Writing Literature, Inventing History

liberty leading the people
"Liberty Leading the People" by Eugène Delacroix) Literature brings history to life much in the way that art does.

“I read it [history] a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all — it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention; and invention is what delights me in other books.”

Here Catherine Morland, protagonist of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and a young woman whose characterization is structured around her love for popular novels, hits—perhaps for the only time in the entirety of the book—the nail on the head with her assessment of the relationship between history and literature.

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Catherine Morland, like the rest of us, is just trying to understand what’s going on.

It is easy for many of us, Catherine Morland and myself included, to get lost in the fiction of a story, to lose oneself in the invention, to curl up between the lines and stay there without much regard for time or reality. It is easy, too, as Catherine Morland explains, to consider history and literature separately without any meaningful connections between them. History, facts and real life comprise a solid, clear path, while fiction, imagination and invention run parallel and separate from the comings-and-goings of everyday experience.

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For those of us who study literature, however, or even those of us who have ever loved a book or appreciated a story, know that it is because of history—not in spite of it—that we attach ourselves so intrinsically to fiction. It is the relationship between history and literature that makes stories interesting, makes us read great human epics and paperback romances alike. In short, not only do history and literature inform each other (any academic could tell you that), they create each other.

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Perhaps this concept is expressed, if not best, then at least clearly, in the opening lines of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, which I have truncated here because of Dickensian verbosity:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity […] we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”

liberty leading the people
“Liberty Leading the People” by Eugène Delacroix
Literature brings history to life much in the way that art does.

For all of his repetitiveness, Dickens, from the outset of the novel, frames his tale, his fiction nestled in the history of the French Revolution, within the context of what was and what is: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. For Dickens, the past is a time in flux, perhaps because it is less tangible than the physicality of the present day. Further, he suggests to the reader with these lines that the essence of the narrative exists within the interpretation of history, somewhere between the “best of times” and the “worst of times”.

While history informs what we as a society write about, the issues at hand in the stories that grace the shelves of our bookstores and libraries, literature creeps into the cracks of history, and, as Catherine Morland so aptly states, invents. These inventions of literature fundamentally change how we think about history. Literature is a space of subjectivity, and subjectivity decides the attitude of each moment of time. Through the interpretation of history within literature, history becomes just as subjective and translucent as the most complicated and transgressive of literary works.

History, therefore, is not simply “the quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences” but also, and perhaps more importantly, the narrative of what happens in between. It is where we as readers living then or living now fill in the gaps with our subjective angle, the invention of our minds and our lives. If history in its most objective form–dates, people, treaties and chronologies–is the body of humanity’s story, then literature is its soul. Because of this difference, are they not irrevocable? Are they not different sides of the same coin? Do they not feed each other, curb each other, and make the other whole?

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History is nothing without the stories of the people who lived it and becomes even richer when modernity colors it with nostalgia, hindsight, experience and our identities as individuals and as a society. Like literature, history’s composition is deserving of poetical analysis. Every date, every skirmish, every monarch, every plague inspires practically infinite questions and contains limitless nuances. There are myriad reasons, for instance, that the French Revolution is at once a story of liberty and a tale of terror. History is a body of stories both literary and personal.

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As for Catherine Morland, who learns the difference between fiction and reality the hard way, she most of all learns that while there is a difference between the lurid stories she reads so voraciously and the simple English life she lives, the story of that life can be just as compelling, if not more legitimate, than the fiction she was so entranced by. Perhaps as when history often forgets the nuances of smaller narratives within the passage of time, literature too sometimes forgets that stories do not belong solely to words and paper, but are acted out every day by real people trying to get on with the dramatis personae they’ve been dealt.

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