Historical Fiction and the ‘Pastness’ of the Way People Think, by Mark Hailwood

Once upon a time, I wrote a blog post about the story telling techniques that historians use in their writing, writes Mark Hailwood.

This was not a long time ago, and nor was it far away – you can read it here in fact. Inspired by the ‘Storying the Past’ reading group, and a series of ‘Creative Histories’ events, the post reflected on some of the ways academic historians draw on the writing methods associated with more creative genres, and considered how they might fruitfully do more of this.

One example of the latter that I discussed was Philip Ziegler’s attempt at an ‘imaginative reconstruction’ of the experience of the Black Death in a medieval English village. In essence it is a piece of creative writing, informed by historical evidence, intended to ‘evoke the atmosphere’ of that moment in time. As Ziegler himself put it, he was essentially borrowing the approach of the ‘historical novelist’ to try and recover an aspect of the past that his cold, hard analysis of the facts – the supposed purview of the historian – could not: how people at the time felt about their villages being ravaged by the plague.

But can the approach of the historical novelist really bridge this gap?

In my post I suggested that although I thought this approach could be useful to the historian in a variety of ways, the resultant piece of ‘imaginative reconstruction’ he produced was not entirely persuasive, and in particular that ‘the mental and emotional frameworks he imposes upon the characters feel too modern to my sensibilities’.

The more I have thought about this, the more I think this is an issue that goes beyond the particular limitations of Ziegler’s piece. Indeed, I find myself having the same reaction to most of the historical fiction I read, especially if it is set in the medieval or early modern period. As a good cultural historian, one is trained to try and understand the past ‘on it’s own terms’ – to recognise the past as a place where people do things differently – including, crucially, their thinking. Acknowledging, and trying to understand, the alterityof the past is central to what most cultural historians try to do. We are interested in what my colleague Will Pooley referred to in a recent conversation as ‘the pastness of the way people think’.

It seems to me that is rarely the intention of the historical novelist. They usually aim to make the past relatable – a bit different, a bit exotic, yes – but fundamentally they want their characters to speak to us: to say something to me about my life, as Morissey didn’t quite once say. Of course, if your view is that human beings are essentially the same across time and space – that they hold the same beliefs, values, motives – then this isn’t really a problem for you (although it does make the widespread belief in, say, witchcraft in the early modern world, a bit of a tricky one for you to explain). Most historians don’t hold to this view though – it is kind of fundamental to what we do to believe that people in the past need to be understood in context: that the past needs to be explained, because it is different.

Can the tools of the historical novelist help the historian here?

One might argue – as Clifford Geertz does, drawing on Northrop Frye – that literature’s great power derives from its capacity to identify human sameness: the universal. This is Frye, as quoted in that famous Balinese cock-fight piece:

‘The poet’s job is not to tell you what happened, but what happens: not what did take place, but the kind of thing that always does take place. He gives you the typical, recurring, or what Aristotle calls universal event. You wouldn’t go to Macbethto learn about the history of Scotland—you go to it to learn what a man feels like after he’s gained a kingdom and lost his soul. When you meet such a character as Micawber in Dickens, you don’t feel that there must have been a man Dickens knew who was exactly like this: you feel there is a bit of Micawber in almost everybody you know, including yourself.’

Arguably some of the most critically acclaimed writers of historical fiction of recent times are successful precisely because they stick to this universalist brief. Sarah Perry has said explicitly that her intention in The Essex Serpent, set in the 1890s, was to portray how modern the nineteenth century was. Any difference and distance between the way her characters think and how we do is rendered moot. Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell is, to my mind, another modern character. How to rescue a villain from the enormous condemnation of posterity? Make their choices, their decisions, their thought-processes, relatable to the reader. Secularising pre-modern characters tends to help here too.

But what if we do want to go to Macbeth to learn about the history of Scotland? Or, to put it another way, to write historical fiction that helps us better understand the past, and its different way of thinking? Can we? Is it possible to write characters whose way of thinking is fundamentally alien to our own? It is one thing to identify beliefs and values that we do not share. We do this all the time. It is quite another to try and inhabit them – to imaginatively reconstruct the interiority of someone with a historically specific worldview that is not our own.

Hopefully, by this stage, your thoughts – and I’m assuming here a degree of sameness between your thinking and mine, of course – are turning to great examples of fiction, historical or otherwise, that achieve, or at least attempt, to do this. I’d like to hear them. They might provide useful models and techniques that historians-as-story-tellers can learn from. A couple spring to my mind. One is Adam Thorpe’s Ulverton, discussed here and creatively reviewed here, which writes in a prominent genre from the period he is writing about to convey that period’s own sense of self. I think it is particularly suggestive for historians working on periods where the novel would itself have been an alien way of organising subjectivity. Another is William Golding’s The Inheritors, an ambitious attempt to imagine the interiority of Neanderthals. Though here, of course, the imaginative leap is a huge one.

Both are, for me, much more interesting as a historian than many of the more successful and acclaimed works of historical fiction (which is not to say I don’t enjoy the latter when I am being less earnest…). But they are challenging to read – something you might reasonably expect to be part of inhabiting an alien subjectivity, I suppose. And this comes back to another question that I considered in my previous post: what exactly should historians adopt more creative approaches to writing for? If it is to make our findings more accessible and exciting to a wider audience, I’m not sure following Thorpe or Golding, or perhaps making any attempt to recover unfamiliar interiority, is going to bear much fruit.

But, if we think more creative approaches can be about more than adding a public-facing post-production flourish to our findings – if we think they can be useful as analytical tools for exploring historical territory that our traditional tool-kit cannot always reach – then it seems to me that at least attempting the imaginative reconstruction of the ‘pastness’ of the way people think could be an interesting avenue for historians to explore.

Even if it is just something we do amongst ourselves, and even if it doesn’t work, I think we would learn something in the process of trying.


2 thoughts on “Historical Fiction and the ‘Pastness’ of the Way People Think, by Mark Hailwood

  1. Great piece, Mark.

    Recently I re-read Hilary Mantel’s Reith Lectures on the art of historical fiction. For me, these are among the most insightful essays comparing the craft of historians and historical novelists. Mantel makes compelling case that novelists should draw their characters within the ethical framework of their time rather than making them “relatable” for audience today. They should defamiliarise readers rather than be comforting, recognisable versions of themselves. It’s interesting therefore that you find Mantel’s Cromwell too modern, Mark. Perhaps this shows just how hard it is to do this balancing trick.

    Mantel is very respectful of the historian’s craft and of their necessary use of narrative yet also Sticks to fairly conventional lines about what they can “know”. Historians can only speculate about the gaps in historical record. It’s the novelist who can imaginatively inhabit those gaps. But perhaps it’s in that space between what we can know and what we must intuit that we need to be creative in both historical and narrative technique?

    Podcasts and transcripts of Hilary Mantel’s Reith Lectures are online and their are discussions of them by Laura Tisdall and myself on this blog.


    Liked by 1 person

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