With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

What We Can Learn From—and Through—Historical Fiction

Novelist Anna Maria Porter, engraving The Ladies' Pocket Magazine (1824)

This image is available from the New York Public Library's Digital Library under the digital ID 1556053: digitalgallery.nypl.org → digitalcollections.nypl.org

I have been a local historian for many years, but turned to historical fiction to tell a specific story for which there were no sources. There was a sense of going to the “dark side” in doing so, yet at the same time I was able to illuminate things that do not appear in the historic record.  I suspect that there could be a lively debate online about what good historical fiction can accomplish—and also the misuse of history by those who write historical fiction.

As a local historian I tried to be true to the sources I found; to be trusted by readers. In the case of the dozen women who crossed the country in 1842, members of the first overland company to set out for the Pacific Northwest, I could find little. With no verifiable facts, but knowledge that women were present, I turned to fiction to put women in the picture and wrote Lamentations: A Novel of Women Walking West (Bison Books, an imprint of the University of Nebraska, 2021). To someone like Gore Vidal, that made perfect sense; he thought history should not be left to the historians, “most of whom are too narrow, unworldly, and unlettered to grasp the mind and motive,” of historical figures. E. L. Doctorow would agree, but more agreeably, writing that “the historian will tell you what happened,” while the novelist will explain what it felt like. The historian works with the verifiable facts—fiction is a step beyond.

Historical fiction is generally dated to Sir Walter Scott, beginning with Waverly in 1814. It turns out, however, that Scott was not the first historical novelist. Devoney Looser has just published Sister Novelists (Bloomsbury Press, 2022) about Maria (1778-1832) and Jane (1775-1850) Porter, driven by poverty, who wrote popular historical novels beginning in the 1790s. A Wall Street Journal reviewer in 2022 noted that “Maria was a workhorse, Jane a perfectionist. Between them they wrote 26 books and pioneered the historical novel.”

There have been only a few academic treatments of historical fiction. Ernest Leisy issued The American Historical Novel in 1950 and George Dekker wrote American Historical Romance in 1987, both interested in chronological periods, but neither man created, or exhibited, much enthusiasm for it. Yet, in 1911 James Harvey Robinson wrote in an essay titled “The New History,” published in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, where he observed that historians need to be engaging, even while “it is hard to complete with fiction writers.” He stated

History is not infrequently still defined as a record of past events and the public still expects from the historian a story of the past. But the conscientious historian has come to realize that he cannot aspire to be a good story teller for the simple reason that if he tells no more than he has good reasons for believing to be true his story is usually very fragmentary and uncertain. Fiction and drama are perfectly free to conceive and adjust detail so as to meet the demands of art, but the historian should always be conscious of the rigid limitations placed upon him. If he confines himself to an honest and critical statement of a series of events as described in his sources it is usually too deficient in vivid authentic detail to make a presentable story.

The historian Daniel Aaron took the genre of historical fiction seriously in a 1992 American Heritage essay in which he castigates Gore Vidal. Aaron however conceded that “good writers, write the kind of history [that] good historians can’t or don’t write.”

Aaron quotes Henry James, who thought of historians as coal miners working in the dark, on hands and knees, wanting more and more documents, whereas a storyteller needed only to be quickened by a letter or event to see a way to share it with readers or use it to illuminate a point about the historical past. He recognized that genres of reading had changed. In the 19th century we read historical tomes, mostly about the classical world or of British and European war and political alignments, but in the last quarter of the 20th century “so-called scientific historians left a void that biographers and writers of fictional history quickly filled.” Aaron cites inventive novelists who have perverted history for a variety of reasons, using Gore Vidal as his prime example. Vidal thought of historians as squirrels, collecting facts to advance their careers. But Vidal does not get the last word.

Professor Aaron recognized that historical fiction had moved from a limited earlier model focused on well-known individuals to serious re-tellers of history who have “taken pains to check their facts and who possess a historical sensibility and the power to reconstruct and inhabit a space in time past.” What a lovely description of some of the best of our contemporary historical fiction.

But what of putting women into the past where they often do not appear? Addressing this issue, Dame Hilary Mantel noted in her 2013 London Review of Books essay “Royal Bodies” that

If you want to write about women in history, you have to distort history to do it, or substitute fantasy for facts; you have to pretend that individual women were more important than they were or that we know more about them than we do.

Despite my great admiration for Dame Hilary, I think we can deal with the issue of women in the past by honoring their lives in such a way that does not turn them into twenty-first century heroines but as women who found themselves in situations they might not have wished, and did what they needed to do, thought about their circumstances, and dealt with what they found they had landed in. They, as we, are each grounded in our own time, deserve credit for surviving, and should be appreciated for our observations of life around us.

We should respect the historians’ knowledge of time and place and the novelists’ intuition that is sometimes spot-on. An example: in trying to explore the moment when the buttoned-down eastern women in 1842 encountered a band of Lakota, then identified as Sioux, I wondered what the women might have thought of those bronzed warriors whose clothing left much of their chests and shoulders bare. What would the women walking west have thought about? When I read the paragraph I had written to an elderly friend, she went to her desk and pulled out a letter from an ancestor who had crossed Nebraska, walked over South Pass, and on into Oregon. And that ancestor, in the 1850s, had said exactly what I had imagined. Sometimes, the imagined past is as we conceive it to be because we have grasped the knowledge of time and place on which to activate believable players.

My desire in Lamentations was to hear what the women were thinking, and sometimes saying to each other, but within the context of that century when much that was unorthodox could not be said aloud. I wanted to show how a group of people traveling together would get to know each other, rather as students in a class know that one was from Ohio and another played hockey. We do not know others fully, but from the vantages we are given. I wanted to display how the women gained information, and then passed it along; how tragedies were dealt with; how personalities differed, and how, in the end, Jane matured. I wanted to bring women of different generations together, to show discord among sisters, to think about what was important when dismantling a home, how women fit into the daily account of miles and weather and sometimes events kept by the company clerk. I wanted to explore what it was like to answer a longing for new beginnings, for a journey when one is the first to make it. I am interested in names and what they mean, in the landscape what how one travels through. I wanted to hear the women speak when the records do not.

Historians need to be conscious of the audience we/they hope to have and perhaps can learn something about style and sense of place from the writers of historical fiction. Academic and local history can be told vividly; good history can also have good narrative but also, that some historical fiction tells a story that a historian cannot. I have written this to praise historical fiction when it respects the line between our times and the past, when it adheres to the known-truth and does not pervert it for excitement—or for book sales. I appreciate Daniel Aaron who thought historical fiction was worth taking seriously, and for all those writers who have brought the past alive in this form.

Fiction is not the only way to explore the past, but historical fiction can attract readers to wonder and speculate and then explore the past in other forms. A friend said that as a child, reading fiction of other times led her to read history and then become a historian. Aaron wrote that historical fiction gives “us something more than the historical argument.” It can bring alive an era, a person, a moment in time so that we meet the past as it was, not as we might want it to have been.