is not used in exam papers or in history textbooks anywhere as
much as it could be. Novels, short stories and poems offer much
more than an entertaining distraction from the real business of
finding out about the past.
If the literature is from or about the past, it can
help bring that past alive and help us get inside an age. The
characters in a Dickens novel inhabit a world that is long gone, in
which the past is very much a ‘foreign country’. Reading the
painstakingly researched ‘realist’ novels of Emile Zola provides the
reader with a powerful, complex insight into social history of
France of the Second Empire and the lives of people who would
otherwise have left no record e.g. The urban poor or peasants.
The most important historical value of literature is its power of
empathy. Great art can provide a powerful insight into the thoughts
and emotions, motivations and actions of those who lived in the
My description of the medical effects of a gas attack on the body of
a victim would be altogether lacking the literary power of Wilfred
Owen’s Dulce et Decorum est. (see below)
is not a coincidence that the most universally acclaimed historians,
also happen to be great writers.
Literature like history can tell stories about the
past. But unlike history, literature does not rely upon a scientific
methodology limiting itself to facts derived from sources. The
imaginative, subjective strength of the novel is also its objective
weakness. The purpose of the novel need not be to tell the truth
about the past, it may be intended to move or inspire the reader or merely
meant to entertain. When Tolstoy attributes actions, thoughts and
comments to Napoleon at the Battle of Austerlitz, he is under no
obligation to prove that these things actually happened.
‘It was Napoleon accompanied by two aides-de-camp. Bonaparte
riding over the battlefield had given final orders to strengthen the
batteries firing at the Augesd Dam and was looking at the killed and
wounded left on the field.
"Fine men!" remarked Napoleon, looking at a dead Russian grenadier,
who, with his face buried in the ground and a blackened nape, lay on
his stomach with an already stiffened arm flung wide….’
Leo Tolstoy – War and Peace
This is what we mean by artistic licence.
What was it like
to experience a gas attack?
I have no idea about gas attacks because it is beyond the experience
of normal life. Statistics about the numbers killed or blinded, do
not help me understand what is was like, nor do contemporary debates
about the morality of its use. Science can explain objectively what
the gas does to the body, but to help me empathize with the victim I
turn to the literary powers of a novelist or poet. Its not just a
question of knowing what the past was like; it is also about
feeling, tasting, touching and smelling the past. Reading Owen's
poem, I can taste the bile my mouth and sense the powerless panic of
the drowning man.