Over on Twitter people are reviving the old Academic Historians vs Historical Novelists debate. I’d been vaguely thinking about writing something about this and had just decided not to when this discussion got me thinking about it again.
I’m not going to get into the whole argument about whether academic historians are stuffy or whether historical novelists dumb down their subject matter. There are obviously academic historians who can completely kill the subject and historical novelists who aren’t safe outside of the 21st century, but many academic historians write fascinating and lively accounts of their periods and many historical novelists are almost obsessive in their grasp of the detail of what they’re writing about. In the former category, I can give Jacqueline Reiter as an example. She’s engaging and her biography of Lord Chatham reads like a novel. I’m waiting desperately for her biography of Popham, which is bound to be a brilliant piece of historical research but which people who know her can reasonably expect will also be hilarious.
There are loads of historical novelists whose understanding of their periods is quite astonishing but the one I’ll pick out is Lynn Bryant. Her accounts of Napoleonic battles are spectacularly well researched and she can give many military historians a run for their money.
If many professional historians are great writers and many novelists really know their history, then what is it that distinguishes them?
I have I clear interest in this. Occasionally, it is suggested that I should set myself up as an “expert” in Napoleonic history – especially some specifics like the Battle of Waterloo. The Daily Mirror actually quoted me as a “historian” in a feature about James Brooke from my book, The White Rajah. (That’s me highlighted at the bottom right.)
I’m very reluctant to claim to be a historian, having no qualifications beyond O-level (yes, I pre-date GCSEs) and knowing a few ‘real’ historians who are far better informed about history than I am. My main reason for not wanting to be thought of as a historian, though, is that ‘real’ history is hard.
I do know quite a lot about Waterloo and the history of the period so I did wonder if I could publish some of my notes and blog posts as a simple historical introduction. The book I had in mind started with a quick portrait of the two main protagonists: Napoleon and Wellington. This being an introduction for the casual reader, I could hardly not mention the whole business of Napoleon’s height. (Spoiler alert: he wasn’t short.) I remembered reading that the Emperor of Austria used to ensure that when Napoleon visited he was always surrounded by the Emperor’s own guards – men selected as being particularly tall. It’s a nice story and a good example of the way in which Allied propaganda sought to literally diminish Napoleon.
I remember reading it and I’m pretty sure it’s true. I’d certainly be confident in making a reference to it in a novel set in the period. But if I’m writing nonfiction, I need to put in references. And could I find any actual evidence to support my claim? No, I couldn’t. Even though I was pretty sure I could remember which book I’d read it in. Rather than let it go, I took to Twitter, where I know quite a few Napoleonic historians and several tried to help. They even asked their friends. It is, after all, a really good story and I’m probably not alone in wanting to pin it down. In the end, several historians turned their mind to this and the result was – absolutely nothing.
This was practically the first thing that I wanted to check in the whole book and it made me realise that it was going to be a major undertaking, even though I already knew, with 99% certainty, most of the things I was writing about. Like I say, real history is hard – far too hard for me. Real historians find it hard too. It’s just that they’re made of sterner stuff than me. Jacqueline Reiter, who I mentioned above, complains that she has just produced over 18 pages of bibliography for her next Popham book. That’s going to be a lot of references.
Sadly, it looks as if my nonfiction account of the Waterloo campaign will never see the light of day. I’m happy to give talks on it if anybody wants them. The picture at the top of the page shows me and Lynn Bryant (the Lynn Bryant who writes brilliant military history) talking about historical fiction in the pre-covid days when things like this happened. (If you want me to talk at one of your events, you can find out more about author talks HERE).
When it comes to writing history, though, I will spend the time and energy I save on proper note-keeping to write stories that are generally true to the historical facts but which lack references. But I’m very glad that there are professional historians around, so that I (and all the other historical novelists like me) can take their hard work and turn it into entertainment.