chapter  2
‘Who Would Want to Believe That, Except in the Service of the Bleakest Realism?’ Historical Fiction and Ethics
Pages 15

There has been some controversy recently about the relationship between fi ction and history, with noted public historians claiming that fi ction about the past ‘contaminates historical understanding’ (Sweeney 2010: 43). Similarly, James Forrester has recently argued that the ‘path a historical novelist has to tread is clearly beset by dangers,’ pointing out that fi lling in the historical gaps is invention: ‘Such invention could be called educated guesswork, but it is still guesswork, it is still lying’ (Forrester 2010). The greater profi le the genre attains, the more it is bedevilled by discussions of ethics, authenticity, realism and truth. In many ways, the form itself provokes and holds within itself this kind of debate; from Scott onwards, historical novelists have been self-conscious about their projects and the particular historiographical and fi ctional rules they play by. Historical novels happily point out that they are lying to the reader, disavowing their own versions of reality while cleaving to conventions of authenticity. Jonathan Nield, writing about the form in 1902, made some acute observations:

But, goes on the objector, in the case of a Historical Romance we allow ourselves to be hoodwinked, for, under the infl uence of a pseudohistoric security, we seem to watch the real sequence of events in so far as these affect the characters in whom we are interested. (1902: n.p.)

This chapter considers Nield’s idea of being ‘hoodwinked,’ of being conned and lied to but, crucially, with the audience somehow being participants who willingly allow this to be the case. In particular, the chapter considers how historical novels lie to their readers and how they reconcile that with the intention to represent some kind of truth or authenticity of experience.