Learning history from fiction

Like many young people, I had little interest in history when I was in school. It was only interesting when we did special projects, like trying to write a diary as though we were the people in the history we were studying, or “aging” a piece of paper so it looked a bit like old parchment and writing with an old-fashioned pen to imitate some old document.

I did learn the history we studied, though. Between my unusually good memory for all sorts of facts, and my desire to maintain a straight-A average, I picked up a fair amount of knowledge of the history of Western civilization from ancient times until sometime around WWII.

Once I was out of college, I found my interest in history increased. Partly, I suppose, it was the perspective gained from growing up, that the study of what had happened in the past became both more important and more interesting. And I was able to pick and choose what sort of history to learn.

I got interested in economics through a combination of reading books by Ayn Rand and having to take classes in accounting. (Classes I would never have considered taking on my own, but I was a computer operator at the time and the computer belonged to the accounting department, so accounting was considered essential knowledge for the job.) So I read a book on the history of economics.

I read Daniel Boorstin’s The Discoverers, and discovered that history could be fascinating – when written by someone like Boorstin instead of the whoever wrote the history textbooks we had used in school. (I also purchased his book The Creators, but for whatever reason found it much harder to get through.)

I read Thomas Friedman’s excellent From Beirut to Jerusalem, because that part of the world was so much in the news, yet had featured so little in all those years of history classes. I read William Shirer’s The Nightmare Years, because – like so many people today – I could not imagine how people could have supported Hitler and his politics.

I read books on the history of various inventions, the history of the calendar, the history of science, and of philosophy. I also purchased a number of books that somehow I never got around to reading, about the history of the French Revolution, the history of food, the history of cities, and various books about the Middle Ages, which is a period that I have always found particularly interesting. Perhaps someday I will read them and wonder why I never read them before.

And I read books about King Arthur, both fiction and non-fiction. It started with T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, then Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, Stephen Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle, and Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave. Pretty soon I found a number of other retelling of the old legends, and I marveled at how different a picture I got from each one of what life was like in Britain during that period. I accumulated a whole bookcase full of Arthurian books before I decided that the popularity of the subject matter seemed inversely proportional to the quality of the books.

I started reading historical fiction of other periods in Britain’s history. I stuck to only one bookshelf of books related to Robin Hood, and allowed my collection of the Brother Cadfael mysteries of Ellis Peters to fill most of another. I discovered Ken Follett’s books set in Europe during WWII, and realized that modern history could also be very interesting.

Of course, I can’t help wondering, as I read historical fiction, how much is history and how much is fiction. The writers bring the era to life so clearly in my mind that it seems they must have researched it thoroughly, and no doubt they have. But a good writer can make both fact and fiction seem equally believable. I wouldn’t want to claim something as a fact of history based merely on having read it in a book of historical fiction.

And, as I mentioned above, two writers can create remarkably different books based on the same period of history. I recently read Anya Seton’s Avalon, set in tenth-century Anglo-Saxon England. (I originally picked it up at a yard sale thinking it was a book about King Arthur because of the title.) Then I read Bernard Cornwell’s The Pagan Lord (not realizing that it was the seventh of a series, otherwise I would have started with the first), set earlier in the same century.

Cornwell writes about warriors. It is no surprise that his books give one an impression that the period he is writing about is pervaded by violence. Not just the warriors but the people who are just trying to eke out a living from day to day are in constant danger from bands of enemy soldiers. I see little idealism; people make pragmatic choices because the priority is to keep oneself and one’s family and friends alive.

Seton wrote romances. There is certainly violence, but it seems less pervasive. The main characters have high hopes and high ideals, and eschew violence as much as possible. (I suppose in part this may be due to when the books were written. I think in recent decades people have become used to much higher body counts.)

I also read two other books by Cornwell recently, set a few hundred years later at the beginning of the Hundred Years War. They are just as violent, and here instead of pitting pagans against Christians, the fighting is all between people who are at least nominally Christian. Instead of urging peace, as the bishops do in Seton’s book, the bishops here urge men to kill the enemy so that God will reward them.

From what I understand, both Seton and Cornwell did thorough research into the history of the period, and portrayed it accurately. I’m sure that if their books overlapped in time I would read about the same incidents in both. And it’s hardly surprising that two different writers would have a different take on what life was like. Two books set in modern America, even in the same city, could have a remarkably different feel yet both be realistic.

But we don’t have to be reminded about that when we read fiction set in the present. We know that each book reflects the views and interests of its author. I think it is harder, when reading historical fiction – especially about a period of history we know little about – to remember that the history we are reading is just one person’s interpretation.

That doesn’t mean that it’s not an effective way to get a feel for what life was like in other times and places. But it’s a good thing that there are people like the blogger of the Anti-White Queen Blog to help us separate fact from fiction.


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