Historical Fiction and the ‘Pastness’ of the Way People Think

Mark Hailwood

Once upon a time, I wrote a blog post about the story telling techniques that historians use in their writing.

This was not a long time ago, and nor was it far away – you can read it here in fact. Inspired by the ‘Storying the Past’ reading group, and a series of ‘Creative Histories’ events, the post reflected on some of the ways academic historians draw on the writing methods associated with more creative genres, and considered how they might fruitfully do more of this.

One example of the latter that I discussed was Philip Ziegler’s attempt at an ‘imaginative reconstruction’ of the experience of the Black Death in a medieval English village. In essence it is a piece of creative writing, informed by historical evidence, intended to ‘evoke the atmosphere’ of that moment in time. As Ziegler himself put it, he was essentially borrowing the approach of the ‘historical novelist’ to try and recover an aspect of the past that his cold, hard analysis of the facts – the supposed purview of the historian – could not: how people at the time felt about their villages being ravaged by the plague.

But can the approach of the historical novelist really bridge this gap?

In my post I suggested that although I thought this approach could be useful to the historian in a variety of ways, the resultant piece of ‘imaginative reconstruction’ he produced was not entirely persuasive, and in particular that ‘the mental and emotional frameworks he imposes upon the characters feel too modern to my sensibilities’.

The more I have thought about this, the more I think this is an issue that goes beyond the particular limitations of Ziegler’s piece. Indeed, I find myself having the same reaction to most of the historical fiction I read, especially if it is set in the medieval or early modern period. As a good cultural historian, one is trained to try and understand the past ‘on it’s own terms’ – to recognise the past as a place where people do things differently – including, crucially, their thinking. Acknowledging, and trying to understand, the alterity of the past is central to what most cultural historians try to do. We are interested in what my colleague Will Pooley referred to in a recent conversation as ‘the pastness of the way people think’.

It seems to me that is rarely the intention of the historical novelist. They usually aim to make the past relatable – a bit different, a bit exotic, yes – but fundamentally they want their characters to speak to us: to say something to me about my life, as Morissey didn’t quite once say. Of course, if your view is that human beings are essentially the same across time and space – that they hold the same beliefs, values, motives – then this isn’t really a problem for you (although it does make the widespread belief in, say, witchcraft in the early modern world, a bit of a tricky one for you to explain). Most historians don’t hold to this view though – it is kind of fundamental to what we do to believe that people in the past need to be understood in context: that the past needs to be explained, because it is different.

Can the tools of the historical novelist help the historian here?

One might argue – as Clifford Geertz does, drawing on Northrop Frye – that literature’s great power derives from its capacity to identify human sameness: the universal. This is Frye, as quoted in that famous Balinese cock-fight piece:

‘The poet’s job is not to tell you what happened, but what happens: not what did take place, but the kind of thing that always does take place. He gives you the typical, recurring, or what Aristotle calls universal event. You wouldn’t go to Macbeth to learn about the history of Scotland—you go to it to learn what a man feels like after he’s gained a kingdom and lost his soul. When you meet such a character as Micawber in Dickens, you don’t feel that there must have been a man Dickens knew who was exactly like this: you feel there is a bit of Micawber in almost everybody you know, including yourself.’

Arguably some of the most critically acclaimed writers of historical fiction of recent times are successful precisely because they stick to this universalist brief. Sarah Perry has said explicitly that her intention in The Essex Serpent, set in the 1890s, was to portray how modern the nineteenth century was. Any difference and distance between the way her characters think and how we do is rendered moot. Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell is, to my mind, another modern character. How to rescue a villain from the enormous condemnation of posterity? Make their choices, their decisions, their thought-processes, relatable to the reader. Secularising pre-modern characters tends to help here too.

But what if we do want to go to Macbeth to learn about the history of Scotland? Or, to put it another way, to write historical fiction that helps us better understand the past, and its different way of thinking? Can we? Is it possible to write characters whose way of thinking is fundamentally alien to our own? It is one thing to identify beliefs and values that we do not share. We do this all the time. It is quite another to try and inhabit them – to imaginatively reconstruct the interiority of someone with a historically specific worldview that is not our own.

