History or Fiction… you can’t have both, can you?

“[…] wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all—it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention.”
Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey.

 “I know it is the fashion to say that most of recorded history is lies anyway. I am willing to believe that history is for the most part inaccurate and biased, but what is peculiar to our own age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written.”
George Orwell, Looking back on the Spanish war.

I think I sit somewhere between Jane Austen and George Orwell on this. Both Austen and Orwell admit what any serious historian these days would as well: a lot of our accepted history is either unprovable or slanted by bias. But they seem to take their point in two different directions.

Austen has her character give up on history completely by going on to say that since it’s made up, she might as well read other books because they’re more entertaining. That makes me very sad. It’s true that history is sometimes written in an uninteresting way but woe to those who do so for it is, at heart, such an interesting canvas to work with. I completely take her point on the lack of women in history though; bring back their voices and you’ll have a much more interesting tale.

Orwell, on the other hand, wants us to try to make history as truthful as we can, knowing we’ll fail but that trying will still get us closer to the truth and that that’s important. He acknowledges the past practice of history may have been full of bias and lies but reminds us that it still had earnest people striving for the truth. He seems to lament the factual relativism he saw in his own day, equating it not with freedom but with totalitarianism, citing his infamous 2 + 2 = 5 scenario. When faced with the flaws of past historians and the flippant nature of his contemporaries, it’s interesting that he seems to prefer the former.

Bit deep though, isn’t it? Bit deep for a blog post? Well, not really. My point is this: Austen wants to take the history out of fiction and Orwell wants to take the fiction out of history. They want this because they’re responding to two great flaws in the writing of history, but what if you could address both their complaints? What if you could write something that was both entertaining and, largely, factual? Wouldn’t that be worth reading?

And the good news is, we already have people doing that. The Historical Fiction genre, at its best, is populated by serious people who understand the responsibility placed upon them. We have great authors who do tremendous research and build on that of others, to inspire a telling of history that is authentic. They just also give it a writer’s touch so that it is a tad more comprehensible and make sure it’s fun along the way. Over the next three weeks I’ll be looking at three of the best authors in Historical Fiction today. I’ll be looking at the people who inspired me to believe that writing good Historical Fiction was an honourable goal, and one that is achievable.

(Austen’s Northanger Abbey & Orwell’s Looking back on the Spanish war accessed online. See links. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons)

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