The English Literature Essay Competition for students of sixth-form or FE schools and colleges attracted some very strong entries. However, we decided that Ms Sabrina Siu of Headington School, Oxford, should be awarded first prize for her essay on how fiction is more ‘truthful’ than history. Sabrina’s thoughtful and elegantly-expressed essay draws on literary texts and historical events to argue that fiction explores the interstices of history, or rather, what history leaves out. Congratulations, Sabrina! We hope that your iPad will inspire you to composition and creativity in the coming year.
Here is the complete list of winners. The winning essay follows.
‘I’m not interested in things that aren’t true’ (Philip Larkin). Is fiction more ‘truthful’ than history?
Headington School, Oxon
To those who agree with Larkin and take more of an interest in history, in things that are ‘true’, that begs the question – what makes them so? Truth, as defined by Merriam-Webster, can be either ‘the state of being the case; fact’, or ‘a judgement, proposition or idea that is true or accepted as true’. When considering historical truth and validity, the latter definition seems more appropriate. Historians compile evidence – archaeological, written, oral – to recreate the historical event as closely as possible. However, the evidence tends to become distorted because each historian has a different interpretation of said event, and other times there are gaps in our knowledge of the event that transpired due to lack of evidence, until it gets to the point where we have to ask ourselves – is historical evidence an accurate depiction of human history? Conversely, it can be argued that fiction’s portrayal of mankind has a much larger basis in truth than, indeed, the evidence collated by historians ever could. To demonstrate this, I will explore the fusion of fiction and history in Homer’s Iliad, the societal truths reflected in An Inspector Calls and Pride and Prejudice, and finally, the allegories in Harry Potter pertaining to humanity’s mistakes during the 20th century.
Our main source of information regarding the Mycenaean Period and the Trojan War comes from Homer. While it is true that certain elements in the Iliad, such as the involvement of the Olympian gods, are myth instead of reality, there is extensive archaeological evidence to support the historical accuracy of at least some things pertaining to the Mycenaean age. An example of this is the detailed description Homer gives about armour, such as in Book 9 when Achilles puts on the ‘beautiful greaves, fitted with silver anklets’ and slings the ‘sword of bronze with silver scabbard’ The excavations of Heinrich Schliemann at Troy and Mycenae in the 1870s-80s prove that these were indeed important cities during the Bronze Age, thus lending credence to the events of the Iliad. Indeed, Homer’s epic was recorded in a time when the vast majority of the population was illiterate, and histories were passed down through the generations orally, and so it comes as no surprise that the resulting product is most likely a mixture of fiction and fact, a poem meant to record Mycenaean history, but also to glorify heroes and convey Greek morals to the masses. For the historical truth of such ancient civilizations, then, fiction in the form of Homer’s Iliad is perhaps a more truthful representation of the Trojan War than what scattered evidence historians have struggled to piece together.
In fact, it is interesting to note just how much of fiction is derived from real events, and we see this reflection of truth clearly in J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls. Set in 1912, just before the outbreak of World War One, Mr. Birling scoffs at the idea of there being a war at the start of the play, stating his view that ‘The Germans don’t want war. Nobody wants war’. To the 1945 audience the play was first performed to, the words would have been incredibly ironic and brought the truth of the matter home, because by that point the world had been through two world wars and destruction on a global scale, and Mr. Birling’s ignorance would have stirred up bitterness and grief for the loved ones they had lost. Mr. Birling’s firmly capitalist views are J.B. Priestley’s criticism of the unjust social hierarchy in the society he lived in, and this is reflected in Birling saying ‘we can’t let these Bernard Shaws and H.G. Wellses do all the talking’. Shaw and Wells were both socialists, and saw the need for social change even before the outbreak of World War One. Writing in 1945, Priestley uses Birling’s words to satirize the ruling elite whose refusal to share power in part led to the Great War back in 1914, and afterwards the conservative middle-classes whose inability to govern effectively led to Adolf Hitler’s dictatorial rise to power and hence, the start of the Second World War in 1939. When considering the satiric portrayal of Birling and the historical context the play is set in, An Inspector Calls provides us with arguably much more insight into class distinctions in the 20th century than historians can.
