The Uses of History

A little while ago I watched the movie In Bruges. It’s a very black comedy about two Irish hit men who, while awaiting instructions from their boss in London, are cooling their heels in Belgium. The older man wanders happily around the ancient city of Bruges with a guidebook. He is fascinated by everything – the cobbled streets, the architecture, and the stories behind the old buildings. His younger companion is bored almost literally to tears. He can’t even be bothered to look around him. When the older man asks him why he isn’t interested in the history of the place, he replies, ‘It’s all just a load of stuff that’s already happened.’

A lot of children would probably agree with him. They are more interested in the here and now, or in the world of fantasy, and see the ‘olden days’ as either boring or incomprehensible. Why should they care about things that happened 50 years ago or 150 years ago?

As a separate issue, young children find it difficult, intellectually, to understand the concept of past time. When my daughter was quite small, she asked my mother very seriously if she had lived in a cave. Even the comparatively simple concept of ‘a hundred years’ is impossible for most little children to imagine. There’s nothing for them to connect with – nothing that relates to them.

My subject this afternoon is ‘The Uses of History’. It occurs to me that this can be interpreted in two ways. Firstly, and most obviously, it asks how history is useful and relevant to us today. Secondly, it asks ‘How can we make use of history?’ and, given the nature of this conference, I’m interpreting that to mean ‘How can we, as writers of children’s books, use the past to create stories that children will enjoy, and that will give them a sense of what history is all about?’

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Firstly, then, how is ‘a load of stuff that’s already happened’ useful to us? This is the sort of question that would take a proper historian many thousands of words to answer, so I’ll be very brief.

Somewhere in our history are the beginnings of all our stories. The oral storytelling tradition common to nearly all cultures is largely about tales of ancient battles and quests and heroic deeds. These stories were told to entertain, but also to inspire. They were designed to bring people together with an understanding of their common history, and to incite patriotism, and to encourage acts of bravery. To a large extent a community was defined by its past.

We still use history to define who we are. As an obvious example, the Gallipoli campaign has become a vital part of Australia’s national identity, reinforced every Anzac day as stories of our soldier heroes are told and retold. By looking back at where we came from, understanding the events and forces that shaped us as social beings, we believe that we can know ourselves better. History can make us retrospectively proud of our achievements, or aware of things that were done badly. We are supposed to learn from history, although sadly this isn’t very often the case.

In its broadest sense, and leaving aside the many ways in which it can be interpreted, history is a record of what has happened. Obviously it’s a highly selective record, and one that can be interpreted in many different ways. It’s necessarily coloured by the viewpoint of those who did the recording, because they were the people with the will, the education and the resources to do this. Recorded history tells us a lot about the rulers, the movers and shakers. We know much less about the nameless millions who fought the wars and took part in the revolutions, who were buried in plague pits or forced to emigrate to other countries, and the further back we go, the less we know.

Something history doesn’t always show us is that the most significant events in our past are also human dramas, made up of many thousands of individual stories. It’s these stories that are woven into the fabric of our existence.

I’m happy to confess that I am a history tragic. I love television series like Time Team, in which archaeologists dig up different parts of the UK to discover shadowy evidence of Bronze Age round houses or the remains of Roman villas. In these programs the best bits are always those where something specifically human-related is discovered: a bent pin that once fastened a Roman toga, or a corroded hunting knife. Instantly there is a direct and tangible connection with a person who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago. It’s impossible not to be amazed and moved by that.

Apart from dinosaurs, Ancient Egypt is probably the main area of world history that captures children’s imaginations. The bizarre otherness of that civilisation is its biggest attraction – the pyramids, the mummies, the strange animal-headed gods. For sheer fascination, it rivals any created world of fantasy. Even more fascinating, there is tangible evidence that the ancient Egyptians were people just like us. The paintings and artefacts discovered in their tombs show that they played games, and danced, and feasted, and played musical instruments, and treasured their pet animals. Best of all, you can still see their actual bodies – dried and shrunken, but still very recognisably human – and experience that powerful, almost mystical, sense of connection.

History, as our former Prime Minister Julia Gillard might have said, is us.

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Writing history, on the other hand, is rather neatly described by the historian Simon Schama as ‘the business of representing something that’s no longer there.’ So I suppose that writing historical fiction can be seen as the business of making up stories about something that’s no longer there.

Historical fiction is by definition a contradiction in terms. It is the product of both factual research and the writer’s imagination. It doesn’t record the past, but re-creates it. For a writer, this is a serious responsibility.

Novels like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which tells the story of Thomas Cromwell, present history in the form of fiction. Wolf Hall cleverly and entirely convincingly imagines the lives of real people and real events. At the other extreme we have W.G. Sebold’s Austerlitz. This astonishing novel is an historical fiction that is presented as reality, even to the insertion in the text of photographs, those ultimate representation of truth. Instead of using history to create fiction, the author has used fiction, in effect, to create history. Both Wolf Hall and Austerlitz are examples of historical fiction, re-creating the past in very different ways.

