Real history

Robespierre famously announced in 1792 that, “History is fiction”. If he’d known then how many times he was to appear as a character in later historical novels, he might have said rather more on the matter.
How very post-modern of him. I wonder what he would have made of Jeanette Winterson’s imagined history, The Passion, where lines from TS Eliot pop up unannounced in Napoleonic Venice, where religion and romantic passion are both “somewhere between sex and fear”, and where the beating heart of the beloved is always elsewhere – literally. Napoleon makes a guest appearance, the same character familiar to readers of Tolstoy (or more recently Gallo) and yet at once more heartless – in a story about passion, the Emperor’s only great love is chicken. History as passion.
Tolstoy’s Napoleon is the classic portrayal – he may or may not be a genius, he is lonely and certainly vain, he can lead his Army into hell and deserts them in the ice. Napoleon is a man who stalks the deserted corridors of the Kremlin.
History as gilt-framed portrait.
Tolstoy doesn’t care about Napoleon (although he does care about Kutuzov). He cares instead about his families, his earthy weeping soul-filled Russians. They are the heart of his history – the rest is a wind that buffets, an inexplicable movement of armies and time (war and peace). But that’s another story altogether.
Max Gallo’s Napoleon (I’ve only read the first two volumes so far) is an altogether different person: fanatically focused, almost hollow, almost mad, almost explicable – but not quite.
History as the story, once again, of great men. Not the Great Men of Victorian history-making: the empire builders, the stalwarts of Rorke’s Drift, the arrow in the eye, the honour roll of endless generations of Cecils or Norfolks. It is the history of great men, retold, from an imagined interior.
We know what the great man Bonaparte wrote, said in public, wore – even how he behaved. Except that he also lied, fantasised, exaggerated, and was famously inconsistent. Historians can argue details about his well-documented life, and yet here is a character real and imagined who is also unknowable. You can join the dots any way you like – and any portrait will still be a likeness. “What is history,” he once asked, “but a fable agreed upon?”
If only the young Napoleon had been more involved in the Revolution and Terror, he might have figured in Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety. He might for once have been a real character, as fully formed as her Danton and Desmoulins, and chilling Robespierre, whose “history is fiction” she quotes, and plays with, throughout a novel that is and isn’t history, that is written in past and present tense, that realises the lives of real people perhaps more perfectly than any other.
AS Byatt writes in On Histories and Stories that the experimental third-person narratives by Mantel (and Pat Barker in the Regeneration Trilogy) “can creep closer to the feelings and the inner life of the characters – as well as providing a Greek chorus – than any first person mimicry” (the historical narration she calls “ventriloquism”). Byatt should know – she’s a dab hand at it herself. Barker and Mantel, she says, “tell us what we don’t know… they imagine it on the grand scale – and we are richer as readers.”

In children’s historical fiction, the grand scale of history, of great movements or times of turmoil, provides the opportunity for young protagonists to face danger or launch quests or solve history’s puzzles. They are cast out into history, and history allows them to operate outside their normal lives or fears (and those of the reader). They can be caught up in history, as innocent bystanders; they can be involved in history, winning battles or saving lives; they can observe and mature and celebrate history. History as adventure – history as a familiar pattern.
Great men (and sometimes great women) are always popping up to lend a hand, or wave a flag, like Sean Connery suddenly appearing as Richard the Lion Heart in Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves. I quite like that. It’s a Victorian tradition that has never gone out of fashion – the Children of the New Forest grow up just in time to ride into London with the restored King.
That’s history as finale, as reward to the young reader for sharing so many dangers. The historic moment, the celebration of victory – even in fantasy as history, magic as history – brings a tear to my eye every time. Luke Skywalker stands in front of all those Ewoks wearing his medal, in exactly the same way as Peter, Susan, Lucy and Edmund sit on their thrones in Narnia, the hobbits in Lord of the Rings, Harry returned safely to Hogwarts – it’s Arthurian, and has a history and tradition of its own.
So history may be swirled around in fantasy or magic, or random, or circular, or parallel. You can live it or watch it or imagine it or jump through time into other histories. History as the unexpected.
Robespierre’s complete sentence, made as always in the spirit of history-building, if not fiction writing, was: “Our revolution has made me feel the full force of the axiom that history is fiction and I am convinced that chance and intrigue have produced more heroes than genius and virtue.”
History as intrigue.

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