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Historical fiction is the ultimate 2-for-1

There is plenty to be learnt from fiction, where you can inhabit someone else’s reality for a time. But when a book is a work of historical fiction, it feels like a double deal where it is not just the experience of a character, but also that of a whole community, a time and a place that is offered to the reader.

I have just finished reading Hannah Kent’s new historical fiction, Devotion. It is the story of a love between two young women and their journey from Germany to South Australia, where their Lutheran community helped establish the town of Hahndorf.

While the emotional element of the experience was at the centre of the novel, surrounding it was the daily reality that the settlers faced both on their journey to Australia and when they arrived.

It was fascinating to read about the boat journey that the pioneers endured, including the crowded living conditions that required strict tidiness to ensure order in the cramped space, the sickness that spread through the cabin and the spoiled water that was stored in bottles that had previously held rum. Many did not survive the journey.

Later, Kent wrote of the establishment of a settlement in the Adelaide Hills and I was fascinated to read about how Hahndorf, which I have visited on holiday, had been established.

Suddenly, this place that to my eyes had seemed like it had been created especially for tourists, with its bratwurst sellers and European Christmas shop, had a far deeper depth and history. The place was made whole to me through its past, which I had learnt from Kent’s book.

I have had a similar experience of learning of a place’s history from the pages of a work of historical fiction. While I was already reading Devotion, I was also listening to Kate Grenville’s A Room Made of Leaves. This was an entirely different perspective of the settler’s experience. The woman at the centre of the novel was the Elizabeth Macarthur, the wife of John Macarthur – a wool baron in Sydney’s early days.

Grenville imagines what Mrs Macarthur’s diary might have contained, and weaves her imaginary work in with real letters that she sent to her acquaintances in England.

The story is a kind of retelling of history, where she fills in the gaps with what might or might not have happened. Suddenly, history is tantalizing, and very human, when it is the story of an individual living during a period that really happened. The story of Sydney – a place that is so familiar to me – was intertwined with Elizabeth’s experience and brought to life.

Other historical novels are set during war time, providing the human story behind the horror of the trenches, the bombings or Hitler’s concentration camps.

One example that comes to mind is Kristen Hannah’s The Nightingale, which revealed a side of the war that I had not considered before – that of the people living in a Nazi-occupied country. In my school history lessons, I had not learnt about the privations suffered by those who had to try to eke out an existence alongside their oppressors, scrounging for food and living in fear of a misstep or encountering a particularly cruel soldier.

In Still Life, which is partly set in wartime, I also read about a great flood that occurred in Florence – a city I have been to several times without hearing anything about this tragedy. After reading about it, I looked into it further and was surprised that I had never heard of it. Suddenly, the beautiful city of Florence had a whole new dimension – that of a place that has suffered devastation and rebuilt.

One of last year’s most popular books was The Dictionary of Lost Words, was the story of the history of the Oxford English Dictionary. While in the past I worked at Oxford University Press’s Australian outpost, my ignorance was again revealed as I had no idea of this extraordinary history. Once more, a book had revealed more than just the lives of the characters.

All of this isn’t to say that an entirely true history can be found in the pages of fiction. In a reflection on her book about Elizabeth Macarthur for which she carried out extensive research, Grenville writes:

“This book isn’t history. It’s fiction. But, like most historical fiction, it starts in the same place history does: in the record of the past left to us in documents, oral traditions, buildings, landscapes and objects.   Historians devise one kind of story from those sources.  Fiction writers devise another kind. Those sources are flawed, partial and ambiguous.  For that reason, the stories that come out of them, although starting in the same place, can end up very differently.  But what historians and writers of historical fiction have in common is an urge to understand that past: what it meant then, and perhaps more importantly, what it means now: for us, living in the world that’s been shaped by that past.”

While I love a book as a source of entertainment, all the better if I can learn about a different place and time while I am swept away in stories of love, grief, conflict and passion. It is one person’s vision of history, but it offers an insight into much more.


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