Hopefully, by this stage, your thoughts – and I’m assuming here a degree of sameness between your thinking and mine, of course – are turning to great examples of fiction, historical or otherwise, that achieve, or at least attempt, to do this. I’d like to hear them. They might provide useful models and techniques that historians-as-story-tellers can learn from. A couple spring to my mind. One is Adam Thorpe’s Ulverton, discussed here and creatively reviewed here, which writes in a prominent genre from the period he is writing about to convey that period’s own sense of self. I think it is particularly suggestive for historians working on periods where the novel would itself have been an alien way of organising subjectivity. Another is William Golding’s The Inheritors, an ambitious attempt to imagine the interiority of Neanderthals. Though here, of course, the imaginative leap is a huge one.

Both are, for me, much more interesting as a historian than many of the more successful and acclaimed works of historical fiction (which is not to say I don’t enjoy the latter when I am being less earnest…). But they are challenging to read – something you might reasonably expect to be part of inhabiting an alien subjectivity, I suppose. And this comes back to another question that I considered in my previous post: what exactly should historians adopt more creative approaches to writing for? If it is to make our findings more accessible and exciting to a wider audience, I’m not sure following Thorpe or Golding, or perhaps making any attempt to recover unfamiliar interiority, is going to bear much fruit.

But, if we think more creative approaches can be about more than adding a public-facing post-production flourish to our findings – if we think they can be useful as analytical tools for exploring historical territory that our traditional tool-kit cannot always reach – then it seems to me that at least attempting the imaginative reconstruction of the ‘pastness’ of the way people think could be an interesting avenue for historians to explore.

Even if it is just something we do amongst ourselves, and even if it doesn’t work, I think we would learn something in the process of trying.

8 thoughts on “Historical Fiction and the ‘Pastness’ of the Way People Think

  1. John Hatcher wrote a fictional – or perhaps creative non-fiction – account of the impact of the Black Death on an East Anglian village, called The Black Death: the story of a village 1345-1350 (London, Phoenix, 2009). This was grounded in his expertise in medieval sources particularly those related to the abbey at Bury St Edmunds, It is a really interesting work of historical reconstruction. I wonder about the relationship between fiction and creative non-fiction in History?

    • Thanks for this reference Liz, I had missed that. A copy duly ordered.

      I think the relationship between fiction and creative non-fiction is important here. I’m just thinking out loud now, but a key issue I’m trying to raise here is that when we are faced with ‘silences’ in the records that we want to fill with a creative or imaginative response that tries to be true to the past, we might look to the tools of the historical fiction writer to guide us. Undoubtedly there is a lot to learn by doing this – but is the novel (which is not of course the only type of creative writing we might consider) necessarily the best format for us to learn from? Are its techniques for constructing subjectivity appropriate for those of us working on the pre-novel age? Is fiction the best guide for how to write effective creative non-fiction if your aims are those of the historian?

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  3. An example of the “imaginative reconstruction of the ‘pastness’” which I think is relevant: Cambridge classicist Keith Hopkins famously (or infamously) attempted to adopt a creative approach to writing about the history of early christianity in his unusual book, ‘A World Full of Gods’ (1999). Received rather sniffily by academic reviewers, the book contains both standard scholarly analysis of the historical context in which christianity arose, and fictional or semi fictional “experiments” including the reportage of two time travellers visiting pompeii, a script for a TV play, fictional correspondence between academics, and supposedly ‘previously unpublished’ source letters. Hopkins wanted to show “how strange Roman culture was, how diverse, and very different from modern western cultures”. He tried to write a “subtle combination of empathic imagination and critical analysis”. In adopting the imaginative approach Hopkins was exploring ideas about the impossibility of objective knowledge of the past and of constructing objective narratives. So, in a novel experment, he incorproated “empathic wonder, knowledge, pseudo objective analysis, ignorance, competing assumptions and disagreements into the text of the book”.
    The experiment wasn’t entirely successful. Mary Beard says in an exchange of (real) correspondence included within the book that Hopkins doesn’t present more than what scholars already know but his style only allows a small percentages of that to be presented.
    The question for me becomes one of how to use an empathic imagination without losing the necessary materialist approach to the study of the past.

    • Many thanks for this reference, another one that I will chase up. For me the fact that this experiment didn’t really work makes it just as interesting – there is a lot to be learned about what creative reconstructions can and indeed can’t do.

      I’d love to hear an elaboration of your final point…

  4. The question about fiction, historical or otherwise, for me is: what is the author’s perception of human nature? Is it a universalist or a relative one? Is human nature a constant or adaptive? Much of the history of emotions addresses those issues. Authors of fiction (or the best ones) are concerned primarily about human nature and responses to conditions.

    • Thanks Dave, that’s another helpful way of thinking about it. A piece of creative reconstruction that engaged closely with the history of emotions literature would be interesting. Anyone know any examples?

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