Literature as History

Emery Neff wrote in his book The Poetry of History that “history has been breaking its traditional bounds… to record every manifestation of the human spirit. Literature… has furthered this advance.” Whatever way you look at this, it’s clearly saying that literature has contributed to the formation of history as an entity. This is a debatable point between many historians and something I want to look at.

This topic first came to my attention when I was writing an essay on Dick Turpin for one of my modules. I had to account for the different approaches taken towards Turpin’s life in two different sources. The first one was The Myth of the English Highwayman by James Sharpe and the other was the novel Rookwood, by W.H. Ainsworth. At a first thought, it’s easy to assume that Ainsworth’s work is of little use to the historian, but Rookwood and other works like it can tell us a lot about the past, though not always in the way you’d think.

Using Rookwood as an example, the way history becomes warped by literature is evident. The tale of Dick Turpin and  the noble Black Bess is one that any British teen could tell you, whether they’d studied Turpin or not. However, by every historical account, this is totally inaccurate. Rookwood is written in the gothic style – something very common in Victorian times. It was an escapist style, a way for the literate to visit the ‘romantic’ age that had come before the coming of industry and the destruction of much of the idyllic peace the Victorians liked to imagine was around before their time. Rookwood is a huge example of this – though Turpin is not the  hero, or even a main character, he is a romantic character that was far more popular than any of the actual characters in the book. The age of the highwayman had ended in 1831, three years before the book was published. This was long enough for a rose-tinted glow to settle on the highwaymen, much like the modern view of pirates that has been perpetuated by Pirates of the Caribbean.

You can see the resounding effect Rookwood has had on literature in all sorts of works, the one that immediately springs to mind being Alfred Noyes’ famous poem The Highwayman.

I

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding—
Riding—riding—
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

II

He’d a French cocked-hat on his forehead, a bunch of lace at his chin,
A coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of brown doe-skin;
They fitted with never a wrinkle: his boots were up to the thigh!
And he rode with a jewelled twinkle,
His pistol butts a-twinkle,
His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jewelled sky.

You can see the romanticism that was heaped on highwaymen in the nineteenth century clearly in just this extract – the tale of love that ensues in the rest of the poem is typical of the view adopted in the Victorian age.

This is perhaps a topic most people think is more suited to a student of English Literature, rather than a history undergraduate. However, much can be learned from famous works from history, more than the author intended. Rookwood, for example, and The Highwayman both show the Victorian romanticism and the peculiar honour they gave to people who were among the most violent of criminals. You can pick out things about the respect given to family and inheritance from Rookwood, as well as information about the kind of struggles that went on if there was any contest for the wealth left in the wake of a death.

Other works of literature that contribute to history can be found throughout the ages. A good example from the Tudor age is Shakespeare’s Richard III, something that was written as an attempt to change history. The historian can pick out the way the monarchy still wanted to slur the Plantagenet line, even in their third generation on the throne. This, combined with artwork at the time that was changed, portrayed Richard III as a hunchbacked tyrant – giving him a deformity that was thought to bring bad luck. This is an obvious example of how literature can influence and indeed be a part of history in a way that was not intended at the time it was written.

It can even be argued that the authors of historical novels are making history in their own way. In the future, people may look back at the works of the likes of Phillipa Gregory or C.J. Sansom and use them to prove how we thought about the kings and queens of the past, or even attempt to use them as factual books to prove how life was lived back then. It’s hopefully unlikely that will happen, but the possibility is always there.

To bring this to a conclusion, you can’t discount literature as a form of history. Whilst it’s not traditional, textbook history, it is definitely a form of public history and can be used to find out about the perceptions of the author, also giving an indicator of the general mindset of the time.

And, of course, it’s much more enjoyable to read.

Sources

  • Ainsworth, W.H., Rookwood (London, 1834).
  • Neff, E., The Poetry of History (New York, 1979).
  • Noyes, A., The Highwayman (London, 1906).
  • Shakespeare, W., Richard III.
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