As Downton Abbey returns to our screens, it seems the British public cannot get enough of historical fiction in all its forms. From Edward Rutherford to Rome: Total War, there are endless examples of our love affair with stories from the past.
You might think this fascination is a new thing, but in fact this is anything but the case. Shakespeare set numerous plays in the Ancient world, Beowulf describes a culture several hundred years older than the text itself, we can assume that when Homer and Virgil wrote their epic poems the epochs they claim to describe were long past.
Setting fictional works in a faraway world is not such a strange concept, when you think of other top genres such as science-fiction or even spy thrillers. Reading provides a form of escapism from the dullness of everyday life: for most of us living through the French Revolution is no more or less tangible than living on the Death Star.
However our interest in the past is more than just fantasy. Another endlessly popular television series, Who do you think you are?, demonstrates that we are deeply interested in our ancestors, and indeed the ancestors of Sebastian Coe. However these are recorded historical events, not fictional narratives. We often see books or films with the hopeful subtitle ‘Based on a true story’, but when that claim can be applied to the 2004 King Arthur film it is hard to take it seriously.
On the other hand, we must question the claims of “real” history to tell the full story. In the past decades there has been a noted movement away from a history of wars to a more social history; reflecting public opinion that is just as concerned with what it was like to live through the French Revolution as it is to dissect the causes of it. Indeed this is the basis of the success of Who do you think you are?: we are presented with personal stories, not grand movements.
Unfortunately ordinary citizens do not leave behind much evidence. When we see from church records that a woman was married one week and died in childbirth the next, it is impossible not to imagine the gaps in that story. This is where historical fiction steps up to the breach.
An advocacy for those in the past is a theme that unites many historical fiction writers. A famous example of this is Beloved by Toni Morrison, which tackles the horrifying true story of escaped slave Margaret Gardner, a woman who chose to brutally kill her own infant child rather than allow her to grow up a slave. Historical record reveals little about how that horrific event came to happen: Morrison powerfully imagines what could drive a woman to such an act.
Ultimately though, our interest in historical fiction might be located even closer to home. If we imagine a comprehensive historical textbook of the near-future, it is unlikely that Oxford University will merit more than a paragraph, let alone each of us. On the other hand, its not impossible that our thirty times great grandchildren will sit down to a bodice-ripping (historical inaccuracies are a crucial genre feature…) tale of undergraduate life amongst the dreaming spires that just might bear some resemblance to the life, loves and essay crises of the everyday student. Let’s hope they try.