made homeless and jobless by the employer to whom she had devoted her life, is a worthy topic for fiction.  And, as anyone who stoops so low to actually read fiction that deals with historical subjects knows, this is why fiction can sometimes be the only way to tell the truth. 


Kate, 4 June 2010, 01:52 PM

Via the wonder that is Twitter, a tweet from @mandahill informs me that the entire text of Schlesinger’s essay is available online here - http://www.gc.cuny.edu/press_information/current_releases/2006/april/Schlesinger2.htm

koreen, 28 June 2010, 05:59 PM

I just read this book, and while I’m not a critic, I think this is one of the best books I’ve read.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, and now I’m reading A Little Stranger.  =)

Kate, 30 June 2010, 07:18 AM

Thanks Koreen!  Very glad to hear that you liked the book.

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