‘A poet’s object is not to tell what actually happened but what could and would happen either probably or inevitably. The difference between a historian and a poet is not that one writes in prose and the other in verse – indeed the writings of Herodotus could be put into verse and yet would still be a kind of history. … The real difference is this, that one tells what happened and the other what might happen. For this reason poetry is something more scientific and serious than history, because poetry tends to give general truths while history gives particular facts.’
(Aristotle, The Poetics, trans W. Hamilton Fyfe, (London, 1955), 35 [9, 1451b]. My thanks to Professor Alex Danchev for first pointing me towards this quotation.)
To continue with the post below, and to touch on an issue that Esther MacCallum Stewart is discussing elsewhere, how should historians react to popular historical fiction? Should we just say ‘Well, what do you expect?’ and dismiss it? Should we try to work with it? These books aren’t going to go away, and they have formed a route into interest in the war for many readers. Some of them might even go on to buy our books.
The question I finished my paper at Oxford with was whether it would be possible to have a book about the First World War which was inaccurate at the level of historical detail, but which offered concepts of which historians could approve? For me, Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy is an interesting example. At the level of historical detail, it is packed full of anachronisms. Its take on Edwardian male sexuality, the development of military psychiatry, the writing of poetry and the relationship between Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen are all just plain wrong (ironically, these seem to anger literary historians more than they annoy me). At the level of concepts, however, a reader could leave these books with the following ideas: 1) the First World War wasn’t just about the war poets, 2) some First World War soldiers believed that they were fighting a just war, 3) total wars create a range of social and cultural tensions, 4) some elements of the military experience might be enjoyable to some men. These could represent a significant shift of the reader’s opinion from the normal mud, blood, donkeys cliches. In contrast, I think you could argue that Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong is more historically accurate, but far more likely to reinforce its readers’ existing prejudices. Which, as historians, should we prefer?
Interviewed after she won the Booker Prize, Barker commented: ‘What people don’t like to be told, I think, is that there are dictatorships so abominable that in the end you have to fight. People aren’t comfortable with that – they’d rather think about innocent young men being slaughtered at the behest of stupid generals.’ That could be Brian Bond talking, or Gary Sheffield. Or me.
(A. Quinn, ‘What Sassoon could never resolve’, Daily Telegraph, 2 September 1995, A4.)