Learning to Love History Through Historical Fiction

HistficI think Rudyard Kipling had it right: “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” When I came across this pin on Pinterest I realized it was something I wanted to explore more in-depth, because I’ll tell you one thing, I’ve learned more from the historical fiction I’ve read than I did in all my years of studying history in school.

For those prone to argue, yes, I know historical fiction is part fiction. I’m not saying we should base all of our knowledge on it, but that it can spark interest in a certain time period or person much easier than a dry history book can. For example, I just finished Labyrinth by Kate Mosse. Its backdrop of the Cathar Inquisition in thirteenth century France made me want to learn more about this little-known sect of medieval Christianity. I can promise you that if we covered that in school, I don’t remember a word of it.

Why does historical fiction stay with us? Well, for one, stories are the way the human brain processes information. We tell each other stories every day in the form of conversation without even noticing we’re doing it. Chances are good that when you’re telling your friend about that awesome party you went to, you’re going to tell her stories about the evening, not a chronological recounting of events (unless you are Sheldon Cooper, in which case you wouldn’t have gone to a party anyway). I think this is the fundamental flaw in many history textbooks; they focus on cramming as many dates and facts in as possible, and thus, lose the true story.

As author Heather Web recently said in a recent Huffington Post article, “What’s not to love about history? I think it gets a bad rap from our grade school and high school days where many teachers force-fed us timelines and names to memorize, as opposed to teaching us to explore movements and larger concepts–never mind all of those juicy stories. This is what history, and historical fiction, really is: juicy stories.”

That brings me to my second point about historical fiction. It breathes life into history in a way traditional textbooks don’t. This happens through the story and the characters, no matter if they are fictional paupers begging at the cathedral gates or real-life kings and queens. They represent the plight (or fortune) of people in a given time period, they show us history in action through a personal lens with all of its love, triumph, grief and pain. Whether we leave a historical fiction work thinking, “Oh my God am I glad I didn’t live in that time period,” or “Dude, where’s the time machine? It would have been so cool to live in that time,” we’ve personalized the story. History now matters to us.

And matter it should. Beyond the oft-repeated proverb “if we don’t remember history, we’re bound to repeat it,” history shows us what is right and wrong with humanity, emphasizes the good that we should seek to amplify and horrors that should never be permitted again. By living these things through the fictionalized lives of real or made up people, we become more compassionate and empathetic. I just finished a book called The Hammer of Witches by Begoña Echeverria, whose graphic portrayal of the Basque witch hunts made me realize what danger we place our entire community in when we fail to see the humanity of those around us and instead choose the bandwagon of bigoted hatred and fear.

Personally, I would love if history classes in high school (or at least college) incorporated historical fiction into their curriculum, especially as way of whetting the appetite for certain time periods or topics. (Come to think of it, that’s kind of what my high school Western Civ teacher did when she had us read 1984 before studying totalitarian societies. I’ve been hooked on dystopia ever since.) For example, I personally think Susanna Kearsely’s forthcoming A Desperate Fortune has the clearest explanation of the reason for the Jacobite rebellion/exile I’ve ever read. Historical fiction can even take you places the history books rarely do. Jo Baker’s Longbourn gives a glimpse into the lives of servants and soldiers in Regency England, while most history books stick to the sterile facts of monarchy and war.

And you wouldn’t even have to use books, or at least not books alone. There are so many period films and TV shows that they could be incorporated as well. Even if they are of questionable historical accuracy (*cough* Tudors *cough*) that can be used to spark discussion. “Spot the inaccuracy” could be part of a test. It could be employed interdepartmentally as well. The Paris Wife could be an intro to Hemingway or The Secret of All Things a prelude to biology. The possibilities are endless. (Man, now I wish I had my PhD. or even a master’s in history so I could create this class.)

I just hate the idea of history meaning less and less to future generations. But if mine is any starting place (I’m at the tail end of Gen X), things aren’t looking good. A recent report by the American Historical Association (I’m a member), showed that schools issuing history degrees are showing a downward trend, which isn’t too surprising given the recent economy. The more we can use historical fiction to spark interest, the better off we will all be. The day history becomes only dead guys and boring facts is the day we lose a valuable record of our humanity.

What are your thoughts? Do you agree or disagree? What historical fiction has made you care about history? What do you wish young people had to read in school? Do you think there is danger in mixing fiction in with our history?