My own first effort at writing historical fiction was a young adult novel, A Girl Like Me. The story is based on a real event, the murder of 13-year old Bertha Schippan at Towitta in 1902. My research for this book was relatively easy because newspaper journalists recorded every detail of the case for public consumption, right down to the coroner’s report and transcripts of the inquest and the later trial of Bertha’s sister Mary. There was just one major thing missing, and that was the character of Bertha herself. I could find in the press only the briefest descriptions of her, mainly comments from neighbours saying, in effect, what a lovely child she was. Then, as I was reading through the details of the inquest, I heard her voice. Under cross-examination her sister’s fiancé reported that he’d asked Bertha if she’d like to go to Adelaide with him, and her reply was, ‘My word, wouldn’t I like to, if only my parents would allow me.’ I remember the shiver of emotion I felt when I first read those words. It may not have been precisely what she’d said, as it was reported second-hand, but it revealed a lot about her character and circumstances. Once I’d heard Bertha, it was much easier to create her; and as I wrote about her I started to believe in that creation. Of course I’ll never know whether the character I created is even remotely like the real Bertha, and perhaps it doesn’t really matter. Even when it’s more fiction than history, historical fiction has its own validity – Austerlitz is proof of that. And how much of the history we know is really true anyway? The truth is something we can never know.

It’s likely that most of us don’t remember a great deal of the history we were taught at school. But we do remember the personal bits, like Simpson and his donkey, and Captain Oates choosing to die in an Antarctic blizzard. Some of our cherished historical stories may not be entirely factual, but they have achieved the significance that always attaches to legend. They provide points of reference that help us to engage imaginatively with the past. And this, I think, is the essential key to making history interesting to children.

Appropriately, I discovered my own love of history not by reading school textbooks, but by reading fiction.

I was about nine when I first read Little Women, a book I’d always avoided because it didn’t have any illustrations. One day I picked it up, read the first page, and kept on reading.

I had hardly any knowledge of America, and no context in which to place this story. I’m not even sure that I consciously thought of it as being set in an earlier age. It didn’t matter that I’d never heard of Pilgrim’s Progress, and had no idea what a tarlatan dress might look like, although I did have some acquaintance with money being rather tight. The important thing was that I didn’t just read about Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy: I entered their world. I was completely engaged, both imaginatively and emotionally. Later, when I learned about the American Civil War, everything fell into place. I had a context, and a reason for wanting to know more.

Purpose-built historical fiction for children, as opposed to fiction written at a particular period in history, has a long pedigree. It embraces straight narrative, diary format and time-slip novels, and includes, among my own favourites, such early classics as Rosemary Sutcliff’s books about Roman Britain and Kevin Crossley-Holland’s Arthur trilogy about the Crusades. In Australia many of our best children’s writers have produced wonderful historical fiction – among them Gary Crew, Jackie French, Anthony Hill, Carole Wilkinson, Alison Lloyd and Cathy Jinks. They have taken us everywhere from ancient Egypt and ancient China to the first world war, and places in between.

I have a special fondness for Cathy Jinks’s Pagan books. The first of them, Pagan’s Crusade, was a revelation to me because it was simultaneously authentically historical and unmistakably contemporary. To enter the world of Pagan was to be instantly bombarded by the sounds and colours and smells of twelfth-century Jerusalem. It was a heady brew that gave the reader an astonishing sense of ‘being there’. But the genius of the book was the character of Pagan himself, a quick-witted boy with a sensibility that was both of his time and street-smart modern. Pagan was the conduit to a story packed with historical facts, but as easy to read as a comic. The narrative was largely in dialogue, and this gave it an extraordinary sharpness and immediacy. And the first-person voice (which often switched to second person, making it seem even more personal and confiding) spoke directly to the reader.

The Pagan books sparkle with wit and humour, and this too is a large part of their success. Comedy will make almost any subject more accessible to children. It’s used to good effect in the popular Horrible Histories, which make history fun by concentrating on the yucky bits, promising ‘gore, nasty nuggets, and foul facts aplenty’. Horrible Histories has now become a franchise, and by 2011 there were 60 titles which had sold more than 25 million copies in 30 languages. A quick Google of the website told me, as the Friday Fact, that when a traitor was executed in London, he was beheaded and cut into quarters. A text box urged me to Read More. Interestingly, the first two Horrible Histories titles, published in 1993, were The Awesome Egyptians and The Terrible Tudors.

Clearly, if children are to engage with history via historical fiction, it’s important to use an approach that will hook them from the start. Essentially, make it personal, and make it interesting. Another essential is to provide authenticity, or at least the unwavering impression of it. For the writer, this means not only doing painstaking research into the period in question, but also finding a way into how it felt to live at that time. If we are reading a story about a boy who is a chimney sweep, we need to know exactly what that was like. We should feel the terror and suffocation of being stuck in a cramped, twisted chimney; should feel and smell and taste the soot, should be terrified by the thought of the brutal master waiting below. What was it like to live through the Great Plague, or to be transported to Australia as a child convict, or to be a slave working on a cotton plantation? Every feeling, every emotion should ring true.

