Monday, October 26, 2009

History and historical novels

Alexander Dolinin, author of Against Destiny

(print ISBN 9781601641731, Adobe ebook ISBN 9781601643261, Kindle ISBN 9781601643278, Sony ISBN 9781601643285)

History and historical novels are two different, and at the same time closely linked, ways of describing the past. They have one thing in common: both are attempts (with different degree of success) to describe what happened in the past. But they differ in a lot in ways and methods of doing it.

History deals with the general description of different historical periods and major events that took place in one period or another. In “classical” history, the main characters are rulers, ministers, governors, generals and other “biggies”, who were behind these major events or played important role in them. In newer history , for example in the Annales approach, the emphasis shifts to analysis of social issues of the society, its cultural patterns , and the specifics of life of diverse social groups under certain historical conditions.

Usually history deals either with well-known facts or, in case the truth is not well known or there is contradictory evidence about it, with hypothesizing about what probably happened. Ordinary individuals with their lives, destinies and sentiments rarely get mentioned in history. This is not surprising. There is very little evidence about them (only some parish church records about births, marriages and deaths or court records about sentences passed to this or that person, or in later days memoirs and diaries). Lack of personal information is the inevitable limitation of history.

One thing that can at least to some extent fill this gap is the historical novel. Like history, the historical novel deals with “interesting” historical periods and major historical events. But unlike the former it makes all these events seen through the eyes of individual humans. It portrays the effect of historical events and/or major historical processes on the lives of various individuals of different backgrounds, different ages, different characters and different psychological types. Within historical novels these characters live, trying to build their lives or, in the critical situations, just to survive. Some benefit from historical events and/or processes, while others lose, so to say “get under the wheel of history”, as in the cases of British enclosures or Soviet collectivization. Some of the losers submit, while others choose to fight their fates. Sometimes an important historical figure can be one of the characters of a novel. But even in this case the attention of the novelist is on presenting that person as a human being who, like any other person, faces the big historical event, and feels, thinks and acts in response. In historical novels (unlike history) the author’s fantasy and imagination are completely legitimate. They allow us to fill the gaps in our knowledge about certain period and events. They also allow the author (as an individual) to express his own perception of what was happening and his own interpretation of events.

So I think one can claim that history and historical novels complement each other in the understanding of historical events.