Does historical fiction make better history?

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Recently I finished reading The Hare with the Amber Eyes, a book I’d been meaning to read for ages and finally got around to. I’d expected it to be good, but it was even better than I’d heard. I loved the writing, really clear and straightforward but which drew you into the story completely. But more than that, I finished it thinking that this was the one of the best books I’d read about twentieth century European history, despite never claiming to be a history book. Free from the imperative to appear detached and analytical, the book drew me completely into the worlds it was describing, from belle époque Paris to inter-war Vienna and finally post-war Japan. Since the author is an artist, his concentration on the material is crucial; the Japanese netsuke from which the ceramic figure of the hare is drawn are central to the narrative, but it extends beyond these. His focus on how the places and spaces and objects he describes are lived in and experienced gives the cities and homes he describes a materiality they might otherwise lack. Vienna in particular, was a place and a history I didn’t know in too much detail, but de Waal’s attention to the way that the streets outside the Ephrussi family’s palatial residence sounded and looked like – from the rowdy crowds of students singing bellicose songs after the outbreak of war in 1914 to the pomp of the emperor Franz Joseph I’s funeral cortege passing by in 1916 – gave a sense of what it was actually like to live through these times. I felt I understood the history of twentieth century Vienna and of European Jewish culture much better than I had before.

The Hare with the Amber eyes is of course non-fiction, a blend of family memoir that somehow manages to have a much broader resonance through the focus on the objects – the netsuke – whose history De Waal is tracing. Reading it, however I began to wonder again whether sometimes history is better written when it’s not done by historians, or at least not in the form of history books and articles. Every time I read a really good historical novel, I wonder this too; recently I thought it after I read Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (another book I finally got around to reading about 10 years after everyone else). Some other books that made me consider this were Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, Andrea Levy’s Small Island and Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace, though I’m sure there are many others too. All of these made me reflect on what the point of history books are, when writers like these can give a much more immediate sense of what it is like to actually live through a certain time, or to embody a certain conflicted and complex national or ethnic identity. Of course this sense that historical fiction gives isn’t real (unless it’s a past that the author has lived through too, although in that case subjectivity and memory still come into play); presuming that the author has done her research, imagination still plays a large part. But then imagination and subjectivity are part of the historian’s work too and it’s impossible to get away from that entirely; the literary writer is perhaps just more honest about it.

I’m not really sure what the answer is here. I am actually still planning to write a history book and not a novel with my research. For all that I consider myself a social historian who focuses on ordinary life, I’m not sure I even know what the houses, streets and villages that the people I write about inhabited, actually sounded and smelt like or what it actually felt like to be there. However I am aware that my work lacks this sense of the materiality, the feel of ordinary life in the past, and that I need to find ways of reincorporating this into it. So how can this be done, in the confines of traditional history? Do novels and literary sources have a place in teaching history? And are there any other historians who have – or considered – presenting their research in another written form?

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3 thoughts on “Does historical fiction make better history?

  1. I believe that historians should take elements from different genres and incorporate them into their writing to write better and more compelling history books. For example, we might learn a lot from journalists about how to write profiles of historic persons or how to better choose which information to include or leave out of our narratives. Likewise, we can learn how to set a scene and, possibly, how to pace our narratives from novelists. The public favors history books written by trained journalists or novelists. If historians want to tap into a larger audience, we must look beyond our own written work for examples of how to improve our writing. As you mentioned in your post, writers of different genres have proven techniques that captivate their audience and make reading fun.

    Thank you for the book recommendation and for your insights.

  2. I agree that The Hare with the Amber Eyes really did capture a whole era wonderfully. John McGahern’s The Barracks told us more about post-independence Ireland than a lot of history books.McGahern was big on detail. I am currently reading George Orwell’s Burmese Days which is a revelation regarding the colonial world he experienced in the 1920s. However, I draw the line at Sebastian Barry. I found the historical inaccuracies in On Canaan’s Side irritating. A man on a modest income BUYING a Jack Russell dog in 1920! Was the breed established in Ireland then? Someone taking a scheduled bus between Dublin and Wicklow c.1920. I doubt it.

  3. Thanks for the comments! I agree about really anything by John McGahern for twentieth century rural Ireland. I liked on Canaan’s Side – apart from the nineteenth century style sentimental and improbable ending – but perhaps I wasn’t paying enough attention to the detail! I do think A long long way was by far the better book though.

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