There’s quite a bit of mediocre historical fiction around. Characters dress in appropriate costumes and speak in an exaggerated or literary way intended to represent the speech of the time, but to all intents and purposes they are modern characters plonked down in an historical setting. Recently I read a novel set in Tudor England. The dialogue, especially, was dispiritingly modern. The moment one of the characters told another one to ‘fuck off’, I knew I was in the wrong book. The author would have done well to read Wolf Hall, and take notes.

Penguin’s Our Australian Girl series aims to bring history to life by making it personal. The aim is clearly incorporated in the by-line, A girl like me in a time gone by. The series is targeted at precisely those readers mentioned earlier: younger children, and particularly girls, who might otherwise have little reason to enjoy or understand history. To bring it all back to my own childhood experience, it aims to provide these girls with their own Little Women moment.

The Our Australian Girl stories feature appealing, resourceful heroines who will strike a chord with readers. Historical accuracy is clearly important, but a strong storyline, and the reader’s emotional engagement with the central character, are even more so. It’s these elements that open the door to everything else.

The stories are set at particular periods in our history, but they are nothing like a history lesson. It’s fair to say that they are more fiction than history. History is the essential framework to the action, but, as in Little Women, it isn’t obvious or intrusive. It’s just there to be absorbed as part of the story. It is accurate, though, and it’s always within the bounds of possibility. No Australian Girl is likely to be part of Ned Kelly’s gang, although she might conceivably come across him in the course of her adventures. Nor will she sing on stage with Melba, although she could be lucky enough to have tickets to a concert.

What the stories say is not ‘this is what happened’ but ‘this is how it felt to live through what happened’. And on a very personal level they say to the reader, ‘If you had lived then, this is what your life might have been like.’ The character in the book you are reading is, or was, a girl like you.

My own fictional Australian Girl, Nellie O’Neill, is a workhouse orphan, a survivor of the Irish potato famine. One of several hundred Irish girls sent out to Australia to work in domestic service, she arrives in Adelaide in 1849. Writing her story was a bit like painting a picture, first sketching the outline, and then filling in the detail. I tried to think my way into Nellie’s head. How would it feel to be orphaned, illiterate, shipped to the other side of the world, and a kitchen maid at the age of twelve? I imagined the streets of Adelaide in 1849, using as my main source the paintings of S.T. Gill, which just happened to be exactly contemporary with the time in which Nellie’s story is set. I read colonial histories, old recipe books, contemporary reports and dedicated websites. As far as possible, I checked every detail for chronological correctness, from words and expressions used in dialogue, to what Nellie did and where she went. I couldn’t have her singing a song that wasn’t written until 1884, or visiting botanical gardens yet to be established.

A particular challenge was how to convey the frequently unpalatable social attitudes of the time so that readers would be aware of them and how they affected people, and simultaneously aware that such attitudes are no longer acceptable.

In the early years of Australian settlement most people were racist, xenophobic, class-conscious snobs. When Mary Grant Bruce’s Billabong books were reissued in carefully modernised editions in the 1990s, there was considerable discussion about the way she had depicted Indigenous and Chinese people. To modern sensibilities, her attitude was patriarchal and offensive.

 We may be embarrassed by what we now see as Mary Grant Bruce’s political incorrectness, but she wrote about life as she saw it. Her books are cultural time capsules, and readers with a level of historical awareness will recognise them as such. But when the readers are young children, less able to distinguish historical truth from modern opinion, greater clarity is needed.

A feature of the Australian Girl stories is that, although they are written in the third person, the viewpoint never moves away from the main character. Filtering everything through her consciousness allows readers to identify with her and dictates their perceptions too. It enables them to see what life was like for ordinary people at the time, and also where commonly held beliefs were misguided or cruel.

In keeping with the cultural attitudes of her time, Nellie O’Neill often has to deal with bullying, ignorance and prejudice. But when she is insulted or belittled, she legitimately responds with wounded anger – and it’s intended that readers will respond with her.  Nellie knows unfairness when she sees it. In real life she would almost certainly have remained one of society’s silent victims, but it’s very satisfying to give her, in fiction, the voice she deserves.

 An important use both of history and historical fiction is that it gives readers the opportunity to think about their own lives in comparison with the period they’ve been reading about.

Our concept of childhood as a time of dependence and privilege is a relatively recent one. 150 years ago many Australian children lived in conditions that would be seen today as unimaginably basic, even horrific. Child mortality was high, disease was rife, the class system was well entrenched, and there was virtually no welfare system. But there were benefits, too. Life was simpler, and there was a greater sense of community. In the absence of government aid, people relied on and helped each other. And the people who chose to settle in Australia, often at the expense of great personal hardship, believed that they were doing something worthwhile. They were not only starting new lives; they were beginning to create what would become a new national identity. And that new national identity didn’t come just from the movers and shakers, but also from many thousands of individual lives like those described in the Our Australian Girl stories.

It’s up to historians to dissect the significance of history. But the writer of historical fiction for children can make the past come alive by giving it a personal dimension and meaning. There can be no better way to engage children with ‘a load of stuff that’s already happened’, and give them an interest that may last for a lifetime.


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