Not all fiction, however, provides insight into historical truth, and it is easy to see why Larkin was so dismissive of anything less than concrete evidence. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is a prime example of historical negligence. Although it is set during the period of the Napoleonic Wars, the novel is surprisingly bare of any mention of the war effort, revolving instead around the social lives of middle to upper-class women in Regency England, with the militia hovering in the periphery, a barely-felt presence at such a time of conflict between the two countries. Indeed, the military officers in the novel – such as Wickham – are always seen engaging in social situations, and their primary narrative function is to be objects of desire for characters like Lydia and Kitty Bennet, without any mention as to why the regiment is stationed in Meryton for so much of the story, as such undermining the historical context of the novel. However, it would be unfair to say Pride and Prejudice doesn’t provide an accurate representation of Regency England, since Austen does convey her distaste of the class prejudice inherent in society through her satiric portrayal of the characters of Darcy, Collins, and Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Darcy’s pride in his aristocratic lineage, and prejudice towards the middle-classes, is made apparent in his first proposal to Elizabeth, when he lingers on the “inferiority” of her connections, and of how they are a “degradation” to him. Lady Catherine’s snobbish disdain of the lower classes is shown when she bemoans that “the shades of Pemberley” will be “polluted” if Elizabeth does end up marrying Darcy. Through her characterization of these arrogant characters, Austen satirizes the class-consciousness that permeated Regency England, thus proving how fiction reveals the truth even in a novel so lacking in historical fact.
The same can be said for contemporary literature, most notably, in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Voldemort is the power-hungry dictator who will stop at nothing in his pursuit of power and ruthless purging of Muggleborns from the wizarding world, and through his character, Rowling allegorizes Adolf Hitler’s reign of terror in Nazi Germany during the 1930s-40s. Much like Voldemort, Hitler sought racial purification, and to accomplish this he spearheaded the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Germany by blaming their defeat in the Great War on the Jews. The Death Eaters who help Voldemort capture and torture Muggles, then, are allegories to the Nazi Party’s Gestapo, or secret police. Both groups assist their respective autocrats in what they see as the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the state, indoctrinating the public and instilling in them, as Arthur Weasley puts it, “everyone’s worse fear … the very worst”. Similarly, the Second Wizarding War of 1995-98 offers a parallel to the Second World War, which occurred as a result of Hitler’s relentless persecution of the Jews, and other countries’ concern over Hitler’s indiscriminate conquering of territories such as Czechoslovakia. In the final three novels of the series, Rowling uses the purebloods’ discrimination of Muggleborns, and the deaths of beloved characters, to draw attention to the injustice and futility of both Hitler’s anti-Semitic movement and the Second World War, proving once again how historical truth is revealed through fiction.
To conclude, fiction reveals more of the truth than history ever could, because the unreliability of historical evidence after accounting for bias, and the fact that history was not properly documented for the first few millennia of human civilisation, deeply undermine the utility of historical fact in providing a truthful narrative of mankind’s history. Furthermore, the discrepancy between two sources pertaining to the same event often leaves modern contemporaries at a loss as to which version better depicts the truth. In this sense, therefore, it is only logical for us to turn to fiction to pick out the truth of our history, a truth which Homer, Priestley, Austen and Rowling have so beautifully woven into the fabric of their works.
The Iliad – Homer (Robert Fitzgerald translation, Oxford University Press 1998)
An Inspector Calls – J.B. Priestley (Heinemann Plays, Pearson United 1993)
Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen (Penguin Classics 2003)
The Harry Potter series – J.K. Rowling (Bloomsbury 1997)
Copyright Sabrina Siu 2015