Historical fiction, fictional history: stories we tell about the past

How do we accurately capture the past without falling back into the History Wars? Hartwig HKD/Flickr, CC BY-ND

This introductory article is the first in a new series examining the links, problems and dynamics of writing, recording and recreating history, whether in fiction or non-fiction. Read part two here and part three here.

In the opening to his 1820 novel Ivanhoe: A Romance, Laurence Templeton, also known as the historical novelist Walter Scott, writes a letter of dedication, apology and explanation to a fictional recipient bearing the name Rev Dr Jonas Dryasdust.

Dr Dryasdust is an antiquarian, a fellow-traveller of the historian, who spends time in the archives in “toilsome and minute research”, collecting artefacts and facts and figures “from musty records and chronicles”, and writing texts “trammelled by the repulsive dryness of mere antiquity”.

Templeton apologises for what his novel may lack in historical accuracy – language, costumes, manners – and worries that by “intermingling fiction with truth, I am polluting the well of history with modern inventions, and impressing upon the rising generation false ideas of the age which I describe”.

Sir Henry Raeburn Portrait of Sir Walter Scott, 1822. Wikimedia Commons

Yet he defends his “experiment” as one that can better translate the past to a contemporary audience, a role comparable to that of the artist or architect, and can relate that past in more sublime and emotional ways.

Nearly 200 years later, it seems we are still having the same conversation.

Who should interpret and write about the past and how that past should be written (or taught) remain contested territories. This was palpable when historians and writers took each other to task in the wake of the publication Kate Grenville’s evocative fictionalised account of the early colony in New South Wales, The Secret River (2005).

The defence most commonly given for fictionalising the past today is not dissimilar to that given by Sir Walter Scott. Rather than marking a distinct boundary between past and present, novelists more often declare their aim is to engage with the “extensive neutral ground” in between.

The neutral ground, in the words of Scott, are the “manners and sentiments which are common to us and to our ancestors,” through which the empathy and engagement of the reader can be summoned. To date, less attention has been paid to novelists such as Kim Scott who seek to confront and destabilise such cosy and empathetic fictional memories.

But the debate extends beyond fiction versus non-fiction and even rages between historians within the discipline of history itself. A recent attack by popular historian Paul Ham charged academic historians with too much focus on theory and analysis, which is “often encumbered by a partisan political outlook”, leading them to produce histories that were “almost universally unread”.

Academic historians have also expressed some disquiet about history writing, as in Ann Curthoys and Ann McGrath’s How to Write History that People Want to Read (2011). Once again these echo Scott’s concerns about historians producing narratives devoid of “interesting details” and “encrusted with the rust of antiquity”.

Of course, the stereotype of the unreadable academic historian is far from correct.

Historians such as Mark McKenna, Tom Griffiths and Clare Wright have recently carried off the nation’s top literary awards.

Many more, including Henry Reynolds, Grace Karskens and Ian McCalman, have authored works that have had significant popular impact, while others have contributed to public debate through television, radio and in digital formats.

The Castle of Otranto ignited debate about ‘respectable’ literature. Wikimedia Commons

Moreover, the issue of accessibility and lucidity of writing is one that affects all academics, not only historians. Even Scott acknowledged exemptions, his “respectable precedents” for Ivanhoe including the art historian Horace Walpole who “wrote a goblin tale which has thrilled through many a bosom” (a reference to Walpole’s popular 1764 Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, 1764).

A notable feature of contemporary debates is the politicisation of the past, and in particular the teaching of that past.

Whether it is a Christopher Pyne lamenting the ostensible disappearance of western civilisation from the curriculum, or a John Howard critiquing a black-armband view of history, few other academic disciplines receive the same kind of political – as opposed to pedagogical – interrogation.

Indeed, debates over the “readability” of the past can be considered to be at least partly political – in the sense that historical knowledge is knowledge of shared social experience, open to debate and scrutiny, with an eye to the social and cultural functions that history serves.

In recent times, history and memory appear to have become central to wider debates over democracy, identity and social justice – indeed, history is often the actual ground on which such issues are popularly contested.

All history, in this sense, is public history.

It is with these ideas in mind that we co-edited Fictional Histories and Historical Fictions, a special issue of the open-access academic journal TEXT, that attempts to get beyond the well rehearsed and often acrimonious exchanges between writers and historians that have been such a characteristic of the History Wars of the last ten years, with its boundary-riding rhetoric.

The special issue is a genuinely trans-disciplinary project. It includes the work of both writers and historians, has been co-edited by a writer and a historian, and peer-reviewed by both writers and historians.

It features the work of Tom Griffiths, Anne Curthoys, Clare Wright, Hsu Ming Teo, Anna Haebich, Stephen Muecke, Christopher Kremmer, Andrew Cowan, Donna Lee Brien, Camilla Nelson and Christine de Matos.

Over the coming days on The Conversation you will have the opportunity to read short essays by contributors that pick up on the key themes of their academic articles.

We hope you enjoy them.


Part two: On the frontier: the intriguing dance of history and fiction