8 thoughts on “Learning to Love History Through Historical Fiction

  1. Well put and my sentiments exactly. I think well-researched historical fiction can be a bonus in many ways; facts can be dry as dust but being able to ‘see’ a character and allotting him/her motivation can really bring the past to life. I believe it can even help to give a fairer reinterpretation of a historical character; for instance Sharon Kay Penman’s epic Sunne in Splendour and Rosemary Hawley Jarman’s We Speak no Treason both led to people questioning the Shakespearean version of Richard III and looking for further answers.
    Some of my personal favourites have been the works of Rosemary Sutcliff, who covered many eras of British history, from prehistoric, to Arthurian to Robin Hood. She wrote for the YA market but her research, in its time, was impeccable, and she never spoke down to readers…hence the books being so enjoyable to adults.
    The main downside, I suppose, is if some people do forget they are reading fiction, and take it as history without reading non-fiction on the same subject, and then using their new-found knowledge to make their own interpretation. I have seen a few fans of one particular histfic author giving bad reviews to authors writing in the same time period because their books ‘didn’t show the characters as accurately as in so-and-so’s books’ when in fact, so-and-so the famous author actually used some very shaky or discarded historical ‘facts.’

    • Oh, I need to read more Rosemary Sutcliff!

      Yeah I can see that being a down side. I don’t know how we can prevent that, though. We can’t make people learn more or expand upon what is in the fiction they read. I guess that’s where I see Author’s Notes in the books coming in. I’m very careful to note as I go what I’ve altered or made up and why, along with what really happened. I think the best we can do is hope people read those and take them to heart. I also try to blog the reality here, so hopefully people will learn the real history from that.

  2. Agree Completely. Elementary and high school history classes were memorization tasks with names, dates and events. Drove me nuts.Spent a year in Germany as part of my Service and saw all the old medieval and Roman ruins…wished I knew more about them. College was pretty narrow-focussed…engineering, but after that I started reading everything from ancient history, archaeology and of course historical fiction. Include SciFi and westerns. Been a reader since the early “40s.

    • Gordon, you bring up a great point. Getting to see history in action adds a whole additional element to it. The first time I traveled to Europe, I was 11 and even at that young age, it made quite an impression on me to see the ruins of castles and even palaces that are still used in Vienna. Even today, I’m attracted to stories of Empress Elisabeth because of that.

      Keep reading! We need more long-time avid readers! Hopefully someday you’ll be able to read my books.

  3. I think historical fiction definitely humanizes history, and learning about PEOPLE and their stories, as you say, is FAR more interesting than learning about overarching chronological events without faces. We’re wired to connect to people, not dates and timelines.

    This is part of why I find American History to be such a bore — because I wasn’t taught anything about the people themselves, just the dates and battles and timeline of events. But man, when I realized that we had HUGE libraries of letters written between Jefferson and Adams — it opened a door for me into a period I would otherwise NEVER willingly explore, because suddenly these people were PEOPLE, not just founding fathers, and I had a window into their thought processes! Now, reading the letters is kind of agonizing because the language is olde timey and I haven’t gotten far, but for the first time, I was EXCITED about American History, and I really wonder, if we included modernized translations of these letters in text books, would it make American history more interesting? If we followed, for example, the life of Thomas Jefferson or George Washington and explored his personal story during the revolution, ON a personal level, and not just a military history recounting of dates and battles, would I have been more interested? More willing to learn?

    Judging by my response today, I’m betting yes. And I feel like I was cheated out of something awesome in my education.

  4. I think you’re very unfair to history teachers and your summary of the teaching of history as “cramming as many dates and facts in as possible, and thus, lose the true story.” is years out of date.
    I went to school in the 1980s and 1990s in both Britain and the US and my teachers were always challenging us to think and analyse texts, as well as to show the narrative of events. In many ways, history teachers are among the most inspirational teachers there are in that they show their students that the world has been very different in the past, and the way we live today is just one of many possible environments or civilisations.
    On the other hand, I agree with you on the value of historical fiction. At its best it is wonderful. The best examples I can think of are The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco and I Claudius/Claudius the King by Robert Graves. Both classics – I’ll check out The Hammer of the Witches too. Sounds great.

    • Hi Alastair,

      It sounds to me like you had a great history experience in school and I’m glad for that – honestly, I’m jealous. I wish my teachers had challenged me the way yours did. I am only speaking from my own experience and that reported by my friends – that is all I have to go on. But I am enormously glad to hear that what I described isn’t the only way out there.

      I’m glad you found value in the post. I appreciate your opinions. I think you’ll like The Hammer of Witches.

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