Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Whole of the Human Experience

Earlier this week HistoryToday featured a podcast with Ian Mortimer, a historian known for his biographies of Sir Roger Mortimer, Edward III, Henry IV, and Henry V as well as his Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England. Mortimer's most recent venture has taken him outside the world of nonfiction and into the realm of historical fiction. His new novel, Sacred Treason, is a mystery set during the reign of Elizabeth I and it is a far cry from his previous work. To keep his readers from becoming confused by the switch in genres, Mortimer has elected to publish his fictional works under the pseudonym James Forrester (his two middle names).

In the podcast, Mortimer discusses how he perceives history and historical fiction quite differently. For him, the goal of the historian is to study and reveal the past. The writer of historical fiction, on the other hand, tries to reveal general truths about humanity. "I'm not interested in fiction in enhancing people's understanding of the past. In fiction I'm using the past to demonstrate how we can say something that is true today and more meaningful for us today." Although he does strive for historical accuracy in his novel Sacred Treason, he says that is not the primary purpose of the book. "What I'm really doing is talking about life in all time, not just in the sixteenth century."

Mortimer notes that historians, for the most part, have lost the ability to impact society. "If you want to have historians really affecting the way people think about their position in the world they need to go beyond the academic frontiers, they need to take risks, they need to pioneer new forms of history and to discover--redefine--what history is." Perhaps a part of that redefinition is the burgeoning genre of historical fiction with its ability to transcend time, reveal truths about humanity as a whole, and create layers of meaning that academic histories lack.

Mortimer's view of historical fiction is an interesting one. He doesn't write to educate readers about a historical time period, per se, but instead uses his book as a "magnifying glass" for issues such as the importance of religion, fidelity to one's spouse, and loyalty to the state. I wonder whether readers share his goals. Do you pick up a historical novel in order to learn about a specific era? Or do you read it to learn about the whole of the human experience in a way that transcends time? Can a historical novel fulfill both of these goals equally?

1 comment:

  1. I pick up an historical novel first and foremost to be entertained. But I also expect a reasonable level of historical accuracy, particularly where the little details (food, clothing, architecture, religion, etc.) are concerned. If I know a lot about the time period and I realize the author has done some major bungling of these details, I'm disappointed and feel like I wasted my money. Part of being entertained is feeling like the world the author recreates is very realistic.

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