The third Summerhall Historical Fiction Festival began with a simple question: why history? Amiable old trooper Allan Massie – author of rather a lot of good historical fiction – launched this year’s three day festival hosted by Edinburgh’s Summerhall arts centre, with an appreciation of the historical novel’s hybrid nature. Not only is it both fiction and history, he said, it’s also – paraphrasing Robert Louis Stevenson – both “dramatic” (focusing on people’s conduct) and “romantic” (concentrating on the circumstances which affect them).
Some critics see this as an inherent weakness, but for Massie (relaxed, as if delivering a fireside talk – though the venue was sadly lacking the warmth of a real fire) the greatest historical novels simply remind us how events in the past were once the unknowable future, and that the people involved were living beings “of flesh and blood” with desires, beliefs and dreams just as real and valid as our own.
Massie pointed out that writers of historical fiction enjoy one comfort denied most other authors; they don’t have to worry about “what happens next”. Yes, they still have to work hard to create on the printed page the semblance of living, breathing people within what feels an authentic world. They still have to fill in the details, to actually get people from point A to point B. But knowing what the plot has to be can be a relief.
However, Massie also insisted that writers of historical fiction – unlike historians – must necessarily conceal that knowledge as much as possible, if only to help persuade their readers that the characters they’re reading about are just like ourselves, uncertain of what tomorrow will bring and how events will turn out. Almost immediately, however, Robert Fabbri – currently seven published novels into his life of the largely overlooked Roman emperor Vespasian – pointed out that his central character was allegedly aware of certain omens made at his birth. While a cynical historian might suggest that many “omens” were later ad-hoc biographical additions made for propaganda purposes, Fabbri insisted that he had to take into account how his character’s belief in his assured destiny would genuinely influence many of the decisions he would make throughout his lifetime.
Both authors agreed, however, that it was important for historical fiction writers to stick, as much as possible, with the known facts – unless they were quite deliberately writing “counter-factual” narratives. “If a fact doesn’t fit the plot, it’s the wrong plot,” Fabbri insisted. Yet he also conceded that, if he was sure from all his research that there was nothing to suggest something didn’t occur, then all bets were off. For example, with no evidence to the contrary, he just couldn’t resist putting his soldier hero in Roman Britain during the Boudicean Revolt.
Research is important for any writer, but especially that of historical fiction. Douglas Jackson, author of the Hero of Rome novels, explained on Sunday how each new book had been inspired by some fact or idea he’d unearthed while researching its predecessor. But how much research should a writer do? Speaking on Friday, Catherine Czerkawska, currently writing a novel about Joan Armour (the wife of Robert Burns), insisted that an author must eventually stop researching in order to write the fiction, after which they then realise what research they still need to do!
Lucy Ribchester, whose debut novel The Hourglass Factory linked the suffragette movement with the world of circus and music hall, went even further on Sunday afternoon: she said that an author almost had to forget all the research they’d just done in order to “create something else”. That said, she accepted it was “gutting” not be able to get all the facts and information she’d unearthed into her novel – some writing could just be “too history heavy” for its own good, while other ideas would, if lucky, turn up in some of her short stories.
In any case, “there are more important things about historical fiction than getting every single fact and detail right,” Ribchester insisted. Iain Gale, who has written fiction, history and “faction” books about the Battle of Waterloo, would certainly agree: on Saturday he pointed out that factual inaccuracies don’t automatically spoil the effectiveness of a book or film. Yet he does remain concerned when certain deliberate falsehoods – which first appeared in somewhat biased historical fiction – essentially become the most publicly recognised history through their unconsidered repetition.
200 years on, according to Gale, Waterloo remains the most written about battle in history, proof that there are plenty of approaches to any historical subject, whether it’s the Roman Empire or the world of the Tudors. Yet for author and stand-up Robert Newman (whose latest novel, The Trade Secret, is described as “a rollicking Elizabethan yarn”), the main attraction of writing historical fiction remains the opportunities it offers to undermine common assumptions that we all might have about not just the past but also the present day. Yes, the past may be like a foreign country (to paraphrase L. P. Hartley) where people do things differently; it can show us that other lives, and ways of living, were – are – possible.
This might also help explain what the journalist and writer Kaite Welsh described, in a panel with authors Ronald Frame and Laura Macdougall on Saturday morning, as “the recent rise of queer history fiction in the mainstream”; that is, an increased focus by writers of historical fiction on characters who are not white, heterosexual and male. In part, this is simply down to changing social attitudes during the last 50-odd years; authors of all stripes, but especially those who identify either as queer or LGBT, simply feel more confident writing about such aspects of people’s lives, and also have publishers (albeit, not necessarily the biggest publishers in the world) who are willing to get such work out there.
Altogether, this festival proved to be a hive of ideas and experience. It’s just a shame that, for reasons as yet not clear, it failed to attract large crowds.
Paul F Cockburn
Paul is Freelance magazine journalist specialising in arts & culture, equality issues, and popular science. Recent clients include The Herald, BBC Sky at Night, and The Scots Magazine.