Amidst all the ideas flying round Studying Literature seminar rooms this week, one particularly struck me. Which either means it’s important, or that I should learn to duck when first years are carrying copies of Wolf Hall… We talked at length about how Mantel has incorporated historical research into her novel, and deliberately written against our assumed view that Cromwell was a conniving thug, whilst Sir Thomas More was a great man making the most in a difficult time. One student make the excellent point that we were all talking as if this was a virtue in and of itself. But what if Cromwell was a genuinely awful person? Why do we immediately applaud a work of art which “humanizes” a subject and shows them in a rounded, psychologically sympathetic light? We might argue that the novel, as a form, tends to reward any writer who presents credible and sympathetic characters, but why should we as readers consider that an absolute good?
The discussion turned to the ethics of historical accuracy in fiction. Is a novel morally flawed if it deliberately misrepresents people’s actions in the past, presenting good actions as evil or vice versa? From one point of view, it is not. After all, in Thomas Paine’s aphorism, “it is the living, and not the dead, who are to be accommodated.” People in the past no longer exist, and cannot be injured by our words. If there is some value for us in misrepresenting the past – whether for entertainment, to arrange a more intellectually satisfying story, or even to teach a moral lesson – then we should take it. From this purely utilitarian perspective, the past has no value in and of itself, only in so far as it affect us in the present and future.
The other point of view was put with the inevitable Godwin test case: how would we feel about a novel which depicted Hitler as a heroic, kind and moral person? We can talk all we like about moral relativity and the fact that the past is simply a collection of textual traces from which we can make and remake contrasting narratives. But when it comes down to it, we insist that the past has some sort of moral claim on us. It seems wrong somehow to libel people who aren’t around to defend themselves, as shown by the recent furore over the Daily Mail’s article about Ed Miliband’s father. Many religious systems ground their beliefs on particular historical events, whether the revelation of Allah’s word to Muhammad, the birth of Jesus, or the history of Israel. Much secular morality also insists on the importance of representing the past accurately and fairly, as shown by the laws which some European countries have passed about what it is acceptable to say in public about the Holocaust. Historical relativism appears to go only so deep in our attitudes to the past.
So what do you think? What are the ethical and aesthetic risks of writing historical fiction? Do we have to duty to get the past as right as possible? Or is it just a free-for-all, where anything which makes a good story goes? Tell us what you reckon in the comments.