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
The crowd enjoy Latitude Festival 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
'I do think a woman's place is eventually in the home, but I see no harm in her having some fun before she gets there.'

Is this the end of the Dowager Countess?tv
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Martin of Coldplay performs live for fans at Enmore Theatre on June 19, 2014 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn