Speaking at the Malvern Festival of Military History, by Tom Williams
At the Malvern Festival of Military History, I was on a panel talking about historical fiction.
We were the light relief at the end of three days, but there were some pretty high-powered speakers on before us. Nicholas Shakespeare’s talk on the debate that finished Chamberlain and saw Churchill become prime minister gave me considerable food for thought. He had clearly put a lot of research into the people and politics of that debate and, given that it was an important public occasion, you would think that all the details were well-established. Shakespeare’s presentation made clear that there was much we did not know and that where there was ambiguity we filled in the gaps with what have become powerful modern myths ‘The only true story’ Shakespeare told is, ‘is a good story.’
History is the story we tell about ourselves. We were not at Malvern because we really wanted to know the tedious truth about Waterloo – that it was a miserable day with thousands of men dying, some of them suffocating in the mud, all of them starting the day cold and wet, the dye of their red uniforms running into the pipe-clayed white of their cross belts. We want to know how Ensign Ewart captured the Eagle – or, if we want to prove ourselves radical free thinkers, how he didn’t capture it. The truth is that no one knows. I doubt if, in the confusion of battle, the terror of swords cutting and parrying, the officer holding the French standard falling to the ground – I doubt if , as he grabbed the French flag, even Ensign Ewart could say for sure who captured it.
Nicholas Shakespeare’s explained that much of the history of the pre-war years and the circumstances of Churchill’s rise to the premiership were recounted in Churchill’s own book The Gathering Storm. Historians recognise that a lot of this is more historical novel than history, and yet, according to Shakespeare, the book “has guided the writing of history ever since”.
After three days at Malvern, it seems to me that the worlds of history and historical fiction are much closer together than the casual observer might think.
Of course, there is historical fiction and there is historical fiction. At one extreme, there is every bodice ripper in which an innocent serving maid, after various adventures and guided by a curiously 21st century set of post-feminist values, eventually marries the Duke, quite possibly setting the aristocracy on the path towards universal sufferage as she does so. At the other extreme is what one might call drama documentary. Jemahl Evans’ books on the Civil War are an excellent example of works so packed with historical detail that they will tell most readers more about the period than many a paperback history. (Personally I think that 88 endnotes may be too much of a good thing, but there’s no law says you have to read them.)
My own efforts lie somewhere between Jemahl and, let’s say, Barbara Cartland.
I write stories that are set against real historical backgrounds. Some of the stories are fictionalised versions of real events. The somewhat implausible adventures of my hero in Burke in the Land of Silver as he seduces a queen, a princess and a viceroy’s mistress while changing the course of the history of Argentina are all actually astonishingly close to the truth. Other stories where James Burke sets up the French defeat at the Battle of the Nile or saves Wellington from a Bonapartist assassin are fictional. In all of them, though, I try to make the details as consistent with the historical record as I can.
Unlike almost everyone else at the Festival, I am not a historian. To be honest, I felt a bit of a fraud. James Burke fights at the battle of Waterloo, but I learned a lot about Waterloo at Malvern. I have, of course, read a fair bit about it, but I haven’t read a fraction of the books written. I was recently at the National Army Museum and I haven’t even read a fraction of the books on sale in their gift shop. But I have read a fair bit. I’ve gone through some basic accounts of the battle and I’ve read about some incidents in a lot more detail. I try to read contemporary accounts, including accounts of soldiers in other battles. I talk to re-enactors, who often know more about the practical details of 18th and 19th century life than many academics – as when I asked my (female) editor how she got her crinoline through a doorway. And, of course, I go to events like the Military History Festival.
I skim read and I doze through radio programmes and then something catches my attention and I squirrel it away and one day I dig up my little acorn of fact and let it grow into a beautiful little oak tree of period detail. A friend who is into Regency costume explained to me once how some young ladies oiled their skin to help them slip into the tightest of dresses. I’m astonished that no TV dramatist has yet worked this into a semi-costumed drama (all, of course, in the best possible taste) but I’m certainly going to find a way of working it into something one day.
One thing I must say that separates me from the academic, or even Jemahl Evans, is that when I say I squirrel facts away, I use a better simile than might at first be obvious. For, like the squirrel, I don’t remember where I buried each nut. I don’t keeps notes of my sources. This is partly because I am, by nature, indolent, but also, experience has shown me that too much attention to historical detail can get in the way of storytelling. When I first tried to write a book about James Brooke, the mid 19th century ruler of Sarawak in Borneo , every time he sailed up a river, whether he took the left branch or the right was carefully based on detailed research. That didn’t half wreck any flow there might have been in my writing! When I came back to the idea of a book about Brooke (that became The White Rajah) I deliberately did not reread all my notes. When it was finished, I checked the historical facts and was pleased to discover that there weren’t that many errors. Where there were, what my memory had done (as memory generally does) was to blur detail and simplify things. That, it seems to me, was exactly what I wanted.
Historical research is important if historical novels are to convince, but it is not the be-all and end-all. Drama has often been described as real life with the boring bits taken out. Historical novels should be history with the boring bits reduced to an absolute minimum – but the history that remains should be as accurate as it can be without getting in the way of the story.
Check out Tom’s historical fiction novels HERE!