History and Fiction
I thought I’d take a brief break from my accounts of ‘the real gentlemen captains’ to give my impressions of last week’s conference at the Institute of Historical Research in London, Novel Approaches: From Academic History to Historical Fiction, which continues this week in virtual form. First of all it was great fun, and it was good to meet and to listen to other people with similar enthusiasms to my own – although it was somewhat disconcerting to enter the hall and discover that roughly 80-90% of the delegates were female (one of them asked me at lunchtime if I was feeling outnumbered, which I definitely was!). It was particularly interesting to hear from others with a similar background to my own, i.e. people who started out as academic historians and then crossed over to write historical fiction, notably Alison Weir and Ian Mortimer. There was much discussion of the need to be ‘authentic’, but not entire agreement on what’s meant by ‘authenticity’; some authors clearly go to enormous lengths to ensure that there are no factual anachronisms in their work and that they comply entirely with the known historical record, while others (such as Mortimer, when writing fiction under his alias James Forrester) prefer to be ‘authentic’ in a broader way, to the sense and atmosphere of the period. I’m firmly in the latter camp, but this might be because authors like Mortimer and myself, who have been steeped in academic research on our periods for well over twenty years, possibly have a more instinctive feel for that atmosphere (and for the language of the time, etc) than someone researching a period from scratch, who might be more anxious to avoid making even minor factual errors, to alter the chronology, or to take liberties – up to a point – with the known life stories of real people. From an entertainment viewpoint, undoubtedly the highlight of the conference for me was the contribution by the literary agent Peter Straus, who emphasised the continuing primacy of word of mouth as the best means of promoting a book, the importance of luck (notably lacking in the case of the US edition of The Instance of the Fingerpost, published in the week that Diana died), the notion of the Booker Prize-winning formula (‘myth, love and history’, a la A S Byatt) and the lack of omniscience of publishers; hence the horrified initial reaction of the sales and marketing department to C J Sansum’s stunningly successful Shardlake series, namely ‘hunchbacks don’t sell’ (presumably forgetting what Shakespeare did with Richard III).
However, I think the main thing I took away from the conference was the increased acceptance from all parties that academic history and historical fiction aren’t two sides of a great divide, but are both staging posts in a spectrum – and both, indeed, are simplifications to a greater or lesser degree. Academic history used to like to see itself as a disinterested pursuit of truth; as Simon Schama put it, historians are ‘party poopers’, demolishing the widely accepted myths that the public is comfortable with. (Perhaps therefore historical novelists are ‘party animals’, perpetuating the myths – e.g. Sebastian Faulks and Pat Barker with ‘mud, blood and donkeys’ in World War I – and dealing with those things that historians dare not touch because they lie beyond the boundaries of the sources, such as people’s emotions, such big issues as loyalties and beliefs, and the ‘what ifs’ of history). However, as several speakers stressed, academic history itself is increasingly seen as a fictive concept: historians select and interpret their material with greater or lesser degrees of subjectivity, while even ‘primary sources’ aren’t the beginning of a process but the end of one. They are the recording of an event that has already taken place, and are thus themselves subject to selection and subjectivity, rather like modern TV or newspaper reporting; or as Arthur Marwick used to put it, ‘history’ is actually the artificial construct, the prism, through which we study the totality which was ‘the past’, only a minute fraction of which we can ever recreate. I think this realisation that history and fiction aren’t really so far apart after all reflects the fact that academic history, once remarkably hierarchical and even snobbish, has become rather more tolerant and inclusive in the last 15-20 years or so. When I started work on my doctorate in the early 1980s there was a definite ‘pecking order’, with political and religious history at the top – the former, for my period, dominated by such titans as Sir Geoffrey Elton, Conrad Russell and Hugh Trevor-Roper, all of whom I encountered at once time or another. (In Trevor-Roper’s case, this involved knocking him off his bike when rushing to his lecture; as far as I know, the trauma he might have suffered from my carelessness has never been advanced as a possible cause of his subsequent faux pas in authenticating the Hitler diaries.) Economic history was tolerated, social history was mainstream thanks to the likes of Hobsbawm and Thompson but was still not entirely respectable, while naval history was regarded very much as an unfashionable and insignificant backwater (although then probably still more ‘mainstream’ than gender and race history, etc).
Thus I was something of an exotic beast at Oxford historical seminars in the mid-1980s, although the tide was already turning. Indeed, the very fact that I was taken on as a DPhil student by Gerald Aylmer, one of the most eminent political historians of the day, has been used in a recent study of the progress of naval history as proof that things were changing. Now there is a chair in naval history at King’s College, London; a naval historian holds a fellowship of All Souls; Cambridge runs a maritime history workshop; and the numbers of those studying naval history at such institutions as King’s, Greenwich and Exeter probably run into hundreds. So maybe I’ll live to see a professorship in historical fiction at Oxford, but perhaps we’ll only be certain that all the barriers really have come down when David Starkey writes a sex-filled Tudor bodice ripper (ideally with a black protagonist) or Niall Ferguson succeeds Sebastian Faulks and Jeffery Deaver as the author of the next Bond novel, in which Q gives Bond six really ‘killer apps’. But I won’t hold my breath.