On the Usefulness and Limitations of Imagination
Updated: Mar 24, 2019
Invented words: fine sentiments, tragic statements or self-centred and half-incoherent ramblings: words put into otherwise silent mouths enable the writers of historical fiction to sweep some of the dust off their heroes. If done in an accomplished manner these words enhance the characters with credibility and forge an intimacy between them and the reader. Scene painting too, when done with flare can enable the reader to experience delight, disgust, discomfort, marvel or trepidation. The line between the erudite and accomplished historical novelist and the imaginative historian is sometimes thin, and for the latter, who is rightly held to account by his peers for the slightest excess, is gingerly trodden.
Some historians today push to the limits the use of imagination in their writing, to the admiration of many casual readers, and sometimes to the condemnation of other historians. But the truly great historian is one who without any invention provides the reader with a sense of the past that is deeper than what the surviving written sources provide. The clever use of gossipy tattle-tailing to the Church Inquisitor, enabled the French historian, Le Roy Ladurie, without any invention, to lift the roof from off village houses in the Pyrenees, and expose the intimate scenes below (in one delightful passage, literally - "you could lift the edge of a shingle roof with your head to look in and see what was going on in the kitchen."*). The occupants could hardly have imagined how their very private antics would interest readers centuries later.
In attempting to breathe life into the dust and stone of an excavation, and often without the written words to illuminate it, I frequently find myself walking the line between a straightforward record of the exposed evidence, and the recreation through my imagination of how it must have been when the stone walls and dirt floors were intact. What were the inhabitants like, what did they feel and experience? When I write about the evidence that I have uncovered, it is those imagined but non-surviving aspects that give a depth to the record and add a dimension, even though I do not write them down.
* Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Montaillou, Harmondsworth, 1984, p. 40.