Socks for the Boys!

My Great Aunt Norah's wartime diaries, 1938-1948

Kernels of Truth: historians and the imagination

This blog post is a departure from my usual in that it is concerned with the process of writing rather than with Norah’s story itself.  It addresses issues to do with history and fiction which I have been wrestling with for a good while now and about which I feel compelled to write. Apologies if it doesn’t appeal! The blog will continue shortly with the development of Norah’s relationship with Danny and the increasingly unsalubrious letters from Jim.

My last blog post was based on a single entry in Norah’s diary for 19th September 1941: Went to Derby & bought blue dress material & fed swans in river gardens. I’m in love with him & I don’t care a scrap. All we can know about that day in Norah’s life are these 25 words. However, I found myself imagining Norah making that trip, leaving the house and skipping down to the bus station, travelling into Derby on a Barton’s bus, gliding into Midland Drapery to buy her dress material, walking from there to the River Gardens to eat her lunch and feed the swans, and all the time thinking about Danny, with whom she had just fallen in love.

The issue of how far we use our imaginations in writing history is very topical in the history blog world at the moment. Helen Rogers and Matt Houlbrooke have both written recently about their own use of styles of writing more commonly associated with fiction than academic history. So I want to explore here not only why I feel compelled to ‘fictionalise’ at times, but also to explore what ‘to fictionalise’ really means?


I was once in a lift with a poet who’d read a part of my manuscript. He had written me some feedback but this was the only occasion I had a conversation with him.

You need to use more of the techniques of the novelist, he said.

I started to answer back – to argue with him – but what about history? – the sources? – the truth? The lift came to a halt and the doors shuddered open. As he made his exit, he looked back at me, calling over his shoulder,

and I don’t mean making it up!

That was the challenge I’d been waiting for. The assertion that there are writers out there who think that novelists aren’t making it up!

Soon after, I talked to a novelist. She’s written some fabulous stuff, novels I really love. And she said this: although the story is made up, it is imagined from true events, real feelings. Sometimes it is even a distillation of many such events. As such, it contains a kernel of truth. This novelist believes that fiction allows her to get closer to a truth than do the facts of history. This is different from using fiction to develop a story when the sources run out. Fiction can enable us to get to an essence of something that is frequently not expressed in the extant source materials. But the thing that lies between the sources and the final piece of writing is the act of imagining. It seems to me that this is the crucial component and that for writers of history, our relationship with and immersion in the sources is key.

Officially speaking, imagination doesn’t sit easily with academic historians. We analyse. We are less interested in narrative and images. As Helen Rogers has written,

in so much scholarly history, the sources are made not to tell a story but to make an argument, or if there is a story, it must be kept in its place, subordinated to analysis. As writers, it’s the stories and sources we cling to; they are the bits we hate to lose when forced to cut-down a paper. When we allow them to stay, they are sandwiched between topic sentences announcing their purpose and stating what they mean. Rarely are they allowed to lead, except perhaps in an epigram or opening vignette before the voice of the historian kicks in. And as readers, academics are even less tolerant of stories. Our eyes skate over quotation and illustration to zoom in on the knock out ‘punch lines’ on method or argument. It’s the skeleton we look for, not the flesh and meat.

I maybe shouldn’t confess that most journal articles I have published have come back in the early stages with ‘too much narrative’ in comment boxes (or scrawled in pen) next to two or more paragraphs. Like many academics I feel extremely frustrated at times with the way we write and wonder whether there are other ways of being rigorous, whether stories themselves can be suggestive of an interpretation. And while we acknowledge that we interpret sources and that those interpretations are shaped by current theories and interests, some of which are very personal, we hold back from making too explicit use of the imagination. Indeed, we could – and probably should – argue that interpretation is a product of the imagination in itself.

For other history-lovers, it is the story that matters. Stories are subtle, suggestive. They engage the reader, requiring them to imagine, to do the work of interpretation. The truth is important too, of course, and as I discovered when discussing my book with members of a book club recently, readers need to feel they can trust that they are being told the truth as you know it. They want to know that they can rely on you, that you are not tricking them. I understand this feeling very well. I was elated when I reached the end of Laurent Binet’s brilliant HHhH, in which the author plays with concepts of history and fiction while telling a very good story. Then I had a sudden and overwhelming sense of dread. What if Binet was not the narrator; that the narrator had been made up? I scoured the internet for interviews with the author until I found the one where he stated quite clearly that the narrator was himself. What a relief. I could love the book again.

