A lot of novelists write historical novels. A lot of people read them. Notably, more Scots read historical novels set in Scotland than read the history of Scotland. The question for the historian is why. Part of the answer, of course, lies in the market facts in the question. If there is a readership, books will be produced. It might be argued that readers want their history mediated by a skilled writer. This would be true only if what they really want is history, and if ‘writers’ are bound to write better than do historians. After delving into the genre I am doubtful about both conditions.
‘The men all so good for nothing and hardly any women at all’ was the core of Catherine Morland’s distaste for history in Northanger Abbey. Historical fiction does something to redress the gender bias, but little to improve the moral quality of the male personalities. It wouldn’t make for a good story if it did. But those wanting to read fiction are unlikely to want to do so to evaluate morals. They want to enter into ‘the willing suspension of disbelief’, knowing that the story isn’t true. Historical fiction fills a completely different slot from history. This is probably the reason why most of the historians I know don’t read it.
The great point about the past is that we know only a certain amount about it: that knowledge can be acquired, but is strictly limited by the current historical techniques and by the input of past research. It is possible to grasp all that is known of the interrelationships of different social groups in a past era, or to evaluate the intellectual problems of an age, in a way which is not possible for the contemporary scene. Middlemarch is deliberately set in the past, so that the intellectual concerns of the leading figures can be fully assessed: a similar contemporary assessment would have been much more difficult. This would be a stronger argument if all historical novelists took as much trouble as George Eliot. A novelist can build a story on relationships and loyalties which no longer exist, or which exist only in an attenuated form. The different societies of the past provide a garden of new plants. Perhaps stepping back fifty or eighty years does not supply a completely new herbarium. The writer is in a world well-colonised by the novelists of his own day. But go further back and there’s lots of room. Or a novelist may belong in the past already. Lampedusa’s Leopard is convincing because Lampedusa’s prejudices in the mid-20th century were still those of an aristocrat of the 1860s. For those more aware of contemporary life there is always room in the past. Go back to the fifth century of this era and the accepted facts of the history of Britain then can be counted on your fingers. The novelist has a whole world for his imagination and no risk of contradiction.
That sense of freedom may be misleading. History is not just a collection of facts. Unless a novelist puts in a lot of work there are likely to be mistakes in detail, more seriously in issues and atmosphere. Even Umberto Eco with all his learning has slipped on a Papal number in The Name of the Rose, or else his printer has done it for him. Authors may avoid slips in events and yet present us with personalities and relationships that are not believable. Allan Massie in The Hanging Tree, a sortie into the Borders in the Middle Ages, hinges a significant part of his plot on the issue of rape, in happy ignorance of the drastic limitations on the legal definition of rape in Medieval Scotland. Catherine Cookson could do with some work on 19th-century epidemiology for several of her books, and, for this one, get rid of the idea that cholera was endemic in late 19th-century Britain. This historian cannot help feeling that writers who wish to get away from the 1990s might be better and safer off in Science Fiction or in fantasy: but perhaps both of these are more obviously hard work.
What is clearly endemic is Catherine Cookson herself. My local library has shelves stuffed with her products, and also has boxes of tapes for those with eye trouble. My nearest copyright library has 178 entries for her since 1978. She occupies the position of a living Beamish to her public. The roads into County Durham claim the county as her country, which is odd because, unlike Allan Massie on the Borders, there is very little local feeling to be found in her writing. Any inland village within walking distance of a coal mine could provide the fields, copses, quarries and streams of her novel. This is not to object to calling County Durham after her, for except for its city the county has little to offer in the way of tourist appeal.
How far can the past, or the past as invented, free a writer to mould new types of character? Massie’s use, for the later Middle Ages, of belief and membership of fantasy societies, Elfland particularly, and his use of second sight, can put over an air of mystery, but his characters are not unusual except for the dominant figure, the villain, who has a strongly melodramatic presence. A brief look into a small portion of the voluminous publications of Ms Cookson gives the impression of remarkably similar heroines: big, healthy, outspoken women, constantly wronged, often from birth. Well, such do exist.
I suspect that a powerful reason for the use of historical settings for tales is a belief, not necessarily well-founded, of the higher dramatic quality of life in the past. Violence in act and speech, sexual enterprise, religious or social prejudice, can all be fitted in to give a sense of rapid pace in the plot. Figures which become surplus to requirement can be briskly disposed of by disease (Cookson) or witchcraft trials (Massie). Massie has intruded the Continental form of the European witch craze into England, which never had it, presumably because he wanted its superior dramatic quality. It seems easier in historical fiction than in the contemporary world to get away with stereo-types, in personality or attitude. Ms Cookson’s emphasis on bastardy as a stigma has to be set in the past because it became devalued in the liberated 1960s. In this book she picks on miners as an underclass, impoverished, vermin-struck and illiterate: a shocking slander on a social group conspicuous for its high wages, insistent on cleanliness and deeply involved in education. Massie’s Medieval ecclesiastics seem drawn from the crudest Protestant propaganda literature. Both The Hanging Tree and The Gillyflors are action-packed narratives, with never a ‘dull’ – that is, static – moment. Could the authors do the same for the 1990s? The past is being used rather than understood.
Massie appears sounder in the world of the Claudian emperors than in Mediaeval Scotland. This may result from the severe limitations of what is known. The problem in writing about Tiberius is to create a convincing personality out of two contending pictures: the record of a conscientious soldier and assiduous administrator and the eloquently written and totally scandalous accounts of his historians, Tacitus and Suetonius. With half the source material expressed in lapidary Latin the biographer has to pay close attention to style. So we have an elegant, artificial memoir, somewhat akin to Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian but less wordy. Massie accepts the administrator and denies or explains away the sexual hedonist and brutal seeker for power. Fair enough. The chroniclers of the Roman Empire lived in a world of gossip, for without newspapers or even a postal service available to the public, it was the only form of public information, and no story was too tall to be told. And indeed there was a rich vein of material of sexual scandal in the family life of the early emperors which made embroidery often unnecessary. As in Hollywood, marriage was controlled only by the concept of temporary monogamy.
The dialogue in Tiberius is entirely in received English, and so does not suffer from the rather pedantic Scots of Massie’s Medieval enterprise. Massie draws clever parallels between the imperial spy system of the Roman world and the excess of uncontrolled security systems in our own day. Augustus’s reporters could well have used the concept of ‘positive vetting’. I am not sure that this novel adds much to our understanding an age when power, supported by fairly bloodthirsty means, had become available on a scale not known before, but it presents some of the issues with real sympathy. Tiberius does not condescend to current ignorance by oversimplifying issues in the past. It shows that historical novelists can be as cautious in their assessment as historians. But they very often are not. How much of the popular concept of the past is grounded in colourful and inaccurate pictures derived from this source? Yet isn’t this a better introduction to the past than the proposed national curriculum in history?