Tuesday, October 13, 2009

First engender the love

I know more history because of good historical fiction than I learned as a history major. In fact, much of my pleasure in studying history grew from reading historical fiction. The novels of Bruce Lancaster and Kenneth Roberts provided me with a dramatic sense of the American Revolution, just as Bernard Cornwell's Waterloo and Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels about Gettysburg made sense of those battles, and interested me in reading academically respectable, non-fictional, accounts. Britain's Booker Prize was awarded this year to a historical novel about Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. The award inspired Antonia Senior to write "Fictional history is best. And that’s the truth" — it is perhaps not the best history, but it is the best way to encourage a love of history. Senior:

.... 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. ....

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. ....

.... 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. [more]
Thanks to Gene Edward Veith, who also loves historical fiction, for the reference.

More, 11:45: Martin Rubin reviews Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall in the Wall Street Journal this morning:
Although less famous than his great-great-grandnephew Oliver, Thomas Cromwell is well-known, thanks to the enduring fascination of Henry VIII and the Tudor court. Cromwell is of course a memorable villain in the play and movie A Man for All Seasons — the royal minister who, cruelly advancing Henry's break with Rome, hounds Thomas More for a loyalty oath that he will not give. Cromwell naturally figured in King Henry VIII and His Six Wives (1972), the popular Masterpiece Theater version of these events, and he reappears these days, as dry and determined as ever, in the over-heated HBO series The Tudors. But for all the portraits of this 16th-century power broker in print and on screen—not to mention in the history books, where he is a central figure in the history of Protestant triumphalism— Cromwell has never before appeared as he does in Hilary Mantel's dense, finely wrought Wolf Hall, the winner of this year's Man Booker Prize in Britain.

Ms. Mantel has a knack for getting under the skin of her characters and capturing them (one feels) as they must have been, as readers will know who have read her wonderfully imaginative novel about the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety (1992). So convincing is she with Wolf Hall that it is easy to feel that we are seeing the real Cromwell before us.... [more]
Fictional history is best. And that’s the truth | Antonia Senior - Times Online, Book Review: Hilary Mantel's 'Wolf Hall' - WSJ.com

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