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

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own