Historical fiction; changing the past to entertain the present
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – George Santayana.
George Santayana, it seems, was unfortunately correct and to compound the issue it also appears that most people do not remember the past. There is, however, a breed of people that dedicate their lives to creating and recreating and changing the past. I don’t mean Historians, they for one would perhaps be appalled at the amount of oxymoron’s in that last sentence. I’m talking about writers of Historical Fiction. Everyone from Bernard Cornwell to Markus Zusak and Philippa Gregory who span the depths of time to bring us stories from our past that may or may not have happened.
It’s wise to take all things Historical Fiction with a hint of caution towards the reality. Many writers of the genre are fantastic in their factual accuracies but these are, first and foremost, fictions. Tales that have been woven from actual events or locations and points in the past. There are tales of people that might have existed and of course tales about people who never really did. What makes the genre so rich is that you never can tell. One only has to look toward the Elizabethan playwright Robert Greene, indeed many of his contemporaries, to see how little we really know about the people of the Elizabethan era. Record keeping was scarcely enforced and while we know Greene’s dates of birth and death (11 July 1558- 3 September 1592) there is contention as to whether he was born to an Innkeeper or a Sadler.
Greene is one of the thousands of Englishmen of whose lives we have only limited record. We know he was a playwright and had a rivalry with Shakespeare, his life style and pamphlets ruffled their fair amount of collars but it was hardly unusual for the time. Seeing his life filled in with a historical fiction twist would be a delight, as it always is with the many characters and figures who we will never know outside of their name.
The point of Historical Fiction is to tell a story. The relevant facts are of course interesting and useful in setting a scene. They are ultimately important but it does pay to remember that Historical Fiction writers are not historians. Mistakes will be made, the past as we know it will be altered and bent to suit the narrative. Zusak’s masterpiece The Book Thief does exactly that. It’s a novel that tells the story of a young girl called Liesel Meminger, who falls in love with books and begins to steal them (if you haven’t read it, do. It is worth every second). The Book Thief is also narrated by Death, a unique and wonderful character in of itself.
Zusak’s novel is set in NAZI Germany and one of the wonderful things about historical fiction is that it sweeps across the pages of history. On the opposite side, is nearly every Bernard Cornwell book ever written that takes place between at least 1365 and 1779 (Cornwell’s catalogue is massive, I’ve simply chosen two dates). History has been kept since the first cave wall paintings began recording hunts and rituals and much like our writers today, Historical Fiction as always been apart of it.
Human history is complex, rich and thrilling, yet there is still so much about it we don’t know. We’re lucky to have some of the surviving documents we have and with these and timelines constructed by historians, Historical Fiction writers are able to show us the past in ways that we’ve never seen it before. They can give life to the names and show how great events influenced the lives of the common folk who, for the most part of history have been overlooked.
Events in historic plays from across the centuries were, to degrees, works of Historical Fiction. While the mind set may have changed, the events were close enough to the production of the fiction to be fresh in the mind of the audience, fictional reproductions of history have been taking place for centuries. It is a wonder then, with this and the great work historians have done that Santayana’s quote can ring so truly.
History surrounds us and the output of Historical Fiction is now greater than it ever was. A genre dedicated solely to humanity’s greatest achievements and failures makes certain that we’ll never forget them. The genre is important because of the purpose it serves, even pure Historical Fiction that is based only loosely on facts and geography, still reminds us of cultures we’ve left behind and the way humanity hasn’t changed.