Yesterday I woke up abuzz with historical passion, fired by the cultural memory of three muddy days in June. It was the 198th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo and, history
geek aficionado that I am, I spent at least an hour chocking my history-themed tumblr full of tribute posts (if you must know, it’s here)
There was a personal connection to the anniversary, for in February of this year I visited the battlefield in Belgium with my girlfriend. It was one of the most memorable occasions of my life (it only happened four months ago I know, but bear with me), and I found myself wondering what it was about areas of historical significance like this that possessed such a pull over me. Sure, all the guts, glory and drama has an undeniable, occasionally morbid appeal, but if it were solely due to those factors then wouldn’t more people be as mad for “the history” as I am?
Then I read this excellent article in the Independent, and it all became clear.
The key to people, especially young ones, connecting passionately with the past is historical fiction. Looking at my own first engagement with history, there were two standout influences. The first was when I accidentally caught the ending of the 1993 Civil War epic Gettysburg at the tender age of four. I estimate I’ve watched it 200+ times since. It remains my favourite film to date. The second was the purchase, at five years old, of the PC game Age of Empires. Set amidst the conflicts and world-building of ancient societies, it brought with it reams of historically accurate back-story which I devoured as eagerly as the gameplay.
These introductions to the stories of the past are telling because they were not due to some history textbook, nor even the clichéd discovery of granddad’s letters in the attic. And I use the word “stories” deliberately, because that was the precise reason they had such an effect on me. Whilst historically correct on numerous counts, both Gettysburg and Age of Empires (and its sequels) focussed on teaching history as a story, and not by rote. Here were characters every bit as captivating as the fictional creations which populate our bestsellers. If anything, the fictional creations were merely pale imitations.
The third landmark in the development of my love for history came with the purchase of my first historical fiction novel at the age of eleven – Sharpe’s Battle by Bernard Cornwell. In the world of military histfic, Mr Cornwell’s work is seminal, responsible for the spawning of numerous imitators. Here I’d discovered the ultimate addictive, a cracking fictionalised plotline structured around a solid foundation of historical background. Of course a great deal of the Sharpe novels are invented, but plenty of it is likewise based on real events, and it’s that knowledge which unleashes a thirst for more in the reader. Sharpe may not have been real, but there were men and women like him who were. What was their story? How did they view the world, our world, 100, 200, 2000 years ago?
Analysing why I’ve been worked into such a remembrance frenzy over the anniversary of Waterloo, it’s clear that historical fiction, be it on our screens or our pages, has a lot to answer for. And it isn’t just me. Check out the article I liked to earlier. It’s clear that historical fiction as a genre is about more than just escapism. It really does have a vital part to play in everybody’s education.
Thanks to histfic, today I’m at the world’s 11th best University for social sciences, studying history. I think it’s time they started handing out novels alongside those textbooks.