“History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.”
— Napoleon Bonaparte
If you’ve been following Western media this year, there’s a lot of nostalgia being batted around. There are calls to ‘make America great again’ with corresponding allusions to a heavily rose-tinted past; in England, similar appeal to nostalgia for an imagined pre-immigrant golden era of ‘Merry England’ was one of the factors that drove voters for support Brexit. Add to that mix all the remakes and throwbacks and nostalgia-bait (yes, I enjoyed Stranger Things, I’m not a monster, but it’s still nostalgia pandering).
This rose-tinted version of history as a simpler, more morally upright time, or a time when humans were more ‘in touch with Nature’, or a time of excitement and adventure, pops up regularly in historical fiction. This in and of itself isn’t exclusive to any particular time or culture, and has been going on pretty much since the beginning of recorded human history (see Biblical cases of Memberberry infestations). There isn’t anything inherently wrong with nostalgia, it has a way of creeping into historical fiction unexamined and causing problems.
The most straightforward issue, which will be the subject of this post, is that nostalgia is the enemy of fact checking. History is, as an old and often misattributed saying goes, written by the victors. More precisely, it’s written by people who have time, resources, and education to write it down, and some motivation to document it. This does not constitute a random sample of the human population, and thus usually trucks along the conscious or unconscious biases of whichever group is predominantly doing the recording or studying of events. The upshot is that historical narratives tend to disproportionately depict the lives of the wealthy, those privileged by gender or colonialism, and those who speak the culture’s dominant language. These accounts dominate, and often reenforce the current status quo, so they become easily seep into our collective consciousness as representing the totality of ‘how things were back then’.
When you’re reading history by the relatively privileged of their time, it’s going to be biased towards the positive. Whilst this isn’t inherently negative, it can paint a misleading picture of the reality of whatever period of history you’re researching. The best approach is first to look for a variety of sources, preferably primary sources, so that you are catching as much of a representative sample of peoples’ experiences in that time period as possible. Next, consider every source to be an unreliable narrator– everyone has biases, and your primary and secondary history sources are no different. Compare accounts of historical events and customs from different perspectives so you can look for common facts or suss out the biases of each source.
There is, however, a lurking question: why bother? I’ve regularly heard the opinion that the past is the past, and therefore fair game when it comes to revising and romanticizing to make it more palatable to modern readers. But nothing exists in a vacuum, and depictions of history are no exception. Our perception of the past– the great discoveries, the great injustices, the great moments of social progress– shapes our understanding of life in the present. As I’ve written before, stories are profoundly effective at communicating information, and as such have a measurable effect on public perception.
This is not to say that escapist historical fiction or historical fantasy is not possible. There’s certainly lots of fun to be had writing about the past. Carefully chosen settings, that is, bubbles where problems of the time were not a major force in everyday life, do exist. However, I would also argue that the author has a responsibility to work with care and not misrepresent or spackle over troubling parts of the past for the sake of nostalgia or avoiding their own discomfort. The past is messy, and it also informs our everyday doings too deeply for us to pretend it’s irrelevant. Enjoy your journey to another time, and also embrace your responsibility to present the good and the bad accurately to the world.