History, Fiction

Chalk and cheese, history and fiction; at first sight some things appear to be wholly unrelated, if not binary opposites. However, if you eat too much cheese you may reach for some antacids, which frequently contain calcium carbonate – the main constituent of chalk.

In his review of East, West, Terry Eagleton proposes that ‘The comma between “East” and “West” in Salman Rushdie’s title thus forms a bridge as well as marking a gap’. Similarly, history and fiction can be conceptualised as sitting at opposite sides of a river – but there is a bridge, and the traffic moves both ways. Glance around any bookshop and you will inevitably encounter a considerable quantity of historical fiction, stories which draw (to one extent or another) on historical knowledge for their setting and inspiration. Similarly, fictional works can also provide sources for historians, as part of the creative output of their period novels often provide us with insight or social commentary.

All of this is already well known, but there is another important aspect to the history-fiction relationship, at least in my opinion. Around two years ago I did some research that involved looking at a selection of the sixteenth-century friendship albums (album amicorum) held in the British Library. These albums were compiled by young German men during their studies in foreign universities and contain signatures and testimonies of friendship from their fellow students. For instance:

‘Georgius Seutter wrote this as a perpetual bond of fraternity to (Ortelius – name scratched out) who was most distinguished in birth and virtue, in Padua, 17 May 1575’.

(From B.L.: Eagerton MS 1191, trans. Margaret F. Rosenthal ‘Fashions of Friendship’, p.625.)

0005 746 Illustrated page from the friendship album of Michael van Meer (1590-1653).

These albums are rich sources and provide insights into everything from perceptions of foreign customs and fashions, to interpersonal bonds. However, whilst the albums can at times give some sense of the relationships between students (some of which can be traced and elaborated through other sources, such as diaries or letters) many of these relationships remain a mystery. The statements of friendship, like that of Georgius Seutter, can strike us as highly formal in contrast to how we express friendship today. When reading through the albums I often wondered how well some of these young men actually knew each other. Who were acquaintances and who were closer friends? How much (and what) meaning did Seutter ascribe to his ‘bond of fraternity’ with Ortelius? Often these questions simply cannot be answered. Unanswerable questions permeate the entire field of history; no matter how diligently historians work there will always be gaps in our knowledge, innumerable individual lives have simply been lost. The past is often, as Eavan Boland put it:

… an empty café terrace.
An airless dusk before thunder. A man running.
And no way now to know what happened then –
none at all – unless, of course, you improvise:

From ‘The black lace fan my mother gave me’, Eavan Boland, Outside History.

To ‘improvise’, to ‘make or create from whatever is available’ (OED). Historians undoubtedly do a certain amount of improvising, offering theories on the past founded in the extant evidence. However, where there is little or no evidence, where there are gaps in history, this is where, I believe, fiction can play an important role. Authors of fiction can take historical improvisation much further than historians, the only limitations on the extent of their improvisation are those which are imposed by the authors themselves through their selection of genre, style, etc. Moreover, when we are reading fiction we can suspend our disbelief, no one is looking for footnotes. Authors can insert characters into history, like Henri, who prepares Napoleon’s chicken in Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion. Thus fiction, and poetry too, can provide improvised histories; they are free to imagine events and lives into the gaps in our knowledge.

Bernardine Evaristo’s novel in verse, The Emperor’s Babe, is one text that provides a rich imagining based on one of our historical gaps. The text is set in Roman Britain under the Emperor Septimius Severus and narrated by Zuleika, a daughter of Sudanese immigrants who was ‘born in the back of a shop’. Zuleika embodies a created but poignant individual history, whilst also standing as a symbol for Britain’s multicultural history. This is a history for which there is ever increasing evidence, archaeological work at York in 2010 proved there was an African presence in Britain during the Roman period, and this year a DNA study of remains held in the Museum of London has illustrated that the city was multicultural from its earliest days. As Peter Fryer put it ‘There were Africans in Britain before the English came’.


