In an interview today with Radio 4, Professor Sarah Churchwell (The University of East Anglia) complained that with “Historical Fiction” “We’ve started to blur the lines between fiction and falsity”.
This raises some rather interesting questions for one such as I, who consider myself an author of “historical” fiction, even though I don’t consider the history I am writing about to be grounded in fact. But I would argue, also, that something that is not fact is not necessarily ‘falsity’.
Legendary history catches you in a difficult place. The potent mix of magic, history, romance and idealism makes ‘fact’ not just difficult to determine but also irrelevant.
History has always been, to an extent, fictional. There are battles in ancient history where the records of both sides say that they won. The Ancient Greeks had the fall of Troy, the Romans had the journeying of Aeneas, and we have King Arthur. These legends are an essential part of our national identity, mythic history and sense of cultural self. Are they valueless because they are not “true”? Does ‘true’ matter more than ‘meaningful’?
Even in our modern world, we have to admit that even as history is made, it is subjective. Between Russia Today, CNN and the Daily Mail, fact is as elusive as it ever was, and ever will be.
I was recently told that my novel “sounded like fantasy”, not historical fiction. Where do we draw the line? Fantasy is just as fictional as Arthurian legend, but the difference is, it isn’t tied to the world around us. It isn’t set in the same places, we aren’t invested in it as part of our heritage.
Geoffrey of Monmouth, that famous falsifier of history – called by another contemporary historian, William of Newburgh, an ‘outrageous liar’ for his inclusion of Merlin in his History of the Kings of Britain – gave us characters that have formed the backbone of British culture. No Geoffrey of Monmouth, no King Arthur as we know him now. No Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. No King Lear. Is it worthless, then, because it is not true? Should we throw away our fictions?
Our national myth is a part of us, a part of the land and the culture of Britain. The stories we tell about ourselves are more revealing as to who we are than the cold, hard facts of our lives, of the lives of the people of the past.
So, I for one am saying, don’t unblur that line. The history of who we were is more valuable, more beautiful and more interesting than the history of what we were.
Besides, ‘factual’ history doesn’t have dragons.