Friday 21 January 2022

In defence of ‘What If?’ by Jane Thynne


When my new novel was published this year, I became everything I had once disdained.  


As an avid amateur historian, I had always shied away from the field of Alternative History, or Counterfactual History as it’s sometimes called. The genre tends to leave a bad taste in the mouths of those who try to represent history as it was. Those novelists who slave away over every detail no matter how minute – from what shade of blue was possible in the early eighteenth century before the German pathologist Max Perls invented Prussian Blue, to how long would it take to travel by train from London to Berlin in 1933? Or how much would a cup of coffee cost in the Café Kranzler?

I know, because I am one of them.


Alternative History seems to laugh in the face of all of us who toil in archives and the obscure sections of long remaindered biographies, who comb through the ex-library-copy memoirs, letters and unpublished diaries, attempting to resurrect a detailed picture of the past. 


The idea of Alternative History especially disturbed me as a former newspaper journalist. Sceptics might question journalists’ passionate fidelity to the truth, but the whole aim of our training centres on finding out facts and standing them up.


And now I was proposing to abandon my fidelity to historical fact, my caution with chronology, my rigour over real people, in favour of what . . . just making it up?


Widowland is an Alternative History set in 1953, premised on the idea that Britain and Germany did not go to war but formed an Alliance in 1940 under the rule of Edward VIII and Queen Wallis. Britain has become a Protectorate of Germany and the Protector, Alfred Rosenberg, has instituted an oppressive caste system for women based on the classification of women by raclal and hereditary status, as instituted in Nazi Germany.


Yet even as I wrote it, I realised that all my deep-rooted objections were wrong.

Of all the sectors of the Alternative History genre, the Nazi era is one that keeps on giving. Stand out contributions to Nazi Alternative History include Robert Harris’s Fatherland, C.J.Sansom’s Dominion, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, and Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. This is undoubtedly because the Nazi era spawns so many questions and its legacy in post war consciousness is immense. The period offers numerous ‘what ifs’ to tempt us, starting with What If Adolf Hitler had been accepted into the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts and went on to become a moderately successful watercolour painter? Later, What If Germany had succeeded in conquering Russia? And What If D Day had failed? 


But does it disrespect the lives of those who lived or died in the war, to imagine what might have been had none of it happened? 

I hope not. Indeed, I think speculating on the great ‘What Ifs’ of history are part of being a historian. The posing of counterfactual questions has always been a legitimate factor in historical thought – Livy, for example, wondered how the Roman empires would have fared against Alexander the Great. Blaise Pascal famously mused how if Cleopatra’s nose had been shorter ‘the whole face of the world would have been changed’. 



The ‘What if’ that has always tantalised me, and which I attempted to tackle in Widowland, is the possibility that Edward VIII might have remained on the throne, rather than abdicating in 1936. This was highly likely, and the consequences for the future of Britain would have been momentous. Edward was friendly with senior Nazis – especially Goering – and had held discussions with Hitler at the Berghof in 1937. Documents recovered only recently show the former king urging the Nazis to bomb England more heavily in the cause of peace. For Edward to remain on the throne, it may be that Wallis Simpson would have had to refuse him, or it might be, with the support of the press and an adoring public, he might could have tried to ride out the scandal of marriage to a divorcée. But certainly, he would have needed to come to an accommodation with Germany that would drastically alter the British way of life 


Asking ‘What If’ encourages us to examine our belief in the contingency of events and the agency of individuals. Exploring what didn’t happen is a way of asking about what did, and how closely that path was avoided. Generally, history is not simplistic, and we don’t live in a Sliding Doors world where everything hinges on a single action or plan. Historical events are made up of numerous variables. Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination might have been the spark that set Europe aflame and combusted the First World War, but it was not the only precondition; larger historical forces, both economic and cultural were also in train in 1914. 


We are all lucky to be writing at a time of mounting popular enthusiasm for both history and Historical Fiction. That in itself encourages people to think about the way we remember history, and how history is rewritten to suit contemporary narratives. 


Although I’m a convert to Alternative History, I do have a couple of caveats. I won’t feature people who are still living, and I tend only to fictionalise those people whose lives were fairly public and much observed. 


Meanwhile, I face the same quandary as most novelists - not so much What If as What Next?

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