And yet they also say that the first person you meet when you travel abroad is yourself. We read and write historical fiction to experience our own time and our own selves from another angle and sometimes a more revealing one: to find out the constants in human nature, as well as the variables. When Rose Tremain wanted to write about Eighties Britain, she wrote Restoration, about the court of Charles II. When I wanted to conjure up the last, pre-digital generation of photojournalists, for The Mathematics of Love, I shared their story with the first stirrings of photography 150 years earlier. And it's because of this dual nature of historical fiction - the way that, like history-writing, it embodies Now, as well as Then - that I want to suggest that the ultimate kind of novel is the historical novel.
As philosopher and novelist Richard Kearney puts it, in all storytelling the storyteller works with bits and pieces of experience from their world: things the listeners know, and things they know about from others past and present. The storyteller spins the bits and pieces into a tale which makes sense of them and shows the world in a new and clearer light.
Non-fiction-storytelling confines itself to giving the reader a logical experience of the probable: the best description possible of how things actually are or were. Fiction-storytelling offers an imaginative, affective experience of how things might be, or may have been. Our minds' neural pathways can't tell the difference between an imagined experience and a real one, and so fiction also tells its tales "as if" they really happened, to give us the experience of other lives and worlds. You could say that fiction offers us the memories we don't have ourselves. And in her essay about her novel Alias Grace, which is based on a true story, Margaret Atwood says this:
Fiction is where individual memory and experience and collective memory and experience come together, in greater or lesser proportions. The closer the fiction is to us readers, the more we recognise and claim it as individual rather than collective. [Canadian novelist] Margaret Laurence used to say that her English readers thought [her novel] The Stone Angel was about old age, the Americans thought it was about some old woman they knew, and the Canadians thought it was about their grandmothers.I think Atwood has put her finger on two important things. First, her "memory and experience" is clearly the same as Kearney's "bits and pieces": fiction is where particular stories can be shaped and related to general ones. Second, she's saying that being distanced from the world of the story helps us to see the general (old age) underlying the particular (grandmother's) life. She's talking about geographical distance, but of course temporal distance comes to the same thing.
Some literary critics hate historical fiction, because it doesn't deal "authentically" with the experience of Now, but by definition can't be authentic to Then, either. No writer now setting a novel in the mid-eighteenth century is seriously trying to convince the reader that it's a long-lost manuscript by Henry Fielding, whatever games she or he plays with us along the way.
And some historians hate historical fiction because History, as a discipline, depends utterly on being honest about the distinctions between a provable fact, a trustworthy record, a reasonable assumption, and pure speculation. But to tell a story "as if" it all happened, novelists must waltz to and fro between probable and possible, across the historians' all-important boundaries, without the reader ever feeling the bump.
But to me what these historians and critics hate are some of the greatest strengths of the historical novel: the kind of strength which comes from growing up on disputed ground. When you write about history in any way you have to work under the tension built into a story which is about "not only Then, but also Now". And when you write a novel you have to work under the tension built into "not only Is, but also Might Have Been". So, if Atwood is right about what fiction is, then historical fiction has to hold together all four poles. It has to stretch backwards as well as sideways, reach across time as well as space, evoking particular experience to bring us collective memories beyond our individual reach. A historical novel, in other words, is doing explicitly what other kinds of novel only do implicitly. The ultimate novel, you could say, is the historical novel.