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Historical Fiction and the Author's Responsibility - a Guest Post

A Guest Post by Bookouture Author, Carly Schabowski - author of "All the Courage We Have Found"

New Release: November 18, 2022

Authors of historical fiction, alas, carry the burden of a legacy of narratives about their

particular responsibility to history. In broad terms, we are flanked by two arguments: the first

beginning with early historical novels such as those of Walter Scott, that a historical fiction

author has a responsibility to popularise historical record, and the second a belief that the past

is the domain only for those who experienced it, and their testimony.

The space for the imaginative or ironic in historical fiction is squeezed nigh to nothing between these two precious ‘shoulds’. But these are stances based on a sense of responsibility to history. 2

The way in which an historical fiction author engages with the term of responsibility then, is that it is not how responsibility relates to history, but how an author relates to it. 3

Which begs the question, is historical fiction inherently less responsible to the past than

non-fictional accounts of it?

There is no other way for an historical fiction author to access history but through the

experience of others. In writing history (other than private personal history), an author is

willingly networking herself into a community of memories and perceptions – whether this

be historians, witnesses, or artefacts of an event. Responsibility, then, attaches to one’s

choices in engaging with that community – an historical account is a contribution to a

standing and pre-extant community, a subjective one, with a choice of lens and as a result a

fresh distortion of the past to add to the kaleidoscope of distorted perspectives.

But to say that viewing history through a distorted lens is inherently irresponsible would

be to render more than just historical fiction obsolete. The responsibility is more in making a

standing community – those with individual and collective perspectives on a historical object

– complicit in the distortion. Ian McEwan's Atonement (2002) is, as Maria Margaronis notes,

an example of conscious engagement with ‘…the purposes and processes of writing historical

fiction, so that questions of authority, responsibility and authenticity are absorbed and

expressed in their form.’ 4

These questions, of a historical novelist’s authenticity and legitimacy, are ever present and

our responses to them are definitive of our genre; they make historical fiction, they do not

break it, and we must grapple with them if we want, as Mantel and her readership do, to

rediscover a past that is wholly or partly absent from us except by imagination. Mantel spoke

in the first of her Reith lectures of stories that ‘bear retelling. They compel retelling.’ 5

If indeed ‘you become a novelist so you can tell the truth’, (as Mantel asserted) then reclaiming

lost truths – or rather the ones hidden behind the veils of time and memory – becomes a

domain particularly suited to a responsible fictive historian, to tell a narrative truth within a

larger reality. 6

Within my novels, I seek to reclaim relatively unexplored stories that are largely hidden to

(or perhaps by) mainstream history; they are not the stories of the victor, or of the defeated;

they are in-between sorts of stories, more about people and less about politics, and ones

which have as yet been underserved by historical record. 7

Thus, in so examining my own struggle with the concept of responsibility, I find that it is my own relationship to history that holds the key – a sense of guardianship for a past that whilst not my own, is one that needs a voice to speak on its behalf. The ‘ghosts’ of the people I base my characters on, their family and progeny, felt restless to me; and I think compelled an account of their experiences. When we write history, we give a voice to the dead; and I believe that is a dutiful act, an act you might call one of tribute or homage, but certainly one of profound respect, for lives and stories that warrant rediscovering. 8

Primo Levi, for example, described his act of recreation as an ‘assault’, on the present by the past. My novels too are a confrontational act; stories bear retelling, and when we forget or distort or omit a story from social, political, or ethical consciousness, it may find a way to come back and haunt us. 9

Truly, ghosts, like fictive histories, are half-imagined phenomena, but that does not mean they are not real. 10

But it also does not mean they are. I am aware, in telling the story of these histories, that I

am dealing with ghosts – half-imagined, half-remembered. The reality I wish to portray is

sometimes obscured by missing facts, misremembered stories, the hazy and misshaped edges

of a traumatic experience, and the truths hidden by shame and obscenity. In feeling compelled to tell these realities visible only through a collection of distorted lenses, I try to

find an honest way of involving my reader in that process by utilising memory as a lens to re-

tell my characters’ stories – signposting its unreliability through the passing of time, and

through the fracturing of dementia, memory loss, trauma and misremembering.

