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Fact or Fiction: Writing history and novels in the 18th century

June 24, 2013

Writing history and fiction in the 18th century

Jill Lerope, a history professor at Harvard, has written an exciting biography of Jane Franklin, comparing her life to that of her famous brother, Ben.  I just posted a review of it.  In that book she discusses many aspects of eighteenth century life, including the emergence of novels.  Because I didn’t want my comments about this topic getting lost in my larger review, I am posting them separately here.

According to Lerope, the authors who wrote the first novels were explicitly critical of historians, questioning their focus on elites and doubting the validity of their facts. Lerope quotes Fielding, Richardson, Defoe, Godwin, and Brockton-Brown expressing their displeasure at what historians were doing.  They complained that historians had insufficient sources on which they built their claims about what had happened.  Even more damning, histories only focused on a few leaders, giving their readers an false sense of their importance.  The novelists sound almost like advocates of social history today.  By not confining themselves to questionable facts, they believed they could write stories about ordinary people, stories that were truer than those written by historians.  In fact, several called their books “histories;” For example The History of Tom Brown and The History of Robinson Crusoe.  Some the historical fiction I read today seems to be social history of ordinary people that the eighteenth-century novelist dreamed of writing.

This information from Lerope got me thinking about the concepts of fact and fiction as different approaches to truth.  Although that distinction had earlier roots, it seems to have solidified in the nineteenth century, just as novels were growing in popularity.  Before 1900, most history was written by amatuer, elite historians or by advocates of particular political parties or causes.  Today historians dismiss much of this historical writing because they consider it biased and without proper respect for factual accuracy.

During the 19th century Leopold von Ranke, a man committed to positivism, introduced a new historical methodology based on rigorous commitment to factual accuracy.  As history professionalized in the United States around 1900, his methods became the standard for the discipline; what future historians had to go grad schools to learn.  At the same time novels were becoming popular, historians defined themselves with claims of objectivity and footnotes.  They laid down a clear line between fact and fiction that is generally still in place a century later.

Today ideas are changing again.  We no longer believe in absolute truth, documented with footnotes or not.  We admit that absolute claims of objectivity are not valid.  We all reflect your own identity in our writing.  While remaining committed to being true and fair, historians, and others who write non-fiction, have begun to blur  the line between fact and fiction.  They make clear their own commitments and experiences about their topics, and they may structure their narratives in innovative ways.

I find this development exciting and search for books which are experimenting with fact and fiction.   Here are just a few of those I have found and reviewed recently. Links are to my reviews of histories that are exploring new methods and creative historical fiction and nonfiction.



The Talented Women of the Zhang Family,  by Susan Mann

Unbound Feet, by Judy Yung

Dancing With Strangers: Europeans and Australians at First Contact, by Inga Clendinnen

 Great Arizona Orphan Abduction,  by Linda Gordon

Abina and the Important Men: A Graphic History, by Trevor R. Getz


Blind Spot, by Jill Lerope. [Novel by historian]

Kayang and Me, by Kim and Hazel Scott and Brown

.Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo

Bite your Tongue, by Francesca Rendle-Short


Border Passage by Leila Amed

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 24, 2013 4:42 pm

    Interesting post, thank you. Summarises the history/fiction debate concisely. Of the books you list, I think Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a standout model of fictionalising a true social history of a community. Have you read Kate Grenville’s trilogy, starting with The Secret River, about early settlers and their interactions with indigenous people in NSW? I wasn’t as impressed by this as many were, and haven’t yet read the sequels, The Lieutenant and Sarah Thornhill.

    • June 26, 2013 10:29 am

      I really liked The Lieutenant, but not the others. I thought Grenville did a fine job on her ancestors, but reproduced their prejudices about Indigenous people. I posted several discussions about the problems of writing outside your own culture. You might appreciate what I said. They are easy to find by searching my blog.


  1. Jane Franklin and Jill Lerope | Me, you, and books
  2. The Good Muslim, by Tahmima Anam. | Me, you, and books

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