Historical Fiction as a Gateway Drug

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By Jeffers Lennox

I can trace my interest in the past to a single book: Jack Whyte’s The Skystone, a story set in the time of the legendary King Arthur.  First published in 1992, when I was 12, The Skystone had just about everything necessary to hook a young kid: historical imagination, magic, war, heroism, and enough “adult” subject matter to make this my childhood version of 50 Shades of Grey.  My dad gave me the book – a fact I desperately tried to forget while reading some of the more erotic passages – and he continued providing me with whatever Whyte wrote until I was sick of stories about King Arthur and the Knights.

Fast-forward twenty years, and I’m once again reading historical fiction.  Both my father and my father-in-law suggested Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker prize-winning Wolf Hall, the story of Tudor England told through the fictionalized life of Thomas Cromwell. I haven’t read fiction for years, but thought I’d give it a try; once again, I find myself hooked.  And I’m obviously not the only one.  The success of Wolf Hall has led me to wonder if this is someone else’s The Skystone, and what future academic work might be traced back to a few evenings spent with Thomas Cromwell?  I found myself particularly interested in Henry VIII and his court during a recent trip to England and France.  While I was wandering Versailles I was struck by the fact that Louis XIII’s hunting chateau (which served as the foundation for the great palace) was constructed over eighty years after Thomas Cromwell lost his head. 

Vimy Monument. Photo by Author.

Elsewhere during the trip I was similarly struck by the inspiring links between literature and history.  One day we rented a car and drove from Paris to Vimy, as I had never seen the battle site.  Putting aside the contentious claims about Vimy as a founding moment for Canada, the site and the monument are breathtaking.  It’s hard not to be moved when thinking about what the Great War soldiers endured.  The monument, of course, has its own story – and its own fiction.  Jane Urquhart’s The Stone Carvers – which tells the story of a family of carvers who participate in building the Vimy monument after the war – is a great introduction to this part of Canadian history.

It is impossible to ignore history in the rest of Paris.  We were staying close to Place de la Bastille, which commemorates many significant events.  This was the site of the old Bastille Fortress, stormed and taken by Republicans during the French Revolution.  These were “the best of times” and “the worst of times” that inspired Charles Dickens to write A Tale of Two Cities, one of the most popular works of historical literature.

July Column. Source: Wikipedia Commons

On the site of the old Bastille fortress now stands the July Column, a monument dedicated to the French Revolution of 1830 that ended the reign of King Charles X.  The July Column is within walking distance of the famous Parisian bookstore Shakespeare and Company, which is regularly flush with copies of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.  This fictional account of what France went through between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the Paris Uprising of 1832 (which sought to undo the 1830 Revolution commemorated by the July Column at Place de la Bastille) truly captures the spirit of the age.    

Really, the exact subject of the historical literature is less relevant than the act of reading it.  I can’t say I know much more about Late Antiquity than I learned from Whyte, but those books inspired me to think about the past, ask historical questions, and, ultimately, become someone who spends time digging around in dead people’s business.  It is that general desire to know about the past that drives historians and it might be useful to include more fiction in our teaching – at both the graduate and undergraduate level – as a palate cleanser to prepare for the next course of academic monographs.

In fact, during my PhD coursework my class was assigned Wayne Johnston’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, an excellent fictionalization of Newfoundland premier Joey Smallwood’s early years.  We had lively debates about the meaning and use of historical fiction, and the majority of us thought it was an excellent exercise in evaluating the past.  I’ve subsequently passed the book on to a number of friends, all of whom now have some idea about Newfoundland and Confederation.

An interest in the past needs to be nurtured and developed, and the academic monograph is not necessarily the best starting point.  Historical literature might be the ideal gateway drug because it urges the reader to investigate context, question what happened, and evaluate why it matters.

Jeffers Lennox is an Assistant Professor at Wesleyan University.

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One thought on “Historical Fiction as a Gateway Drug

  1. Gregory Kennedy

    Your interest in historical fiction resonated with me, Jeffers. If you have not already, check out Guy Gavriel Kay’s works based on Byzantium, China, medieval Europe and, perhaps most intriguingly, his bestseller Ysabel.

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