Being both a historical novelist and a professional historian, I’m often asked how I manage to combine ‘fictional’ and ‘real’ history – and even whether they can be combined, or will forever be mismatched bedfellows. A recent edition of Radio 4’s Start the Week, and James Aitcheson’s insightful post on this blog, have got me thinking about this again.
During the radio discussion Niall Ferguson criticised Jane Smiley for her negative portrayal of the Cold War CIA in the novel Golden Age, arguing that writers of fiction give a dangerously one-sided view of history. Historians, he said, do meticulous research to ‘serve truth, incomplete though it may be’.
The implication that historical novelists don’t do meticulous research sounds strange to anyone who’s read Colleen McCullough’s novels on ancient Rome, which earned her an honorary doctorate. Marguerite Yourcenar’s classic The Memoirs of Hadrian, meanwhile, was based on a decade of research. ‘Whatever one does,’ she wrote about this process, ‘one always rebuilds the monument in his own way. But it is already something gained to have used only the original stones.’
Her words are just as pertinent to the professional historian. It is even stranger, then, to hear such a historian claim to ‘serve truth’. While we might agree on certain historical facts, there is no such thing as objective truth in the past. All historians, Ferguson included, are interpreters and creators. Smiley was right to point this out in an article she wrote after the interview.
The difference lies in the nature of the final artifice, and, one hopes, in the expectations of the audience.
Over the last year I found myself teaching an undergraduate course about the end of the western Roman empire in the fifth century. The title of the course was ‘The Ruin of the World’. As I was teaching the course my second novel came out, set during the same period, entitled At the Ruin of the World.
The titles show how I think of the two approaches as different sides of the same coin. While they are both based on a quote from an observer of the time, I added the first word of the novel’s title to create a sense of immediate experience. The reader would not just be learning about what happened, they would be there, in the thick of things.
Did I recreate an authentic experience of the collapsing empire? Definitely not. For one thing, we don’t know enough simple facts. There’s no evidence that fashionable young men of the 440s had their tunic hems cut high to show off their legs, or wore their belts slanted rakishly to one side. Sometimes a novelist is forced to make stuff up.
Furthermore, while the major characters in the novel are historical, their personalities are almost completely imaginative, created by a kind of reverse engineering. Briefly put, you look at what someone did, and then try to work out what sort of person would do those things, and then write them as convincingly and compellingly as you can.
Of course, since history is fundamentally about humans, it’s important for historians to understand their human subjects too. But there are limits to how far one can do this using the scanty relics of the past. The novelist can push things further, taking leaps of faith artfully disguised as the sturdiest of bridges, with the reader as a complicit partner.
This for me is the crucial point: readers are not stupid. People know the difference between novels and non-fiction. But once the novel’s journey is over, it’s the duty of the novelist to tell the reader where the bridges ended and the leaping began.
 Marguerite Yourcenar, The Memoirs of Hadrian (Penguin: London, 2000), p. 284.
Cover image: Photograph of Hadrian’s Wall [courtesy of Dr John Clay].
In-text image: At the Ruin of the World [courtesy of Dr John Clay and Hodder & Stoughton].
John Clay is a Lecturer in Medieval History at Durham University. He has had two novels published by Hodder & Stoughton: At the Ruin of the World (2014) and The Lion and the Lamb (2012), which are both available to order via his website. You can find John on twitter @johnhenryclay.