Finally it seems we are past the ‘winter of discontent”, I speak climatically not economically of course, but it’s surprising how a little sunshine can make everybody feel better. Anyway, with this warm weather there is nothing like a new book by the deckchair. Nothing too heavy, one needs to be able to concentrate on the even distribution of tan lines, but something mildly diverting.
Rachel Johnson’s Winter Games fits the bill nicely. This charming bit of social commentary combines historical fiction with chick-lit. Francie Fitzsimon is a journalist for a glossy magazine on a bit of a jolly to write a puff piece about a Bavarian spa when she happens upon a picture of her grandmother with Hitler at the 1936 Winter Games. The story follows Francie’s quest to find out about a past her grandmother never spoke of. The setting switches between contemporary Notting Hill, all overpriced cappuccinos and outfits by Boden, and Bavaria in 1936 where the shiny promise of the new Germany is already revealing its darker, ugly side. The period detail of 1930s Germany is well-researched but, most entertainingly for the reader, Rachel wears her erudition lightly and this is first and foremost a ripping tale.
Winter Games and its ilk are great examples of the power of historical fiction to both entertain and illuminate. Working here at The National Archives one quickly comes to realise both how much and how little we know about the past. We have documents dating back a thousand years. We have rolls and musters, charters and licenses, we have names and dates, court transcripts, letters and diaries. All this tells us a lot about how our ancestors lived, but we were not there and we can’t really know. One must also hold the thought that just because something is written down, it does not necessarily make it true. Chroniclers have their own agendas. Gossip is related as fact, fact as speculation.
What I love about historical fiction is the way it fills in these gaps. As the story unfolds it pads out the facts and gives a human face to great events. A novel can take you beyond dates to thoughts and feelings; those things one can never know but which make the past so much more immediate. Some criticise historical fiction as being imaginary. I would reply that the clue is in the name – fiction doesn’t set out to be true.
Hilary Mantel says “I do not write to convince, but to explore and tease out the ambiguities of various accounts. [...] One of the things historical fiction does is to rattle the cage of certainty.” A historical novel does not tell you how it was but rather how it might have been, and sometimes it presents an opportunity to explore different possible scenarios and what-ifs.
Of course that is no excuse for poor research and, as with all fields of endeavour, there are some authors who are simply not very good. They throw in glaring anachronisms or simply dress up modern-day characters in codpieces and farthingales. But the best is very good and combines a little learning with a great story and that is why I love to read it.
Rachel Johnson will discuss her latest book at The National Archives on Friday 16 August at 14:00 as part of our Writer of the Month series. The talk is free to attend, but please email email@example.com to reserve your place.