Historical fiction is a well-known and popular genre, and there wouldn’t appear to be much doubt as to which works belong in that category; indeed, my own epic work in progress, The Age of Pisces, set in the ancient world, is in that category. But I keep on musing on the question: What exactly is a historical novel?
The Historical Novels Review uses this definition:
a novel which is set fifty or more years in the past, and one in which the author is writing from research rather than personal experience.
This is a handy pragmatic definition, and interestingly places its main emphasis on the author’s reliance on research rather than on experience. This points back to a fact that I have noted before, namely that the English words history and story both derive from the same ancient Greek root, namely histor, which meant “learned man.” That word was the basis of the word historia, “knowledge obtained by inquiry,” and hence, as John Ayto notes in his Dictionary of Word Origins:
“written account of one’s enquiries, narrative, history.” English acquired it via Latin “historia,” and at first used it for “fictional narrative” as well as “account of actual events in the past” (a sense now restricted to “story,” essentially the same word by acquired via Anglo-Norman.
So when we speak today of historical fiction or a historical novel, etymologically we’re talking about a historical story, or “historical history.”
History and story parted company, forming up on opposite sides of the literary divide between fiction and nonfiction. History is now reserved for nonfiction, and applies only to stories that purport to be true, that is, to concern events that have actually happened; while story is reserved for stories depicting events that have not taken place in the real world. And for most purposes that distinction is good enough; but here again, if you look more closely, the issue becomes cloudy.
For one thing, it can be hard to tell when a narrative has become fiction. If I write:
A man walked across the street
is that fiction? Countless men are walking across countless streets as I type. I can start to particularize it more:
Dave Jones walked across Cordova Street
but here too, it’s more than likely that a Dave Jones has walked across Cordova Street at some time.
However, I don’t know of any particular Dave Jones who has walked across Cordova Street, and I don’t have any particular Dave Jones in mind, and these facts would seem to make my sentence fictional. It’s not that the statement is untrue; it’s that it is undocumented, either in written records or in my own memory. And the more circumstantial details I add to my narrative, the more likely it becomes that it is indeed something that has never happened as written. However, Cordova Street is a real street in Vancouver, and by mentioned it, I have made use of a real, historical, documented location. And if I go on to describe the street in a way that is true to its actual character, then my narrative, I would say, becomes that much more “historical” in the modern sense. A reader who has never seen Cordova Street could learn something about it from my description. Furthermore, this sense of reality in an otherwise fictional narrative gives a story a strong sense of vitality and presence: it makes it more interesting and involving to read. It makes it better fiction.
Looking now at history writers, we see that their aim is, roughly, to tell it like it was. As much as possible, a work of history should be composed of documented facts. But that’s not all a history is; for a mere list of documented events in order is a chronicle rather than a history. What’s missing is the story part. For a historian is still a storyteller; using documented data as raw material, he builds his narrative. He is said to be “interpreting” the facts. And this is how two historians can construct different stories from the same original data. The two accounts are both offered up as something “true,” and yet in some ways they contradict each other. What’s going on?
The data of history float on a sea of undocumented reality: all the facts and events and forces that have come together to produce the documented bits, and whose presence and nature have to be inferred. These include the important and invisible forces of human nature. A historian is someone who brings his understanding of the world in the widest senseits scientific realities as well as its human dimensionto the task of creating a plausible account of actual specific events. And because no two people’s understanding is the same, no two histories can be the same, even if the historians have access to exactly the same facts.
So in what sense then is a history true? I would say that it’s true to the extent that it’s factually accurate, and that it presents a persuasive narrative. That is, the historian makes us believe that the causal factors at work were as he presents them; he puts together the most plausible account.
Ludwig von Mises, in his masterwork Human Action, notes that it’s impossible to write history without resorting to what he calls ideal types. Thus, a historian can’t write about, say, Napoleon without making reference to such terms as revolutionary leader or conqueror. The historical person is assimilated to an archetype. And to the extent that this happens, he loses his personal, individual characterhis truly historical character. For the archetype is a thing of myth rather than everyday fact. But it is because of his reflecting one or more archetypes that Napoleon is a figure of historical and literary interest.
So what am I saying. It seems that fictional stories get much of their interest from their “historical” aspectsthe concrete details of their settingswhile histories get much of their interest from their evocation of archetypes, that is, of myth. So these two things, fact and myth, seem to be the basic ingredients of both story and history; but while stories start with myth and stir in fact, histories start with fact and stir in myth. When the historical novelist includes historical personages (like Napoleon) in his story, and when the historian invents dramatic scenes in order to bring his tale to life, the two genres reach out and touch each other.
So while the novelist and the historian have seemingly different aims, they are descended from a common ancestor, and the family resemblance between them becomes stronger and stronger the more closely you look.