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Battle of Hastings

On Monday 12 October, BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week featured an impassioned debate between novelist Jane Smiley and historians Niall Ferguson and Gabriel Gorodetsky on the value of historical fiction, and to what extent it can convey any kind of ‘truth’ about the past, given that novels largely deal with, as Ferguson put it, ‘imaginary people’.

As a History graduate and the author of three published historical novels (with a fourth in the works), I have a foot in both camps. On the one hand, I appreciate the necessity of rigorous research; on the other, I reject the notion that the incorporation of imaginative elements means that fiction is valueless as a tool for interrogating the past.

One of the great strengths of fiction is its ability to place us directly within the consciousnesses of people other than ourselves. Not only does this allow us to access, assess, and comprehend unfamiliar (sometimes even distasteful) points of view, but in doing so it can also subvert traditional narratives, challenge myths and misconceptions, and open our minds to alternative truths.

This is fundamental to the approach I’ve tried to take in my Conquest Series of novels, starting with Sworn Sword. Set during the years immediately following the Battle of Hastings, they unfold against the tumultuous years that followed the Norman invasion of 1066. Knights of the Hawk

Rather than rework the familiar trope of the tragic struggle of the English against their foreign oppressors, I wanted to turn conventional popular narratives of the Conquest on their head, and to challenge readers’ sympathies and preconceptions. I chose to take as my protagonist and narrator not one of the rebels but one of the conquerors: a Norman knight who has come to England in search of riches, land and glory.

Without whitewashing the Normans or excusing their cruelties, I was keen to show that, far from being mindless thugs, they were in fact (not too surprisingly) human beings every bit as complex and rounded as their English foes, with desires, feelings and inner conflicts of their own.

What’s more, these were people who genuinely believed that they were fighting for what was good and just. After all, Pope Alexander II himself had given his blessing to Duke William’s invasion, sending him a consecrated banner under which to fight. To one of the Normans sailing across the Channel that fateful autumn, what greater signal of the righteousness of their cause could there be than that?

As I write this, I’ve just returned from English Heritage’s annual Battle of Hastings re-enactment, where every October the cheers are almost exclusively for Harold and his army, while William receives the jeers and hisses of the partisan crowd. And yet both the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans form part of our cultural and political heritage; they are both, in a sense, ‘us’.

If we treat one faction as merely pantomime villains, and refuse to hear their point of view, then our understanding of our history – and of the people and ideologies that shaped it – is necessarily limited. As Marc Morris has argued in his recent study of the period, when it comes to the Conquest, ‘it is high time we stopped taking sides’. 1

By taking the approach that I have in my writing, I hope to blur the traditional popular distinction between the ‘good’ English and the ‘evil’ Normans. To judge by the positive response I’ve had from readers, it appears to be working.

History and fiction might take different approaches when it comes to interpreting, reconstructing and communicating past experience, but both have their place. Indeed the two disciplines often serve to complement each other, by reaching out to what are often quite different audiences. Done well and responsibly, both in their own ways can offer valuable insights and new ways of understanding our past.

James Aitcheson is the author of the Conquest Series, the latest volume of which is Knights of the Hawk (Arrow, 2014). His fourth novel will be published in 2016. You can find him on Twitter @JamesAitcheson.

Image: ©James Aitcheson

Notes:

  1. Marc Morris, The Norman Conquest (London: Windmill, 2013), 8.
Tags : 1066accuracy of historical fictionBattle of Hastingshistorical fictionNorman Conquestwriting historical fiction
James Aitcheson

The author James Aitcheson

7 Comments

  1. Quite. Niall F is a great historian but he works in the modern period where diaries and letters etc are wonderful windows, if not with absolutely clear glass, into people’s souls. Further back, that’s not an option, so that the genuine mediaeval or ancient people whose biographies you find in ‘non-fiction’ books are almost as imaginary as the characters in a novel, their characters and motivations as much a product of surmise or sometimes invention. Even where there are ‘versions’ of autobiography, as with Simon de Montfort or William Marshal, there’s still a lot to invent. But fiction is still fiction and should be appreciated as such, not as a replacement for scholarship. Good fictional narratives are always so much less messy than life itself, as any dramadoc producer will confirm…

    1. Absolutely. Interpretation is everything, in history as in historical fiction, and there will always be an element of subjectivity in determining how best to join up the dots.

  2. Hi James. Interesting piece, and it accords with a lot of what I’ve thinking over the years. I’ve often been surprised, when I’ve approached historians for help with my own books, that none have (yet!) been at all sniffy about fiction – usually quite the opposite, in fact. One even told me that he gets his undergraduates to read historical novels to broaden their ideas about interpreting the past!

    1. That’s very much my experience, too. I’ve personally yet to meet a historian who denigrates historical fiction, which is why I was so surprised to hear Ferguson take the stance that he did last week on Radio 4. Throughout human history we’ve always told stories about the past for various purposes – often adding a dose of invention or imagination into the mix – and we’ll continue to do so in future. There’s no reason, in my view, why history and fiction shouldn’t be able to coexist.

  3. Thanks for the interesting article James. I think one important outcome of historical research is that it allows a modern audience to learn about different societies and their sometimes very alien-seeming beliefs and behaviours: it can showcase the diversity of human experience. As long as it is researched thoroughly, historical fiction can be a powerful tool to achieve this, allowing the reader to enter the minds of fleshed-out characters and to bear witness to their internal thoughts and motivations. The available evidence from the historical record can be weaved together and built upon to create a rich and convincing account of everyday existence that an audience can connect with.

    Niall Ferguson’s performance on the radio show you mention was pretty poor I thought. He was very condescending towards Jane Smiley and gave a very pompous account of the role of the historian, glossing over how much interpretation is needed to write a piece of historical scholarship. Furthermore, dismissing the research she undertook for her books is a bit galling in light of the fact that his Kissinger book is the first in quite some time to be based on archival research.

    It is also worth noting that Ferguson has been a major proponent of counterfactual histories. I think historical fiction that is set in a context that actually existed and which draws upon the best and most up-to-date scholarship is far more worthwhile and historically informed than the creation of an imaginary alternative history which relies completely upon assumptions and massive leaps of logic. His book Virtual History is full of scenarios that claim to identify one pivotal moment, and then proceed to spin a new historical timeline, which, we are told, illustrates the role of contingency in history. Yet in reality the story will then ignore this insight and unfold inexorably towards the author’s chosen end point, which has usually been selected to make a contemporary political statement. The myriad of other potential moments where chance could have played an important role are thus ignored. Conjuring up a whole new imaginary reality that may stretch decades, or even centuries, from the point of divergence with real events is far less historically informed than filling in the gaps about a real time period through historical fiction. I guess I think that, considering his own output, Niall Ferguson’s attack on historical fiction is a bit rich.

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