I spend far too long these days worrying about intellectual defences of historical fiction But, apparently, I'm right to do so. What exactly historical fiction is, and whether or not it is a worthwhile genre, troubles better brains than mine. The latest round in this continuing battle has been set off by a blogger writing in the Daily Telegraph. I'm not linking to him because, frankly, his writing is sloppy, his arguments are lazy, and he has no credentials as a critic. So why should I give him the publicity? But it has led to a flurry of historical authors trying to explain why historical novels can be good for you.
My contribution to this has been to read a 1961 pamphlet produced for the Historical Association. (No, I'd never heard of it either.) In it, Helen Cam concludes:
"The function then, of the historical novel is to awaken the incurious, especially the young, to interest in the past, widening horizons of all and enticing a minority to serious study. For such it can arouse the critical faculty and stimulate investigation for the verification or disapprove of unfamiliar facts, leading to first-hand acquaintance with original sources. It can enlarge the sympathies by compelling the reader to see abstract generalizations, whether political, social or economic, in terms of the human individual. The historical novelist has resources ... from which the scientific historian is debarred. He [sic] may fill in the lamentable hiatuses with his own inventions."