Fictional history is best. And that’s the truth
Everyone has a dirty secret; a way of spending their leisure time that they do not admit in polite society. But something has happened this week that allows me to crow about my weakness. Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, an unabashed historical novel, has won the Man Booker Prize. I can be out and proud. I love historical fiction with an insane passion. You can keep your Roths and your DeLillos, your Amises and Smiths, your portraits of modern life. Give me a rampaging Viking or a frigate clawing off a lee shore and I’m deliriously happy.
Wolf Hall’s stellar victory has given rise to familiar hand-wringing about the decline of history teaching in schools, as potential readers confuse Thomas Cromwell, its hero, with Oliver Cromwell. The Historical Association tells us that 48 per cent of 11 to 12-year-olds spend less than an hour a week studying history.
It’s a well-worn theme. Critics hanker for a mythical past of taught dates and concentration on great men. Defenders of a more modern approach emphasise the need to encourage children to empathise with past lives. As in most stand-offs in the historical world, the truth lies somewhere in between. The joy of history lies in the stories, the pageantry, the interplay of great men and greater themes, the horrible deaths and bloody lives of our ancestors. Dry dates do not excite, but neither does endless empathising with peasants. Sod the peasants, what about the wars and the murders?
Here’s where historical fiction comes in. All of world history can be viewed through the prism of a handful of extraordinary fictional characters.
But where to start? I would start at the beginning of Western civilisation, in Ancient Greece, where myth meets archaeology and the modern world was forged. I would start in the bull courts of Knossos, where Mary Renault’s Theseus leaps the bulls and dreams of being a king in The King Must Die. Renault should be the starting point for any historical fiction tour. If you haven’t read her, you are not a true fan of the genre and should scuttle off back to dreary chick lit where you belong.
Follow Renault through the march of Greece, and you’ll have a fair understanding of city-state politics, philosophy and early drama. You may also, if you read The Last of the Wine at an impressionable age, be desperate to grow up to be a gay man, so that you can stand side by side with your lover against the oncoming Spartans, fearing disgrace in his eyes more than death. Ahem.
Renault’s “Alexander” trilogy is also a classic, although it will make it impossible for you to read revisionist histories that cast him as a genocidal lunatic. For Renault fans, Alexander will always be a golden youth, relentlessly chasing immortality.
To Rome, then, and the master, Robert Graves. Generations of pseudo-intellectuals have bluffed a working knowledge of the machinations of the Julio-Claudian dynasty through the eyes of Clau-clau-Claudius.
Graves read Julius Caesar’s interminable self-aggrandising Conquest of Gaul and the rest of the original sources, so you don’t have to. This is proper history without the footnotes, although it is worth reading Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars, from which Graves borrowed. It’s less historical fiction; more contemporary propaganda with pornographic twist.
Britain starts getting interesting about now. Roman and Anglo-Saxon Britain inspire a different sort of historical fiction: less literary merit and more swords. Simon Scarrow’s Macro and Cato battle rain, misery and evil Druids in a series that begins with Under the Eagle. Big centurions, good fights, wily Britons; what more do you need?
The king of the Dark Ages is Bernard Cornwell. More renowned, perhaps, for his Napoleonic war books, he’s really in his element in the shield-walls and hypocrisy of early Christian Britain. I’ve read Bishop Asser’s Life of Alfred, but I’ll always see Britain’s great forgotten hero through the eyes of Uhtred, Cornwell’s brutal Anglo-Viking narrator of the Saxon Stories: Alfred the great administrator, a man of irritating piety and irritated bowels.
Then come the Normans. Angus Donald’s revisionist Robin Hood, in Outlaw, is a new hero with promise, a gangster with a grudge who robs the rich and terrifies the poor.
After him, we meander through second-rate fiction until we get to the Tudors, when we are overwhelmed by third-rate heaving bodices — apart from Wolf Hall, a book of staggering genius. Wolf Hall is my new excuse book. It’s so good that it’s my excuse for never writing my own novel. My prose would slide off the page in shame if it sat on the same shelf as Wolf Hall.
Soon, soon we get to the best bit: the sailors pitted against Napoleon. To my first love, Horatio Hornblower, and most of all, to Lucky Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. Patrick O’Brian, who never had a sniff of the Booker, is the best prose writer this country has produced. Most of us fans find it impossible to believe we have never actually spent a sparkling morning standing on the quarterdeck of HMS Surprise, drinking coffee with Stephen and Jack, served by a grumbling Killick Let’s take a brief moment to praise George MacDonald Fraser’s Harry Flashman. Despite a year studying the theory of the British Empire at university, all I really know about it comes from the mouth of the great whoring coward himself.
I’m running out of room. I’ll be mourning for weeks the characters I have left out, having long reproachful conversations with myself in front of my bookshelves, which are double-stacked and groaning with this stuff That is rather the point. History should be about the characters and their stories, about falling in love with the past and all its players. Put Mantel’s Cromwell and Lucky Jack Aubrey on the curriculum early on, and watch the history GCSE uptake soar. First engender the love, then the proper history will follow.