This summer we are marking the ten-year anniversary of the many-headed monster blog with a collection of posts that highlight older material in our blog archive (or our ‘blarchive’, as Mark has christened it, to the great and growing pain of the other monster heads).
In my piece I want to pull at a thread that has run through our output over the years, that is, posts that sit on the fence between history and fiction.
Of course, there isn’t really a fence betweenthese two spaces. Or at least, if there is, it was only erected recently, and in fact it’s pretty shoddy work, full of gaps and holes, plus one part of it blew down in a winter storm a few years back, while another is so deeply lost in the undergrowth it’s no longer effective, or even particularly visible. But anyway, let’s not get lost in the encroaching greenery trying to pinpoint the boundary, but rather, let’s consider the fruitful relationship between history and fiction by revisiting some of our related content.
We’ve repeatedly discussed actual historical fiction on the blog, and I have particularly enjoyed doing so. My ‘Marooned on an Island Monograph’ list of my favourite historical novels is rather dated (since then Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko and Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet have been published, both of which would now feature), but it was a great way to extend my own ‘to read’ list since many people responded with their own suggestions. More recently Sara Perry’s third novel Melmoth prompted me to follow the telling and retelling of the ‘Wandering Jew’ story throughout history – a fun, if rather gothic rabbit hole to tumble into.
Beyond historical fiction, Brodie offered a post on historical computer games and their ability to instil a sense of wonder at the complexity, variety and humanity of the past, and in one of my most loved historical deep cuts, Mark was able to bring E.P. Thompson’s forgotten science-fiction novel The Sykaos Papers to a new audience.
Revisiting the E.P. Thompson post, it’s noticeable that Mark drew attention to the contrast between Thompson’s academic writing style and the fluency of his fiction, as well as to the fact that the novel is structured as though the narrative has been reconstructed later from a series of surviving primary sources (notebooks, diaries, news reports, official communications etc). Historical evidence also structures Adam Thorpe’s bravura novel Ulverton, which relates the history of a fictional English village through chapters that take the form of a different type of historical source in turn (for instance sermons, letters, conversations, a film script). In that spirit, my Ulverton review was also written in the style of a diary.
Having the space to reflect on, write about, discuss and play with the relationship between history and fiction has really encouraged me to think carefully about creativity in historical writing, particularly my own. This tendency was strongly encouraged by involvement with the ‘Storying the Past’ reading group and their ‘Creative Histories’ events (for a summary of key themes and questions, see this post), and it is a thread that links this post on ‘imaginative reconstructions’ of history, with this pair on the ways that analogy is used to enable us to grasp the strangeness of the past, with this one on the use of technical language in history writing.
Exploring the association of content and form, considering how to write in a way that conveys argument, the suspicion that fiction is better at capturing ‘lived experience’, and particularly the question of how far creative liberties should be taken with the past has also prompted some thoughtful musings on the ethics of writing about the past, and what sort of duties and obligations are involved. Two excellent posts in our ‘Voices of the People Symposium’ were grist for my mill: Laura Gowing’s mini-microhistory post on Agnes Cooper, an ordinary Londoner compelled by hardship to leave her story to posterity; and Julia Laite’s post admitting to concerns that her own research on women trafficked in the earlier twentieth century involved ‘unreciprocal intimacy’, and a rescuing of the past against its will. My attempt to bring together what our duties to the dead (even the very very dead) might be can be found in this post on ethics for historians.
Writing this post has reaffirmed the importance of the many-headed monster in shaping my development as a historian. By providing a forum for discussion of matters which are ‘not strictly research or teaching related things but which still have huge bearing on our work’ we have been able to have conversations about things that seem to be ‘on the edges’ of the discipline, but which in the end turn out to be at the very heart of it. Perhaps that might be my pitch for our upcoming Monster Carnival on why early modern history matters. If you want to join that conversation, you can find our call for guest posts here.
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