3 Best of…Fiction That Can Teach You More Than a History Textbook (Pt. 1)

I’ve talked before about how I hated studying history in school, and later fell in love with the stories of the past through fiction. In that essay, I mentioned a few novels, but not in depth and mainly focused on actual history and historical texts. Not everyone can jump easily into historical documents or studies easily, but well-researched fiction can be a gateway into the riches the past has to offer.

In education, there is a big push for multimodality, which acknowledges that it takes all kinds of methods to reach everyone fully, and encourages the use of art, music, film, and whatever means necessary to get students pumped about learning and able to recall/apply effectively. As a social studies teacher, I incorporated music and art, and I saw a lot of teachers using games and film to deepen a lesson. There is a lot of talk about using fiction in history classes, and in one pedagogy course for my undergrad I remember writing a lesson plan based on a middle school historical fiction novel. But in actuality, most history teachers are trying to prep students for basic recall of barebones facts for test. They’re lucky if they can get kids to think more about an event and analyze it well. There just isn’t much time for historical fiction in high school, when everything is about test prep and making it through to graduation–though that’s a subject for another time. But what historical fiction can offer, even if it won’t provide the breadth of a textbook, is depth and context.

Reading that between the years of 1941 to 1945 the Nazi regime gassed over six million Jews is sobering. But to read a story–even a fictionalized one–about a girl in a concentration camp watching her mother be singled out and taken to what we know to be gas chambers is more difficult. We can empathize with an individual because we can relate and empathize and mourn with them. On a less serious note, reading about children waking up every morning at dawn to milk the moody cows and hunt eggs in the chicken coop will make farm chores more alive to us then the note that farmers’ children worked on the family farm. Fiction can feel more real than reality. Even when compared to the most well-written and exciting historical study, fiction has life in the mundane moments that narrative and summary cannot capture. And I say that as someone who loves a dry history tome to settle down with. So here are some of my favorite works of historical fiction which taught me more about life in the novel’s time period than any historical document.

We the Living by Ayn Rand (1936)

Rand’s other works, such as Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead, are better known than her debut novel, and from what I understand state more clearly her political views. We the Living has a political message, but that is only the backdrop to a raw story about life and death in early Soviet Russia.

It takes place a few years after the 1917 Revolution, as Kira Argounova, the daughter of a formerly successful merchant family, returns to Petrograd (called Leningrad in the book) to find that the social caste has been entirely flipped. The most admired class is now the proletariat, or working class, with special favors being given to those who had a role in the revolution. The middle class, the bourgeoisie, is perhaps hated more than the dismantled aristocracy, because they as bosses and supervisors have always been just on top of the proletariat. Despite her bourgeois  background, Kira is determined to go to university to be an engineer, one of the most needed careers as the Soviet Union struggles to reach modernity and full industrialization. Kira’s family is starving–her parents and sister don’t know how to function in this world and fear the low-level work that is their only option–and they are dependent on Kira’s small stipend of food that the university gives to all students. The world that Kira lives in is bleak, and the one bright spot for her is her ambition, until she meets two men who begin to ground her and make her realize she must open her eyes to what is around her.

In some ways, We the Living is a love triangle, but the men in Kira’s lives are representative of the political climate of 1920s Petrograd. Leo Kovalensky is the bourgeois son of a White Army general–beautiful and intelligent, but weak and selfish. Andrei Taganov is the proletarian ideal–a Red Army soldier, brooding, brave, and others-oriented, yet out of touch with his own human needs. Kira rejects politics, but only wants to live, enjoying her favorite music and doing what she loves. But the people in her life stand on polar opposites politically, hating each other and forcing her to make real choices. Though she is in certain aspects, an early symbol of Rand’s developing objectivist politics, Kira is a strong character and one of my favorite heroines; her growth from absent-minded teenager to hard-working woman is subtle but powerful. Her day-to-day life–cooking with linseed oil, sweetening with saccharin crystals, trying to cook a meal on her “Bourgeoisie” stove in the one tiny bedroom she and Leo are forced to share since having extra rooms is a luxury and anti-Soviet. Kira’s joy in little pleasures like silk stockings, French perfume, and a funny devil toy she buys for Andrei is touching and compelling. Entering her world is entering the world that vastly influenced the Russia of today, and is one we must consider as we make our own political judgments and choices.

The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman (1982)

Penman is one of those authors whose every creation is a delight from page to page–I’m not exaggerating when I say I took a break from her works because I was rushing and needed to savor each book since I don’t know how many more she will write in her lifetime. But The Sunne in Splendour (archaic spelling intentional) is her most epic work, numbering almost 1000 pages and spanning 26 years of the life of King Richard III of England. Penman is a vocal Ricardian, which means she rejects the traditionalist reputation Richard III has in popular British history as a vicious and terrible king who murdered his own nephews to steal the throne, and instead supports the idea that Richard was libeled by the Tudor dynasty that followed his reign. Legend has it (partly thanks to the impact of Shakespeare’s play Richard III) that Richard was a hunchback, whose outer deformities reflected a twisted inner nature. There is a fairly good argument for him being a murderer, and some allegations that he had an affair with his niece, but there is no hard evidence that he was particularly and exceptionally hated during his lifetime. Ricardians see his reputation as a classic result of history being written by the victors–the Tudors, in this case, who had far less of a blood-claim to the throne than Richard.

