Valuing Historical Fiction

Historical Fiction – making history fun

Working in history education is great fun, especially at a place like Sovereign Hill.  I ended up working in this field, I believe, largely because of my love of reading and watching historical fiction.  I have not trained as a historian or a conservator, but I like to think of myself as having a little bit of both inside.  But I’m not a purist.  I love history for the fun, fascinating stories about the past.  I find the most pleasure in the creative imagination that comes from thinking about history’s people and their deeds.

Sure, evidence is important (and archaelogy is cool, especially when it involves Tony Robinson!) and teaching kids to read and understand sources is a necessary part of history teaching.  But it’s the stories that make it amazing and joyful.

My journey with historical fiction

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Ever since I began enjoying adult fiction I have loved the genre of historical fiction.  My favourite author in this genre has always been Sharon Penman, and her books about medieval Europe.  Reading her books had always being a bit more that just pleasurable hobby, it has sent me on amazing explorations through the small towns of Northern Wales and South France.  But I didn’t think it would become part of my career.

I still remember the first time I saw the job at the State Library of Victoria that I would eventually get: Education Officer – Medieval Programs.  I didn’t know such a job existed, not in Australia at least, I had become a teacher without really knowing where that might lead me.  I couldn’t believe I had found something that used the skills I was trained in and played to such a great personal interest.  Since I took the job I have never looked back.  I love my career in the museum sector.

Good historical fiction

I find it hard to believe that I would love history in the same way I do now if I hadn’t have first loved the stories from history.  This is why I utilise storytelling extensively in my work as an Education Officer.  It has the ability to capture the imagination and draw people in.  I don’t mean to suggest that we should teach history only through historical fiction and I don’t see historical fiction as a replacement for historical research.  But rather that an appreciation of historical fiction is a valuable pre-cursor to developing an appreciation of history.  Enjoying historical fiction does not necessarily mean reading a published book, it could be listening to a story or myth, watching a movie, or using your imagination to disappear into your own wonderings.

For historical fiction to be good I believe in should be grounded in historical evidence, but embellished where details are unclear or impossible to know.  Sharon Penman does this particularly well, her work is very well research and her history background lends credibility, and she uses real people, places, events and context.  The fictional angle is in her wonderful character creation.  Historians can make educated assumptions about historical people, but fully developing their personality is the domain of historical fiction.  These real people, who are humanised through the creative development of their personality, build empathy and interest in history.

Historical Fiction in history learning

Encouraging students to enjoy historical fiction, and allowing them the space to get lost in it, is a wonderful way to increase engagement and enjoyment in studying history.  Helping students to relate to and empathise with people in history can develop a better appreciation of the reality of history – that it was lived by ordinary people with many of the same core hopes and fears.

What must not be forgotten is that an important partner of historical fiction is critical analysis.  I believe that students can enjoy reading and viewing fictional texts and critically analyse them without loosing, and possibly even increasing that enjoyment.  Teaching skills in critical analysis and encouraging students to become detectives can make understanding the level of historical accuracy in fictional texts fun.  Last year I wrote a post for our Sovereign Hill Education blog about teeth in historical recreations and the kind of things students can start to think about.  Once they develop these skills and start to feel confident in questioning fictionalise representations of history, students often become more intrigued by history and have a torrent of questions.  These questions lend themselves to fascinating historical enquiries.

What are your experiences of historical fiction for enjoyment, learning or teaching?

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