Yet there is still much that we don’t know about the lives of those of African origins or descent in Roman Britain. Evaristo’s fiction takes this gap and imagines one possible life into it. What we get is the story of Zuleika’s struggles, friendships, daily life, and love, and it is a vibrant, intimate, and very human story. Zuleika doesn’t change history, and Evaristo doesn’t rewrite known history, and this is perhaps part of what makes the idea of Zuleika seem more real to the reader. There is a sense, I find, when reading this novel, that Zuleika could very well have existed and that her story simply slipped through the gaps of history. Ultimately, however, we cannot ignore the fact that this is a fictional text, which can lead us to ask – What do we not know about history? What is missing? Who is missing? Why? This novel does not whitewash history, if anything it makes its gaps more visible.

These gaps in history are very often inhabited by the suppressed, the minorities, and the disfranchised. Britain’s long multicultural history remains largely under recognised, and there are some who would rather ignore or deny it altogether. The will to suppress is something that The Emperor’s Babe also addresses. If Zuleika represents a suppressed multicultural history Felix, her husband, represents a domineering narrative of history which visualises a monocultural Britain and focuses on the lives of “great” white men. Zuleika never has a child because her Caucasian husband ‘ruined me before I was ready’. Felix’s desire to practice authority over his wife, and her body, can be seen like a dominating narrative, suppressing female and multicultural histories. This isn’t just a novel situated in history, it is also a novel about how history is written.

Indeed, whilst The Emperor’s Babe doesn’t represent a dramatic rewriting of established historical facts, Evaristo does find another, possibly more subversive, way of rewriting history. The whole text challenges the form and ideology embodied by the classical epic poem. Zuleika’s professor, Theodorous, lectures that if she wishes to write poetry she must learn the first thousand years of the male dominated canon of epic poetry by heart. Then she must learn to write in the traditional formal structure conceived by a man, namely the ‘hendecasyllables/ à la Pliny Jr’. Subject matter must be confined to ‘war, death, the gods/ and the founding of countries’ – masculine subjects, and also topics which once formed the central focus of much historical scholarship. Yet throughout the text Evaristo, through Zuleika (who narrates the text in the first person), rejects these principles. She rejects any structure – the poetry throughout is highly varied in its style. Zuleika also, as Dave Gunning has observed, retains her own authentic voice throughout the text, speaking a ‘second-generation pleby creole’ that blends English, Cockney, Latin, Italian and Scots slang’. Moreover, Zuleika is driven by the desire to write about ‘us, about now’, and not for ‘posterity’. Thus, Evaristo improvises, she upends the traditional written form to remind us that there always other voices, other perspectives beyond the preserved or dominant narratives.

Another definition of ‘improvise’ in the OED states that this is an act of creation or invention that is sometimes carried out ‘as a result of necessity’. Eavan Boland writes in her poem Outside History, that ‘There are outsiders, always’, lives that have slipped into the gaps of history, of which no trace remains. However, absence does not equal irrelevance. Historians certainly can ask what is missing, and we should know where the gaps are, and sometimes we can offer convincing theories on the lives and experiences which these gaps mark. In the end however, it is fiction and poetry which can improvise, which can create human (hi)stories that prompt us to remember what we do not know.

There are outsiders, always. These stars –
these iron inklings of an Irish January,
whose light happened

 thousands of years before
our pain did: they are, they have always been
outside history,

From ‘Outside History’, Eavan Boland, Outside History.


Texts Cited.

B.L: Egerton MS 1191, Album of Sigismundus Ortelius, 1573-1579.

Eavan Boland, Outside History: selected poems, 1980-1990 (London, 2001).

Terry Eagleton, ‘Deadly Fetishes’, London Review of Books, 16:19 (6 Oct. 1994).

Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The history of black people in Britain (London: Pluto Press, 1984).

Pallab Ghosh, ‘DNA study finds London was ethnically diverse from start’, BBC News (23 Nov. 2015), http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-34809804.

Dave Gunning, ‘Cosmopolitanism and Marginalisation in Bernardine Evaristo’s The Emperor’s Babe’ in G. Kadija (ed.), Write Black, Write British: From Post Colonial to Black British Literature (London: Hansib, 2005).

Alastair Niven, ‘Alastair Niven in conversation with Bernardine Evaristo’, Wasafiri 16 (2001): pp.15-20.

Margaret F. Rosenthal, ‘Fashions of Friendship in an Early Modern Illustrated Album Amicorum: British Library, MS Egerton 1191’, The journal of medieval and early modern studies, 39 (2009), pp.619-641.