In The Sunne in Splendour, we meet Richard Plantagenet as a little boy, whose simple world, where his biggest concern is impressing his big brothers, is shattered when the War of the Roses literally comes to his doorstep. His father, the Duke of York, has sought to depose the incapable King Henry VI, who is ruled by his malicious wife Margaret of Anjou, and has waged war all over England. When the Duke is killed, Richard’s older brother Edward continues the war and wins the throne, being crowned Edward IV. Richard’s prospects improve, but as royalty at court, he is caught up in the politics and drama of the nobility, who are quick to swear loyalty to whoever seems to be on top, but are always serving their own ends. This is the 1400s, the often romanticized medieval period, and there is a charm to the chivalry and the heroism, but the culture Richard lives in is characterized by a lack of communication and an abundance of fear. The distances and transportation issues mean unless people are physically around each other, they have trouble maintaining strong relationships. Any medical need, be it an injury or childbirth, can often result in death, which is constantly present with the never ending war.

Richard is a middle child, diminutive and quiet, but fiercely loyal to Edward, who he worships, and always clashing with his foolish brother George. We are treated to the mind of a young man who is most confident in armor on a battlefield, and who is awkward around his own mother, since she gave him up to be fostered by his uncle throughout most of his youth. A serious battle injury halfway through the book exacerbates a minor old shoulder injury, and physical pain becomes part of his life as well. Like many noblemen, he has multiple women and bastard children, but it is a major moment in the book when he gives them up to be faithful to his wife–a rarity among nobility then as it is among celebrities today. His story is full of details in a larger historical picture, and reading the novel, it’s easy to forget that the ending is already known. I knew a good deal about Richard’s death, but getting to it, after going through 26 years of his life (he was almost 33 when he died) was tough. The 15th century was a harsh time, as said before, but Penman writes these (very real!) individuals as achingly human and brings the reader right into medieval England.

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (1855)

I first read North and South in my History of the Industrial Revolution class (thank you, Prof. Agazarian!), but many might know this novel from the excellent 2004 miniseries starring Daniela Denby-Ashe and Richard Armitage. Gaskell wrote it in the mid-19th century, so unlike most of these other works, the time period it takes place in was concurrent to when it was written. Yet Gaskell writes with awareness and perspective in such a way that the novel is useful to discuss many conflicts of the period.

Margaret Hale is a middle-class girl without much money but a whole lot of pride and class–rather like many of Austen’s heroines. She received her education in the city with cultured wealthier relatives and returns to her parents’ southern England town after her cousin’s wedding and her own awkward rejection of a marriage proposal. But when her father, a pastor, loses his faith and leaves the Church, the family has to give up the parsonage and move to a friend’s place in Milton, an industrial town. Margaret is shamed by the family’s situation and dislikes the town, which she finds to be dirty and miserable. Her father begins to tutor to make money, and Margaret also can’t stand his new student, Mr. Thornton, the enterprising owner of Marlborough Mills. A young man, Mr. Thornton was raised in poverty and worked hard to earn the wealth he now has. His mother is too miserly and hard to enjoy their ease and his sister is too young to realize what it took to gain the comfort the family has, so Mr. Thornton is as lonely and frustrated as Margaret. He seeks friendship in her learned father,and Margaret finds friends among the resolute poor workers. In their friends, Mr. Thornton and Margaret see what they wish for themselves–Mr. Thornton wants to be educated, culture, and mannered; Margaret wants to be brave and others-oriented. Yet they admire the qualities they do share with their friends–Mr. Thornton respects Mr. Hale’s determination to leave a church he didn’t believe in; Margaret respects the workers’ unionization and camaraderie.

Power dynamics are a major part of North and South. The Church of England’s power casts the shadow of Mr. Hale’s shame, an aspect which is hard to really get in today’s society, where the church is more ornamental than anything else in the public sphere. Another great power, the government, lurks with the Hales’ fear for Margaret’s brother Frederick, who is wanted for mutiny against an unfair naval officer. The old established respectable middle-class of the Hales and their wealthier city cousins is also in a power struggle with the new flashy money of the Thorntons. This is gotten across well in the miniseries, with the contrast between Fanny Thornton’s garishly-colored gowns and Margaret or Edith’s subdued and classic tones. Though the Thorntons have wealth that the Hales have never had, they lack the education and social graces of generations of gentlefolk. Industry itself, bringing modernity and ease of life, as well as jobs, seems beneficial, but creates an unhealthy environment of death and danger. Additionally, as modernity descends, the workers are wakening to the realization that they are not slaves and can pressure their bosses into better treatment if they band together. The downsides of unionization,and how it too becomes a corrupt power, is skillfully explored by Gaskell. Finally, the tension between masculinity and femininity, with Mr. Thornton and Margaret’s different expectations of the other sex and gender roles is a huge player in the story. Both are modern, but are held back by their culture’s assumptions of what the other should be like. It is an insightful peek into mid-19th-century England.

There are many more historical fiction works that bring history to life, and these are only a few of my favorites. I will be compiling a Part 2 for later this year, and am taking suggestions (especially for non-European books–I have some American books for next time).

Have you read any of these? We would love to hear your thoughts on these or your own favorite historical book!

Brittany Ann Zayas


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