More Historical Fiction, Please!

Students and teachers come to history for many different reasons. My moment was the fourth grade book fair at Hewitt Elementary School, where I bought Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and E.L. Konigsberg’s A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver. I have Austen to thank for my love of literature (and her writing in her particular) but it was the brilliance of Konigsberg’s Eleanor of Aquitaine that hooked me, however loosely, into this profession. Alternating in a decade long obsession between medieval England, the Amarna period of Ancient Egypt, and the late Roman Republic, by middle school I was devouring anything I could get from the library and book stores that touched on the subjects and characters I read about. Brother Cadfael, Ellis Peter’s herbalist Monk who solved murders in the English anarchy, Gordianus the Finder, Steven Saylor’s plebian detective who narrates the rise of the Roman empire, Amelia Peabody, Elizabeth Peter’s plucky Egyptologist, Sharon Kay Penman’s Richard the III, and more or less all of Alison Weir’s queens remain some of my most beloved examples but they are far from the exhaustive list.

It wasn’t too long before I wanted more though. I was fascinated by Gordianus but who was this Cicero he worked with and the Catullus he quoted? So off I went to the OTHER aisle, the aisle where that strange non-fiction lurked… And lo and behold! There were my answers. Plutarch’s Lives of Noble Romans, Cicero’s Murder Trials, Catullus’s “Lesbia” poems: they were just the beginning of my developing fascination with what I now teach as primary sources. For me, the secondary accounts that drive the history profession came later even. Freshman year of college I learned that book history a la Elizabeth Eisenstein was “a thing” and was giddy about it for about two years. Being a history major opened up my perspective to a very different way of looking at history, and clearly, it stuck.

Students don’t typically have the same reason as I did for ending up in an introductory history course – filling a requirement or a serendipitous time slot certainly pop up from time to time – although some have mentioned historical novels that inspire them. Reading an historical fiction novel cover to cover for the first time since I started dissertating reminded me that the genre could serve as a powerful hook for those students who might be eager but unsure of how to approach the material. I was fortunate to receive an advanced reader copy of Julie Berry’s new novel, The Passion of Dolssa, which is coming out on Tuesday, April 12th.[i] Set in medieval France during the Inquisition, the plot is centered on the power of the archive itself. As much an homage to the historian’s calling as an eerily prescient warning about the dangers of fear mongering and intolerance, the story describes an unlikely friendship between two young women: a wealthy, religious devotee who crosses powerful people in the Catholic church and the strong, savvy match-maker who protects her. Although their friendship forms the heart of Berry’s beautifully written narrative, the details of life in their small town of Bajas, just outside of Bordeaux in the south, seems immaculately researched. Those details were reminiscent to me of Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms.

Not coincidentally perhaps, in that same class where I first read Eisenstein, I also encountered Ginzburg. So I know this is a LOT of non-American history for a US history website, but bear with me a paragraph or two more. I am certainly not a medieval scholar, and have only a broad knowledge of the Inquisition, but what Berry’s novel does so expertly, similarly to Elizabeth Kostova in The Historian, A.S. Byatt in Possession, and Deborah Harkness in the All Souls trilogy, is make the work of historian – the process of uncovering information, of arbitrating memory, of interpreting the past – central to the lives of the characters. In doing so, they provide a animated model to students of what the work can feel like. Barely a chapter into The Passion of Dolssa and I felt that familiar muscle somewhere in my mind twitch and I wanted to find out more, more about the vineyard economies in the region, more about the print culture in small French villages, more about the “bonas femnas” and why their female, Christian mysticism so terrified the establishment…Thankfully, Berry has a wonderful, detailed context essay at the end of the book which helped. But still, I want more!

There are great novels about US history, from Jill Lepore and Jane Kamensky’s Blindspot to MT Anderson’s Octavian Nothing. It might also appear strange that the two books that are set in my professional field – the eighteenth and early nineteenth century Anglo Atlantic – appear only in these final sentences. While writing historical fantasy, my stepmother’s Blythewood series focuses on social issues in the Progressive Era and used the historical consulting skills of fellow TUSH contributor Barry Goldberg. I’ve even written a historical companion essay for the first book in the series and it was a wonderful teaching tool. So it’s likely a product of my own ongoing efforts to keep my fiction and non-fiction brains separate that I do not often read novels in my field, despite the inspiration I find in every archive. Maybe it’s a product of my research into intellectual property, that the dichotomies we make between art and science, fiction and fact, can be porous, so I try to be conscious of it.

It should go without saying that just as how every archaeologist is not Indiana Jones, there is a difference between writing about the past from a fictional versus strictly factual lens and students need to actively understand this. The “Hamilton” musical is a great example of this: it is fascinating art that is historically informed and can stimulate a conversation in the classroom about what the music does and does not address or cover. In that vein, does anyone have suggestions or experiences using current historical fiction novels in their classes? What books did you use? What types of assignments have you given? Berry’s narrative introduced me, in a compassionate and captivating way, to an element of history that I did not know much about and in doing so, hooked me in to finding out more. I’d like to try something similar with my student, ideally, by integrating fictional reading assignments like The Passion of Dolssa into my syllabus. This might spark a conversation about the boundaries between fact and fiction, and how one can inform or complicate the other.

[i] Many thanks to the wonderful Kendra Levin of Penguin Random House for the advanced copy. Kendra is also the editor the Blythewood series.

One thought on “More Historical Fiction, Please!

  1. Love this. And I apparently have a lot of reading to do! I’m teaching a single-credit honors reading course next fall all about Nat Turner’s rebellion. The students will evaluate Patrick Breen’s new monograph, but also read William Styron’s Pulitzer-winning novel and screen the new _Birth of a Nation_ film. You an expect some posts on this experience in the fall.

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