Ruth Scurr

September 1, 2006

Too often in bookshops and literary review pages, historical fiction is cordoned off from history, like a shabby room in an otherwise grand house. The underlying assumption - or prejudice - is that the producers and consumers of non-fictional history deal in facts, whereas novelists make things up.

At the Cambridge History Festival - Britain's only annual festival devoted to popular history - I was extremely pleased to see that historical fiction had a prominent place alongside presentations of new non-fiction books and events addressing wider themes or developments in popular history.

Sometimes there is not a bright line of distinction between fact and fiction: historians, after all, are in the business of telling stories.

Honest historians will always try to indicate when their sources are shaky or the status of their facts unsound. Meanwhile, scrupulous historical novelists devote hours of research to getting their details as straight as they can. There are, of course, differences between the two genres, but not an impassable divide.

During the French Revolution, it was Robespierre who reflected: "Our Revolution has made me feel the full force of the axiom that history is fiction." In 1974, the historian Norman Hampson turned this remark into an epigraph for his innovative biography of Robespierre. Then in 1992 Hilary Mantel used it in her magisterial novel of the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety . Hampson and Mantel were pioneers in bridging the perceived gap between history and fiction in French Revolutionary studies.

Browsing the booksellers' tables at the Cambridge History Festival, I was happy to see plenty of evidence that similar innovations were occurring in other periods. There was historian Alison Weir's novel Innocent Traitor about Lady Jane Grey; C. J. Sansom's third novel, Winter in Madrid , set in 1940s Spain; and Iain Gales's debut, Four Days in June , about the Battle of Waterloo.

The Cambridge History Festival is a celebration of popular history aimed at enthusiasts who welcome the chance to spend a long weekend in a university college surrounded by like-minded people. Despite living in Cambridge and teaching a course on the history of political thought, I had not previously heard of the event. It was started in 2003 by historian Derek Wilson and his wife, Ruth. The festival's impressively diverse programme attracts people of all ages. There were sixthformers already hooked on history and planning to apply to university for further study, and one had even volunteered to help at the festival as work experience. Then there were history teachers reimmersing themselves in the subject after a long school year, and retired people with time to pursue their interests and passions. It was inspiring to encounter so much goodwill and enthusiasm: we need more of it.

Recently, professional and amateur historians have become worried enough about the subject's future to launch History Matters - a campaign to raise the level of appreciation and enjoyment of history. The campaign, headed by the National Trust, English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund, aims to bring the past to the front of the nation's minds. The manifesto reads: "We believe that history matters. A society out of touch with its past cannot have confidence in its future. History defines, educates and inspires us... As custodians of our past, we will be judged by generations to come. We must value it, nurture it and pass it on."

Most people at the Cambridge History Festival were wearing black and white "History Matters - pass it on" badges. But how can the campaign appeal beyond existing history enthusiasts? I think historical fiction has a role to play here. Many who would not consider reading, still less buying, a long history book on a period or subject they were not already interested in might take a chance on a novel. Novels can pull people in and help them discover new interests by being engagingly written and centred on colourful characters and the human interests caught up in famous events.

For me, the best example is Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower , set in Germany at the end of the 18th century and based on the life of Novalis, the great Romantic poet and philosopher. I am confident that anyone would have a wonderful experience reading this book, and also learn some history.

There are, of course, lots of other examples. I'm going to start making a list as a personal contribution to the History Matters campaign and would be grateful for suggestions. Historians who are concerned about the future of the subject in our schools and culture cannot afford to be stuffy about the popular appeal of historical fiction.J Ruth Scurr is affiliated lecturer in the politics department, Cambridge University, and director of studies in social and political sciences at Gonville and Caius College.

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