Literature as History

February 16, 2017 § Leave a comment

img_0822I am reading Matthew Beaumont’s Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London.  This nocturnal history of London was constructed through literature.  He relies on everything from Geoffrey Chaucer to Charles Dickens to William Shakespeare, amongst others to reconstruct the nocturnal London, though he focuses particularly on the 16th and 17th centuries.  The Amazon reviews are about what you would expect, especially the negative ones.  They castigate Beaumont for writing ‘history’ using ‘literature.’  And you can see the logic here.  Literature isn’t history, it’s make-believe. It’s fiction.  And I can certainly hear some of my professors saying the exact same thing.

I use fiction a fair lot when teaching.  I assign ‘history’ for my students to read besides the textbook, but I also make wide use of fiction.  This is true both in the case of literature and film.  So how is literature history, you ask?

Literature is a reflection of the time in which it is written.  This is true of historical fiction and non-historical fiction.  The historical fiction of our era is a reflection of our attempt to find a way through changing and complex times.  It is a reaching back for something simpler (as we imagine the past to be), or for an explanation of the world through the past.   Literature, like film, reflects the mood of the times, the neuroses we, as a society, carry.  What fascinates, puzzles, and frustrates us.  It is, in many ways it is the id to our rational ego.

So Beaumont reconstructs a history of London through fiction, and in so doing, he discovers what London’s nighttime meant to writers in their time and their place in London’s past.  Chaucer’s 14th century London is a very different beast from Shakespeare’s 16th and 17th century version, just as his is different from Charles Dickens’ 19th century London, which is different from Zadie Smith’s 20th and 21st century London. But each of those authors reflect the city as it was in those times and those places.

And while their stories may be fictitious, the city they are set in is not.  Each of these authors takes great effort to reflect London, the London they knew, to their reader.  And this is the point of using literature as an historical text.  Fictitious as the stories may be, their settings are not.

And so Beaumont’s nocturnal journey through London after dark is, in fact, a history.

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