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.
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
- Marc Morris, The Norman Conquest (London: Windmill, 2013), 8. ↩