“Polluting the well of history”? Writing fiction about times past

In a preface to his historical novel Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott wondered whether purists might have misgivings about this kind of writing. Would it raise a concern that by “intermingling fiction with truth, I am polluting the well of history with modern inventions, and impressing upon the rising generation false ideas of the age which I describe”?

Scott wasn’t seriously anxious about this, but two centuries later the genre of historical fiction still troubles some historians. Paul Lay, editor of the magazine History Today, declares sternly that it’s “no substitute for the real thing.” He adds this dismissive harrumph:

There’s no great harm in reading historical novels, nor writing them, but if anyone wishes to understand history, in all its complexity, they should read ‘real’ history and then they should write it.

I’d like to think – but of course I would, wouldn’t I? – that my own fiction does reveal some of the complexity of ‘real’ history. However, I recognise that certain questions shouldn’t be brushed aside. Do novelists have a right to modify facts drawn from times past? If real people and events are involved, shouldn’t there be constraints on the freedom to invent? What is a writer of historical fiction trying to achieve anyway? Is there a presumptuous intention to surpass the work of scholars and offer a superior kind of truth about the past?

Old Mill

The Old Mill c. 1890, showing Satan Browne’s renovations

Exploring issues such as those was one aim of the research project on “History’s Grist and Fiction’s Mill”, for which the State Library appointed me the 2015 J.S. Battye Memorial Fellow.

During my tenure of the Fellowship I’ve dug around in various archival materials (including sources for some works-in-progress), read various Western Australian publications, and reflected on the processes of writing historical fiction – my own (The Mind’s Own Place in particular) as well as that of several other authors.

One outcome of the project has been an illustrated public lecture, now available on the website of the literary magazine Westerly. This version doesn’t include the lively panel discussion with Amanda Curtin, Jenny Gregory and Davis Whish-Wilson, which followed my presentation; but you can access the text of the talk, with a selection of accompanying images, here.

2 thoughts on ““Polluting the well of history”? Writing fiction about times past

  1. Ian, I read this post (somewhat belated on my return from overseas) with great interest as a regular reader, both of historical fiction and of ‘actual’ history. My own feeling is that historical fiction is far more compelling, insightful and enjoyable when it is founded on sound research and understanding of the times portrayed. At the same time, I don’t feel that it is rational to place any greater burden of veracity on historical fiction than we do upon contemporary fiction, which will similarly be more compelling if we can relate it to reality, but need not be slavishly wedded to it.

    I do think there is another side to all this, however. Historical fiction was certainly the means by which my interest ‘real’ history was first captured and I suspect this would be true for many other readers as well.

  2. Thank you, Paul, for sharing these ruminations. I’m sure you’re right – for many readers, it’s historical fiction that initiates a keen interest in what really happened. A well-researched novel about times gone by can motivate us to develop our cultural memory and seek out the facts.

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