Historical Fiction In Context
Whether history was your passion or your nemesis at school, you will no doubt recall the reams of historical facts and dates that you were required to memorise and revise to pass your examinations. Despite these being the lives of real living and breathing people, when presented in a no doubt accurately historical, but dry manner, the lives of others sometimes seemed to bear little resemblance to our own and elicit no emotional response.
Whilst there is undoubted value in considering historical context, not least because past forces, individuals and trends both shape the present and provide valuable lessons for our future decisions, is historical fiction of any value?
To answer this question, we must first unpick the nature of history. Whilst subjects such as Geography touch on history in so far as they include the past, history is an essential study of the humanities, as it interprets the human experience, as the vital connections between the past and present tell the story of who we are and how we got that way. However, in the telling of history, some of the vital ingredients are lost; the inner lives of people across time and space, the untold stories which provide a more complex truth, and the feelings and emotions of those who lived before.
This is where historical fiction steps in. It allows the reader to step inside the mind of those who have shaped the world that we live in; to feel how our ancestors felt; to be moved by what happened in times past, thus illuminating history’s untold stories, providing the reader with a more complex truth.
Is There Such A Thing As Historical Truth?
However, historical fiction should be read transparently. Whilst it provides a tantalizing flavour of a time gone by, complete historical truth is unknowable. Nevertheless, how exciting it is to read a great historical novel and be motivated to delve into further history of that era or individual. When historical fiction is written mindfully, it will reflect the social norms, manners, customs and traditions of the time period, and be more or less chronologically accurate, thus adding to the satisfaction of the reading experience.
Furthermore, historical fiction literally transports you into the past, allowing you to walk amongst those who lived before. Take Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s ‘Shadows of the Wind’. Its immersive and beautifully atmospheric portrayal of Barcelona transports you there, with the smells, sights and sounds of the wonderful bustle of the 1940’s. This snapshot of time is invaluable in creating a ‘living history’, thus expanding our understanding and enjoyment of the past.