History, Fiction and So Forth.

by Mark Wallace

In preparation for a presentation at a symposium in a few weeks, I have been reading for the first time Hayden White. White is the go-to theorist as far as the confluence of literature and history goes, and this is a direction I would like to take. We make sense of history through narrative, and we often use fictional narratives as a way into understanding historical events. To use a familiar example from my reading, in his 1859 preface to A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens says:

Whenever any reference (whenever slight) is made here to the condition of the French people before or during the revolution, it is truly made, on the faith of the most trustworthy witnesses. It has been one of my hopes to add something to the popular and picturesque means of understanding that terrible time, though no one can hope to add anything to the philosophy of Mr Carlyle’s wonderful book.

So Dickens was motivated by, among other things, the wish to enhance public understanding of the French Revolution, though he is perhaps somewhat naive in believing that the philosophy underlying that event is entirely set down in Carlyle’s “wonderful book”. He wasn’t adding anything to Carlyle’s philosophy, just reproducing it, and doing so in a more accessible manner. Two Cities has gone on to be the most popular novel ever, according to Wikipedia (albeit no proper citation for this stat is provided – but it’s one of the most popular, at any rate). Taking his Carlylean source, Dickens managed to create for popular consumption a vision of a great historical event that communicated certain ideas about that event, that posited a certain meaning of that event. There are a few ways you could formulate Dickens’ “message” in the book: perhaps the most important element was that of retribution or nemesis – the rich kind of deserved it, or at least brought it on themselves:

It was too much the way of Monseigneur under his reverses as a refugee, and it was much too much the way of native British orthodoxy, to talk of this terrible Revolution as if it were the only harvest ever known under the skies that had not been sown—as if nothing had ever been done, or omitted to be done, that had led to it—as if observers of the wretched millions in France, and of the misused and perverted resources that should have made them prosperous, had not seen it inevitably coming, years before, and had not in plain words recorded what they saw. Such vapouring, combined with the extravagant plots of Monseigneur for the restoration of a state of things that had utterly exhausted itself, and worn out Heaven and earth as well as itself, was hard to be endured without some remonstrance by any sane man who knew the truth. (Two Cities, Bk. II, Ch. 7)

So it was a harvest: it didn’t come from nowhere. This is, in a way, quite a benign and optimistic reading of the French Revolution. If you don’t want a bloody harvest, then don’t sow one! It was a matter of injustice, cruelty, selfishness on the part of the nobles. Be less selfish and more open to change, and revolution won’t happen. This was not a meaning for the past or about the past, it was a meaning derived from a narrative of the past that was applicable to Dickens’ own contemporaries (or so he thought). He doesn’t really make this explicit, but coming on the back of the several explicit Condition-of-England novels he had just written, such a reading is hard to avoid. He does say in the famous opening that the time in question was very like “the present period”. History is not just history, it also has lessons for the present and the future. The present is the past, give or take a variable number of elements. What the past  means, then, is very important for reading the future and for future conduct. Therein lies its interest.

Hayden White, as a theorist of history, says that, “ideology is the central problem of intellectual history because intellectual history has to do with meaning, its production, distribution, and consumption, so to speak, in different historical epochs” (190). Each epoch, then, has to produce meaning anew (though never wholly anew, either, always inflected by the past), and the task of the intellectual historian is to analyze the means by which meaning is produced within different social and cultural milieus. White’s approach to this is purely semiological, based on an apparent belief in the possibility of outlining a sophisticated sign system at play in any given work, and citing Barthes’ S/Z as a model (196). The faith in semiology dates White a bit, though even at the time the book was published (1987), semiology was already passed its heyday in the humanities. White uses it here for an interesting reading of The Education of Henry Adams, a book I haven’t read. The Education is an autobiographical text, therefore factual, therefore a historical document. Biography is by definition on one end of the scale in terms of truth; fiction is at the other.

Biography 1. the process of recording the events and circumstances of another person’s life, esp. for publication (latterly in any of various written, recorded, or visual media); the documenting of individual life histories (and, later, other forms of thematic historical narrative), considered as a genre of writing or social history.

 Fiction 4.a. The species of literature which is concerned with the narration of imaginary events and the portraiture of imaginary characters; fictitious composition. Now usually, prose novels and stories collectively; the composition of works of this class.

