Historians should stop holding their noses when they encounter historical novels
Since beginning my historical novel six years ago, I could not help but notice a certain streak in the our community of imaginative writers and readers: A compelling need to defend of the idea that we can use history to tell a story.
No need to repeat here the negative pronouncements by the keepers of “real” history. You can find them everywhere, and unfortunately too many historical novelists absorb the criticisms, as witnessed by their defensiveness.
Nuts to that. Historical fiction is superior to “real” history. At least some of the time.
“Real” history is only as good as the “record” left by those who lived the events, and often that record is missing, or when it is not, the record is biased, incomplete or faulty.
For a great explanation of this, watch (below) Philippa Gregory’s passionate defense of historical fiction in a speech before the Historical Novel Society. She is the author of such bestselling historical novels as The Other Boleyn Girl.
In my own research for my historical novel, Madness: The War of 1812, I personally encountered the shortcomings of pure history. I wanted to explore what it was like for ordinary Americans to suffer through one of America’s least-appreciated, least-remembered and worst-fought wars. The “real” record of these people is sketchy at best, although there is a wealth of material about national and military leaders.
But telling the stories of generals and presidents alone would be like reliving modern wars only through the eyes of…well, generals and presidents. Missing would be the lives of those who actually fought and died, and of civilians whose lives were irretrievably changed by the war.
My novel’s story is told through the eyes of a fictional junior army officer William Quinn, who witnessed and suffered directly from the laziness, self-absorption, indecisiveness, incompetence and cowardice of the senior military and civilian officials. How that posed special problems for junior officers is explained through Quinn’s words in my story:
Every junior officer eventually found himself having to balance sympathy with straight talk. Keeping that equilibrium in front of the troops took daily effort; how well an ensign or lieutenant managed it could mean the difference between life and death. And most of them were plagued with their own doubts. Having the most combat experience among the junior officers, Quinn was looked to as an example, and he knew it. He’d seen too many officers seek solace in the bottle. Others froze in indecision. He’s seen the disaster that it could cause.
He lived with his subordinates, heard their complaints and questions and knew his answers could destroy or build morale and discipline. His greatest dilemma was how to ignore the obvious incompetence of superior offices while maintaining discipline. If he tried to justify neglect and foolishness to his men, he would destroy his own credibility. If he promised better times and better decisions that never came, how could he be trusted?
As an author, I knew of this dilemma from my own tour of duty as a junior Navy officer. Perhaps some molding diaries or letters buried in an archive would capture that thought, but where? A historian would need documentation to even mention it, but the writer of historical fiction does not. Perhaps the dilemma is not a fact in the sense that it can be footnoted, but the writer knows this as truth.
I make no apologies for the existence of historical fiction. If anything, “real” history needs to acknowledge its own inferiority in attempts at narrating the human condition.