The Novelist as Historian?

Can a novelist also be an historian?  There are plenty of historical novels published every year, and some of them are very popular.  Some of them may even be quite accurate in representing the events, the culture, lifestyle, technology, and even the key personalities of the subject time frame.

I very much enjoyed reading the Sharpe series of novels by Bernard Cornwell.  Richard Sharpe was a fictional soldier, then an officer, in the British Army from about 1790 to 1810.  The novels follow his progress from raw recruit (his mother was a woman of easy virtue in East London) until he is a lieutenant colonel at the  Battle of Waterloo.  He overcomes many obstacles (military, romantic and social) on and off the battlefields in India, Portugal, Spain, France and Belgium.  I didn’t read the novels as history, although the descriptions of the battles are said to be very accurate, and that Cornwell carefully researched his material.  What I enjoyed about the novels were Sharpe’s talent for surviving  in difficult situations and Cornwell’s array of good and bad characters.

I also enjoyed the Aubrey-Maturin series of novels by Patrick O’Brien.  Captain Jack Aubrey had command of a Royal Navy ship during the Napoleonic Wars, and Stephen Maturin was the ship’s surgeon and Aubrey’s good friend.  The 2003 film Master and Commander: the Far Side of the  World  with Russell Crowe as Captain Aubrey drew material from several of O’Brien’s novels.  Most of these novels reached the New York Times best seller list, and were acclaimed internationally.  Again, I didn’t read these novels for their historic content; I enjoyed reading how Aubrey and Maturin would triumph in the face of adversity.  My impression is that the descriptions of life aboard Royal Navy ships in 1800 is quite accurate as far as it goes.  Winston Churchill once described shipboard life at the time as “rum, sodomy and the lash”.  There was undoubtedly more to it than that brief, brutal summary.  O’Brien does mention the daily (and coveted) ration of grog (rum) issued to the crew, and there are several passages dealing with floggings (which neither Aubrey nor O’Brien, apparently, liked.)  But sodomy is never mentioned, and it must have been prevalent among all male crews from poor, illiterate backgrounds who were cooped up on board ship for years at a time.  In fact, the scene which O’Brien paints is of a very hard but somewhat romantic life.  That’s fair enough; would we be anxious to read about the true brutality of the life?  For example, falls from the rigging were quite common on sailing men of war.  The consequences of such falls were usually severe if the sailor landed on the deck below, and almost always fatal if he fell into the water: rescuing a man overboard was not the norm.

As an author, I have occasionally inserted historic material into my novels.  For example, there are LaMarr’s tours of Vietnam and Somalia as an enlisted man and an officer in Sin & Contrition.  But these passages are not intended to be read as history, but rather as the setting for events in the life of a character.

On the Institute of Historical Research website there is this commentary:

“The relationship between academic history and historical fiction is a subject of great interest to historians. Major academic conferences . . . have included papers and sessions on the subject, and they are proving among the most lively and well attended. There are numerous examples of historians who have successfully moved into the sphere of fiction, and conversely of authors whose fiction is underpinned by rigorous research. The large and growing public interest in history in Britain takes in both historical fact and historical fiction. And it is clear that many historians were at least in part inspired to pursue historical research by novels that they had read, or indeed are currently either planning to write or are writing their own works of fiction.”

It goes on to raise the following questions:

  • “Why have historical novels become ‘respectable’, and why anecdotally are historians being encouraged to write them?
  • What is the difference between historical fiction and academic history, and how rigid are the boundaries between the two?
  • How good are readers at differentiating between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ and how much does it matter if they don’t?
  • Does the success of historical fiction benefit or threaten academic history, and what can literary authors and academics learn from each other?”

Perhaps I am a purist, but I believe it is very important to distinguish fact from fiction.  Some of the most egregious examples of fiction parading as fact are the history text books for children in communist states.  These text books of ‘history’ inflate the government’s successes, and, if they deal with failings of the state at all, the picture is rosy and sugar-coated.  How are we (and, more particularly our children) to learn right from wrong if we are intentionally told lies with a smiling face?

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