Biography documents; fiction invents. But really what biography can ever be wholly documentary, and not at all subjective? And what fiction can wholly escape the world? Do we not always read to find something out about the world we live in? Even fantasy obeys rules of realism in the realms such as that of character motivation, if not in that of setting (but, again, how many fantasy setting are recognizably of this world – Game of Thrones is basically set in the European middle ages, for example [with dragons]). So, invention and documentation are on a continuum: fiction cannot be wholly fictional; documentary cannot be wholly documentary – but in relative terms, a text may be more or less fictional, and by implication less or more documentary, without approaching the absolute in terms of either concept.

Historical fiction is thus the paradigmatic text. It is avowedly both documentary and fictional, both of the real world and of the world of the imagination. It explicitly is what other texts effectively are. Avrom Fleischmann sets out some criteria for a historical novel in The English Historical Novel:

1 The plot must include a number of historical events, particularly those in the public sphere, mingled with and affecting the personal lives of the characters.

2 At least one historical figure must appear in the novel.

and, more abstractly

3 The novel must convey, by imaginative sympathy, the feeling of how it was to be alive in another age.

Time-wise, Fleischmann suggests that the historical novel has to take place at least 40-60 years in the past, which he admits is somewhat arbitrary.

Apropos of the last point, I would suggest another reasonable way of gauging it would be that the novel must be set in a time before the target readership were born; or,alternatively, before the author was born [this would probably have a significant overlap with Fleischmann’s criterion, as – guessing – I’d say the majority of books may well be written by persons aged between 40 and 60.]

Apropos of 2, I don’t think there is any historical figure in Two Cities, but it would seem odd to suggest that it is not, therefore, a historical novel. Indeed, it is one of Fleischmann’s primary discussion texts, and he doesn’t mention its failure to comply with his rule at all. Still, I would prefer to see it as an exception to a decent rule, rather than a proof of the invalidity of said rule. Classically, in novels like War and Peace. one will find real historical figures mingling with the fictional characters.

There are also novels of contemporary history; and narratives of contemporary history in other media. One thinks of a series like The Newsroom, in which the plots revolve around actual news stories, be they the Trayvon Martin case, the Petraeus affair, or whatever. But what is the purpose of such narratives? Do we as receivers use narratives to help us think through important public issues? Or do authors use such events to foist their ideas on us, and to tell us how to think about such matters? Some do, certainly. But there is no choice. We cannot use narrative for pure escapism; we are shaped by reality, and it is always with us. We can only begin to analyze the ways in which reality inflects our imaginative works, and the place to start is those works which are both imagination and factual; from here we can begin to understand how imagination works with and works on reality. Narrative cannot shape physical reality, but it can shape our ways of perceiving it, and we, in turn, shape in more or less important ways the physical reality that surrounds us. The way we shape it may well be in line with the narratives we hear and internalize. W.B. Yeats once asked, “Did that play of mine send out/ Certain men the English shot?” The answer: I don’t know about that case specifically, but in general the stories we tell ourselves and each other do seem to empower us to act in certain ways. The great religions of history are built on stories; more recently we have tried to remove the narrative from our understanding of the world; science deals with the physical, laws and charters with the moral. Narrative is relegated to the subsidiary role of entertainment and escapism – and rightly so! I don’t want to suggest that we should live according to some story to which we ascribe divine significance. If we could take stories for what they are, as being always completely sui generis, and not as representations of deep and unalterable general truths, we would perhaps be better off. But can we? And by “we” I don’t mean me. I mean, arrogantly, all of those persons for whom a story has an extractable lesson, a nutshell, a content inside and outside the form, for whom it attains the grandeur of a moral lesson, even a foundational myth, even The Word of God. All of those people who experience events and stories symbolically, and who seemingly have to do so to find this world livable.

A story is only itself, just as a fact is only itself. A story about a fact is many things, a dialectic of event and reaction, and a shadow of many other events and reactions. There is no end to the things it can be. But it can never be one exact thing, except, tautologically, its ungraspable, indefinable, practically inexistent self.

Avrom Fleischmann, The English Historical Novel: Walter Scott to Virginia Woolf (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1971)

Hayden White, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1990)