Tom Williams considers whether historical fiction could be the most effective way to engage people in re-examining the history of the British Empire.
September brought the re-publication of my novel Cawnpore, set during the events of 1857 known variously as the Indian Mutiny, the First Indian War of Independence, and the Indian Rebellion. (That’s far from an exhaustive list.) The book first saw the light of day ten years ago. Apart from an expanded historical note, nothing much has changed in the book over those past ten years, so why do I feel it is particularly relevant today?
The past year has seen growing interest in the idea that we should re-examine the way in which a small island off the northwest of Europe became the ruler of a significant proportion of the countries of the world. Yet much of that re-examination has consisted of one group of left-facing historians detailing the failings and moral shortcomings of the British, while another claims to be adopting a more critical stance looking at ‘all points of view’ whilst concentrating their fire on anybody challenging the mid-20th century orthodoxy that “the English, the English, the English are best: I wouldn’t give tuppence for all of the rest”.
History always tells us more about today than it tells us about the past. One a bit of history that I actually know something about is the Battle of Waterloo, but it’s only very recently that I realised that there were Black soldiers fighting in the British ranks at that battle.
For almost 200 years their existence was ignored because, after all, Waterloo was a great British victory (I’ve written a lot elsewhere about why it wasn’t, but let that pass) and Black soldiers weren’t properly British, don’t you know. So we just didn’t talk about them. (Just like we didn’t talk about the substantial Prussian contribution.) Now, in the era of Black Lives Matter, they suddenly reappear, alongside rather more problematic reinterpretations like the suggestion that Queen Charlotte might have been a person of colour.
History has always been political. (If you don’t believe me, read any scholarly discussion of Shakespeare’s history plays.) So any evaluation of what has come to be called ‘the Empire Project’ is almost inevitably tinged with the political views of the authors. (Sathnam Sanghera, the author of Empireland, is an exception, possibly because he’s not actually a historian. His degree was in English.) And unfortunately few writers, in a world of social media and manufactured controversy, sell books by suggesting that reinterpreting hundreds of years of world history is a messy business that is unlikely to produce a simple picture for pundits to pontificate on.
The difference between historical non-fiction and historical fiction is less the amount of imaginative interpretation and more the willingness of histfic authors to admit they make stuff up. Historical fiction, although inevitably reflecting the biases of the authors, doesn’t have to make these the basis of the book.
For all writing, fiction or non-fiction, tells a story. Darwin is associated with the theory of evolution while Alfred Russel Wallace, who developed the theory alongside him, is largely forgotten because Darwin just expressed the ideas better as he told the world the story of human evolution.
For the non-fiction writer, such as the historian, the story you have to tell is the interpretation that you put onto the facts. For the fiction writer, the story is the trials and tribulations of the characters in the book and the history can be left with all the contradictions and confusions of real life rather than the neat compartmentalisation of the historical theorist.
Historical fiction also allows us to see the history more directly by looking through the eyes of the people of the time. Of course authors inevitably bring their own 21st-century prejudices and perceptions to the story, but at least these are filtered through the prejudices and perceptions of the time the story is set in. Some writers are better at this than others, but a good writer can reflect the attitudes of the age without overt judgement.
This does not mean that the writer doesn’t care about, for example, the awfulness of the slave trade but that the facts can be presented in a way that allows the reader to draw their own conclusions rather than having these conclusions provided for them. Arguably emotions are more engaged when people reach conclusions for themselves.
It’s also important that we can see decent people doing horrible things. Take an era where we can identify with characters because they live in a world recognisable from our own: the Second World War. Anyone looking at the history ends up seeing those Germans who joined the Nazi party and anticipated in atrocities as quite unlike us.
My generation (I was one of the baby boomers born in the aftermath of the war) was brought up to believe that the Germans were somehow different from other nations. There were all kinds of reasons – from their history, to the influence of philosophers like Nietzsche, to an underlying anti-semitism – that led German citizens to go along with a system that would have been anathema to free-born Englishmen.
Yet the lesson of Nazi Germany is that tyranny can triumph anywhere – even in one of the most civilised of countries. And this lesson is best illustrated if we see decent hard-working people – people we sympathise with and care about – respond to the economic disaster of reparations and the collapse of the Weimar Republic and end up, initially reluctantly but eventually enthusiastically, joining the Nazis and denouncing their Jewish neighbours. It is only when we can exercise our imaginations and put ourselves in these people’s places that we can recognise that it really could have happened here.
It is by telling stories and drawing people into the past by stimulating their imaginations that history becomes real and its lessons have the best chance of being learned.
In 2002 the British, wafted along on some vague memory of Imperial glory, joined the very 21st-century Empire of the United States and, not for the first time, sent troops into Afghanistan. Many people pointed out that those who made this decision seemed to know nothing of history. The books were available, dull and dusty in the libraries of the colleges where so many of our leaders spent their youth, but they had not been read or, if they had been read, nobody had been paying attention.
Telling people that we should re-examine the history of Empire is not enough. Few of us are going to wade through those scholarly accounts. But perhaps people might read novels – stories that entertain about people they care about.
If, as was the case in 1857 India, they see these people, Indian and European, do terrible things and suffer and die, not because they are bad people but because they were trapped in an impossible situation, then maybe, just maybe, they will forget about the tales of Imperial Glory and think twice before sending troops to subdue the funny foreigners in the future.
The third and final book in the series, Back Home: In London with Karl Marx, was published on 23 November, 2021.
Deborah Swift has reviewed the first Williamson book, The White Rajah, for Historia.
Tom has written a number of features for Historia linked to his research for his novels, including:
When my Spanish research trip went astray
Why I wrote about Irish history
Researching the Land of Silver, about his adventures in Argentina
You may also be interested in Unforgettable legacies of the East India Company, in which Vayu Naidu talks to fellow historian William Dalrymple about The Anarchy, the first book in his important The Company Quartet.
- Detail from Imperial Federation, Map of the World Showing the Extent of the British Empire in 1886: Wikimedia
- Detail from Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Waterloo Dispatch by David Wilkie: Wikimedia
- Attack of the Mutineers on the Redan Battery at Lucknow, July 30th, 1857, c1860: Wikimedia
- Berliner Dom, Berlin, 1937: Picryl
- The Last Stand of the 44th Regiment at Gundamuck, 1842 by William Barnes Wollen, 1898: Wikimedia