My high school European History teacher, Mr. Frein, divided our Senior class into groups and had us write papers arguing which country bore the blame for starting World War I—the Germans, the Brits, the Russians, or the Austro-Hungarians. It was a wonderful exercise in what I discussed last week, the concept that history is written by the victors, and one that I was too immature to appreciate.
Too bad the History and English departments didn’t teach together. Perhaps we could have read All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque while studying World War I. For the Napoleonic era, we could have learned from Tolstoy’s War and Peace, or better yet, Désirée, by Annemarie Selinko, or for current students, the Richard Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell.
Which leads me to my formula above.
History is dry, isn’t it? Facts are laced with quotes from personal correspondence or memoirs to add color and emotion, yet there still may be very little understanding of motivation. Personal letters, speeches, recorded memories can only tell so much. Historians mostly can’t go deep into the point of view of their characters.
Fiction writers can, and must, to engage the interest of the reader. The main characters of a story don’t need to be real people for us to get a sense of the historical era and its challenges. In fact, often the best lures to students are the historical secondary characters, like Wellington in the Sharpe books.
Analysis is required, though. All written work is filtered through the personal bias of the author. All written work, and staged work as well. Whether we’re reading Ayne Rand or George Orwell, watching a John Wayne or Matt Damon movie, or reading a thriller, or a romance, or a spy story, it’s good to stop and ask, what was the author’s historical/political/religious bias? And how does that stack up against my own worldview? The facts, plus the emotions, plus some thoughtful analysis can give us a greater
Understanding of history. I’ve come to appreciate that the Regency era was far more than a period of rural young ladies of little fortune seeking husbands. Author Madeline Hunter introduced me to the Peterloo massacre. From author Loretta Chase I learned about the mad contest between the French and the British for Egyptian riches, and author Anne Cleeland immersed me in the Peninsular War and the British Spy networks even before I stumbled onto the glorious Richard Sharpe.
How about you? Has any work of fiction lured you to learn more about history? My “to-be-read” pile is stacked high, but I’m always looking for new fiction to spark my imagination and understanding of the world!