Representing the Past: The Trouble with Historical Fiction by Ruth Littlewood

In The Guardian this week, Stephanie Merritt asked whether historical fiction has a duty to be factually accurate, arguing that although it should be based upon solid research of the period in question, the writer’s only task is to entertain.  Representations of the past have become a staple of our entertainment diet, whether in literary fiction, through writers such as Robert Harris (or Merritt herself, who writes under the pseudonym SJ Parris), or in television programmes such as The Tudors or Rome, prompting questions about the level of accuracy that is required or even possible. Merritt argues that ‘If a bit of poetic licence in historical fiction helps to keep people’s interest in the past alive, so much the better.’ While recognising that the differences between writing a PhD and a novel are great, I can’t help but find this statement somewhat reckless and problematic in several ways.

Javier Cercas en la Feria del Libro de Madrid 2009 by Mr Tickle (WikiCommons)

Javier Cercas en la Feria del Libro de Madrid 2009 by Mr Tickle (WikiCommons)

Over the last 15 years historical fiction in Spain has played a key role in developing a discourse in the public sphere about the Franco regime. Texts such as Soldados de Salamina by Javier Cercas and La voz dormida by Dulce Chacón have contributed to a movement that seeks to learn more about the past and to ‘recover’ certain historical figures or moments that were kept hidden by the controls of the dictatorship. The popularity of historical fiction about the regime has not only legitimised looking to the past again in Spain but it has also reignited debates that many people (particularly on the right-wing) might have hoped would remain dormant. In turn, this debate has also produced revisionist texts by writers such as Pío Moa that aim to reinforce the Francoist version of events that was propagated for so many years.

As a student working with narratives that try to reconstruct the past, I am aware – and also wary – of texts that claim to produce a definitive historical truth. Aside from the issues of mnemonic accuracy, the danger of assuming that there is a single, achievable historical truth can force an historical moment that is as plural and diverse as the people that remember it to conform to a single version. Clearly historical fiction entertains us by putting forward one of these potential points of view, developing to the limit one of the many possible truths that exist. However, if the sole duty of historical fiction is to entertain, particularly in cases of recent history which are still in living memory, then it risks forgetting that it takes part in a discourse on the past within society. While it might not be possible to know ‘what was said off the record, or how the principal players behaved when the chroniclers looked away,’ as Merritt states, a lack of understanding of the surrounding historical debates could lead to a serious distortion of the historical record.

Although Merritt argues that ‘Novelists are not history teachers. It is not our job to educate people,’ fiction authors do have to face the reality that what they write may be consumed uncritically be the reading public. Good quality historical fiction will be the product of extensive research, but if a writer chooses to use their poetic licence on an event that is polemical, they need to remember that the story they create might come to inform people’s understanding of history itself. Historical fiction might keep the past alive, but writers need to be careful that it doesn’t become something else entirely.

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