On the one hand I feel a responsibility to history and truth, to hear rather than invent the

voices of the ghosts that populate it, and to render them honestly to an unfamiliar audience.

But on the other hand, I recognise a conflicting responsibility to a realistic historical process,

and to latent challenges by voices from the present, like McKenna’s, asserting a reader’s right

to ‘test claims about the past’. 11

So, I undertake in my novels a balancing act; looking through distorted lenses whilst bringing those lenses themselves into focus. 12

As such, my novels are as much about rehearsing my own process of reclaiming the past, and about the ghostliness of our memorial artefacts of history, as they are about my historical object. The ideal of responsibility is coming to the fore even more in this digital age as the issue of fake news, among others, has given rise to many questions about the material that is

available to read, and the motivations of those who write it. Should it be questioned so deeply

within literature? I argue not in the isolated term of historical truth, as this lies with the

historian, but in terms of an author’s drivers for writing what she does, the authentic reality

and narrative truth she produces, which ultimately affects, inspires, and informs her

readership. Should the genre of historical fiction not be then more subcategorised so the

reader understands what she is reading – i.e. should she be informed or simply inspired?

Should it not inform future historical fiction authors in terms of understanding their own

sense of responsibility from the outset, and thus producing work which reflects that, and is

clear to the reader?

Whichever lens an historical fiction author chooses to look back at history, and her sense

of responsibility in utilising that lens will ultimately change the resulting subgenre of

historical fiction novel thus supplementing the historical record rather than detracting from it.

It will become what society and our historical understanding is, a transitional view of lives

lived, lives remembered, and lives understood; a history and narrative constantly shifting

from what we believe to be the historical truth, into what becomes our eventual reality. And

this constantly changing reality is always, inevitably, still to be fully understood.

Author Bio:

Carly is the USA Today bestseller of historical fiction novels The Ringmaster's Daughter, The Watchmaker of Dachau, The Rainbow and The Note.

She lives in a tiny cottage in Oxfordshire, with barely enough room to swing a cat. Yet, she has managed to dwell in such a hobbit-type abode for some years with her two dogs, who keep her company as she reads, writes, eats chips, and drinks the occasional gin.

Her interest in WWII history spans from a familial connection, and inspired her to complete a PhD regarding the author's responsibility to historical fiction. Whilst an achievement, she gained 20 lbs, and became a hermit.

Carly Schabowski - author of "All the Courage We Have Found"


1 Coletta, Plotting the Past: pp.38-39: Maria Margaronis, ‘The Anxiety of Authenticity: Writing Historical Fiction at the End of the Twentieth Century’, History Workshop Journal, 65 (Spring, 2008), 138-160, (pp.138-139) [accessed 26 June 2019]: Anne Stevens, British Historical fiction before Scott, (London: Springer, 2010).

2 Karlheinz Stierle, ‘Interpretations of Responsibility and Responsibilities of Interpretation’, New Literary History, 25.4, 25th Anniversary Issue (Part 2) (1994), 853-867, (pp.857-859) [5 February 2017].

3 Stierle, Interpretations of Responsibility and Responsibilities of Interpretation, p.862:Gary Saul Morson, ‘Literature and Responsibility’, The Slavic and East European Journal, 54.2 (Summer 2010), 223-237, (pp.225-228), [accessed 15 February 2017].

4 Margaronis, The Anxiety of Authenticity, p.140.

5 Mantel, ‘The Day is for the Living’, Reith Lecture/ Series 1.

6 Ibid.

7 Halik Kochanski. The Eagle Unbowed, Poland and the Poles in the Second World War, (London: Penguin Books, 2012), pp.34 -59.

8 Mantel, ‘The Day is for the Living’, Reith Lecture/ Series 1.

9 I have grown up consciously implicated, like Levi though less emphatically so, in a silent history – a family history and a Polish history – and I felt the ghosts of that history stirring in dissatisfaction.

10 Mantel, ‘The Day is for the Living’, Reith Lecture/ Series 1.

11 McKenna, Writing the Past, p.105.

12 Andreas Gaile, ‘Fabulating Beauty: Perspectives on the Fiction of Peter Carey’, Cross/cultures, Readings in the post-colonial literatures in English, 78 (2005), p.3.

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