Simon Schama on Dead Certainties: 'Historians shouldn't make it up, but I did'

The Essay: When Simon Schama dared write a work of fiction, he broke every historian's taboo. But he still stands by his heresy

Did I see it coming, the storm of righteous indignation which, more than 20 years ago, broke over my little black book? No, I didn't – at least not that a modest, playful piece of self-evident fiction would be regarded by the sentinels of the academy as a betrayal of History; an outrage against the profession and its code of conduct; a manifesto of ultra-relativism; the Enemy against whom a Stand Had to be Taken.

Some of the enraged bewilderment at the fact that I had committed such a scandalous act came from professed admirers of Citizens, published just two years before. Because that book ended up taking a tragic view of the French Revolution, those who believed that event to be the fountainhead of leftist totalitarianism assumed somehow that I was a reincarnation of Edmund Burke. So generous was their applause that I vainly thought it churlish to disabuse of them of my actual politics: the liberal social democracy they most detested.

They would, in any case, have been incredulous. What kind of lefty was it who would pour cold water on the euphoria of 1789? To which my answer was, when eventually I gave it: an honest lefty – one who attempted to face the painful truth that from the very beginning, in 1789, punitive violence had walked hand in hand with rhetorical idealism. No one was listening. In Le Monde Roger Chartier, who seemed to have not read the book, denounced me as a Reaganite historian; felicitations from Le Figaro for the same reason swiftly followed. Good friends stopped talking to me for some time.

Since the real Reaganites, especially in Washington, imagined I was one of them, and since they took any speculation about the sure attainability of objective truth as part of a leftist intellectual conspiracy, Dead Certainties was considered an act of betrayal. I had sold out History for some sort of specious and obscure game. To which, at many points I wanted to shout, Keep your hair on, it's fiction, two novellas about history, not history itself. I couldn't quite bring myself to believe that anyone could be so obtuse as to imagine a book which began in the voice of a common soldier, "'Twas the darkness that did the trick," could be anything else. And anyone reading the afterword, which plainly declared the credentials of the book as fiction, couldn't be left in any doubt.

I wasn't so disingenuous as to pretend that debates about the difficulty of objectivity weren't part of the cultural context in which I was writing. True epistemological debates about the status of evidence, the problematic distance between event and report, went back almost as far as Thucydides's complaints about Herodotus, and they remained more complex and interesting than the grotesquely crude opposition between "relativists" and upholders of the attainable truth seemed to comprehend. One of my favourite interrogators of such issues was the Oxford philosopher RG Collingwood, whose inquiry into the nature of the imaginative re-enactment of historical events as a condition for their writing seemed (and still does seem) something every honest historian ought to take on board.

But the book was never intended to be any sort of formal "intervention" in that debate. To some extent it did arise out of Citizens, which was a history written with a keen appreciation of the force of "speech acts" in the construction and destruction of power. The nature of rhetoric and the self-consciousness of historically saturated politicians, their strong sense of being actors in a theatre of virtue and vice, was, if anything, a more important preoccupation of the book than the corrosive force of violence on ideas. I became interested in the "self-casting" quality of the Romantic generation: their visualisation of personal destiny as if they were able to see themselves already in a patriotic pantheon.

It was when I was teaching an undergraduate lecture course at Harvard on the British Empire with my good friend John Clive (the biographer of Macaulay, among other things) that the story of General James Wolfe reciting the famous lines from Thomas Gray's "Elegy", written in the churchyard at Stoke Poges, seemed to me a compelling example of this tendency to romantic self-casting.

Wolfe's death on the Plains of Abraham at the Battle of Quebec was perhaps the great heroic exemplum virtutis of the British Empire, with countless others to follow; this in turn led the professor of art history in me to wonder what the contribution of Benjamin West's painting, "The Death of General Wolfe", had been to the consolidation of that martyrology, especially since the multiplication of copies, not to mention the printed versions and adaptations (including a French version of the death of the Marquis de Montcalm), had added to its fame.

Finally, and still with an eye to our lecture course, I went back to the pages of Francis Parkman's Montcalm and Wolfe for the first time since I was a schoolboy and was startled (as I generally am when I revisit the great romantic histories of the 19th century) by their grandiloquent power and by the achievement of such material, physical proximity to events so remote (Parkman was, I supposed, removed by two or three generations from the events of the Seven Years War). If ever there was a case of Collingwood's "imaginative re-enactment", this was it.

It is true that all this might have been compassed perfectly well by a work of non-fiction analytical history. But I had long been drawn by writers of historical fiction for whom the writing act itself was part of the story – above all by Marguerite Yourcenar. And I had been very taken with Penelope Lively's wonderful novel Moon Tiger, which, at its centre, features an elderly historian attempting to write one last work – alas the history of the entire world – before expiring; and in particular with Lively's subtle weaving of personal history with the work at hand.

I was egged on to take the plunge into fiction by my warm-hearted pal Bill Buford, then editor of Granta, busy putting together a special number around History (capitalised as such) that would feature predominantly fiction, as well as writing by the likes of Ryszard Kapuscinski, whose work was simultaneously strenuous and ambiguous when it came to the facts of the matter. Bill has always thought my non-fiction more or less a waste of time beside what he generously imagines I might perpetrate as a novelist; he made no secret of it when I talked to him about the Wolfe-West-Parkman trio, though he should in no wise be held responsible for the result…

The last thing I would want to do in these reminiscences is to interfere with the freshness of an innocent reading. But in the dense literature that followed publication, I was struck how the Francis Parkman sections of the first story seemed to slide off the map of impressions, since his long, groping journey towards a departed world, physically tormenting himself to get there, was in some ways the epitome of the price of empathy.

The fiction is built around actual historical evidence, as with "Death of a Harvard Man", the story of George Parkman's murder (all the letters on Governor Brett's desk are actual letters in the archive of the Massachusetts Historical Society), but while the inclusion of documents gives the stories a matrix of reality, it does not, of course, make the stories any less fictitious.

In the end I did not want to editorialise about all this, much less write the book as some sort of thinly disguised treatise on the contingent nature of historical judgement. I do in fact believe in the ways contingency can circumscribe simply positivist versions of reconstructing past events, but what this little pair of fictions was meant to do was to tear out the seams from the finished fabric of history writing, let them fray and hang and have readers decide for themselves whether the thing can ever be satisfactorily put back together.

From Simon Schama's 'Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations)', re-published by Granta (£16.99). Copyright Simon Schama

*This article appears in tomorrow's print edition of Radar magazine

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