Historical Fiction: A Responsibility To Educate?

By Imogen Willis

Historical fiction provides an enjoyable means of learning about the past, making history accessible for those who haven’t, or don’t want to, read a scholarly dissection of the French Revolution or the Tudor Court. Learning about history through fiction provides a fun and engaging alternative, but what are the perils and pitfalls for both authors and consumers?

The decline in secondary school children taking history as a GCSE or A Level presents a worrying statistic about contemporary engagement with the past; however reduction in academic study has been coupled with growing interest in writing and screen adaptations. Some of the BBC’s most popular recent TV shows are of historical literary works including Wolf Hall, and War & Peace. The genre’s popularity has also been reflected in literary awards: since 2000 50% of Man Booker Prize winners have been historical fiction, five of these since 2010.

There is evidently interest in history that isn’t limited by curriculum. Part of the genre’s appeal is the allure of “self-education” argues Amanda Craig. Instead of “losing yourself in an imagined world, you’re learning about Holbein or Vermeer”. Engagement with historical fiction highlights an appetite for writing with a purpose – to present research, and illuminate the past, with authors expected to transfer a reservoir of historical knowledge to the act of writing.

Assumptions of historical fiction writers’ prerequisite education sets up a certain relationship between author and consumer. As highlighted by George Santayana’s famous quote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, writers are tasked with remembering the past for consumers, whilst captivating their imagination. This can come at a price. Wolf Hall author Hilary Mantel has criticised works that blur fact and fiction to produce “alternative facts”. She argues that authors have an obligation to adhere to the “ethical framework” of the period they are writing about, or risk betraying history.

For authors wishing to follow Mantel’s ‘historical fiction ethics’, striking a balance between fictional writer and fact-preserver is difficult. She is also scathing of writers who attempt to “burnish their credentials by affixing a bibliography” to their work, arguing that it is a form of “apologetic cringing” positioning them as “inferior” historians rather than proud authors of fiction. Birdsong author Sebastian Faulks agrees: “Lots of writers use them as a way of showing off”.

However, rather than seeing the attachment of a bibliography as demeaning, or a vanity card, it can be a useful tool, directing the reader towards scholarly criticism and historical debate, furthering their knowledge of the period outside the novel’s pages. Perhaps denying bibliographic information has more to do with ensuring a dogmatic relationship with the reader, where the consumer doesn’t question the author’s bias or accuracy.

Despite this, writers shouldn’t resign themselves to being educators. The historical period recreated for a book is a frame for the true art: a well-written story. Readers seeking education should look elsewhere and not presume that writers will provide all their research, or condense all necessary information into the pages.