It has taken me a long time to feel comfortable with the idea that fiction can convey truth as well as history. When I first received my great aunt’s diaries, when I knew nothing more than that I didn’t want to gut them for academic articles and that I wanted to write a book that she would recognise as her story, I decided to take a module in life-writing to help me work out what this might mean. This was my first venture into creative writing. The tutor, Conor O’Callaghan, a poet and memoirist (not the poet in the lift!), pushed me to experiment with new ways of writing: imagining dialogue, descriptive passages, making the research process an explicit part of the story, indeed, writing myself and my relationship with Norah into the book. For me, being a historian supervised by a poet has been interesting in itself. For a short while, I wondered if it would work. When Conor urged me to ‘get rid of that sentence, you sound like a historian!’ I would protest rather meekly, ‘but I am a historian…’ What this did, was tap into my long-standing anxieties about the way academics write, and prompt me to think more critically about the different ways we come to ‘know’ history. I’ve written elsewhere (here and here) about how other writers, poets in particular, focus on the sensory experience. The same is true of much history beyond academia, where the emphasis is on the story and on showing rather than solely on analysis and telling.

So in the chapter that formed my last post, it felt absolutely imperative to me to make explicit the fact that I do imagine the situations that my historical characters find themselves in. I used to do this far less. When I was writing about missionaries in West Africa and the South Seas, for example, I stuck with the analysis, hardly let myself imagine what it would feel like for the Sheffield Quaker Hannah Kilham to arrive in Sierra Leone, or for a Muslim Gambian dignitary to coolly receive her and tell her she could set up a mission school if she wished but his children didn’t need a Christian education. Or for George Vason of Nottingham, on one of the earliest missions to the South Seas, to make the decision to abandon the mission and live as a Tongan chief. I think my writing might have been better for it. More recently, writing abut Fredrika Bremer’s travels in North America in 1849-1851, or Mary Howitt’s C19th faith journey from Quaker childhood to Roman Catholic old age, via Unitarianism and Spritiualism, I found myself drawn into the stories, even writing in the present tense. But even here, paragraphs which were more intuitive and more story-led had to be left out of the final academic articles.

Of course I don’t know that Norah took the bus into Derby on 19th September 1941. She might have broken with her usual habit and walked down to the railway station and jumped on the train. Maybe she had already spied a piece of fabric on a stall in the Market Hall and did not venture into Midland Drapery at all. Then there is the spam cob and the unresolved  issue of the chocolate éclair (Norah had lots of chocolate during WW2, but no-one can tell me about the availability of éclairs!) But I wanted to convey Norah’s lightness, her giddiness, her sense of excitement, all of which come through in that diary entry. I needed to imagine her switching her affections from Jim to Danny, falling in love properly for the first time.

In this sense then, the truth is in the emotion. Though the éclair continues to bug me, the actual facts of Norah’s day – bus or train, spam or potted meat? – while needing to be plausible, became less important. Reading historical scholarship in order to gain an understanding of the ’emotional communities’ in which Norah would find herself in 1941 was essential (1). But  I also had a song in my head, Jolie Holland’s ‘Crush in the Ghetto’, the context of which bears no relation to wartime Derby at all, but the dreaminess and sentiment seem entirely appropriate to an evocation of that slightly disembodied feeling when you find yourself falling in love.

I am floating with the birds, I’m talking to the wind, look what you’ve done to me,

I’m still dressed up from the night before, silken hose and an old Parisian coat,

And I feel like a queen at the bus stop on the street, look what you’ve done to me.

It’s a beautiful morning in the ghetto, finer than the day before…

But the question remains: does this in any way enhance our understanding of history? For me, it does. The appeal to the senses and the emphasis on seeing the world through another’s eyes, allows me to see other things in the sources and to appreciate them from new perspectives.

(1) My forthcoming article, ‘”Went into raptures”: reading emotion in the ordinary wartime diary, 1941-1946’, will be published in a special edition (on women, emotion, love and melancholy) of Women’s History Review in 2015. For ’emotional communities’, see Barbara H Rosenwein, ‘Worrying About Emotions in History’, American Historical Review, 107: 3 (2002), 821-845, p. 842; and Barbara H. Rosenwein quoted in Jan Plamper, ‘The history of emotions: An interview with William Reddy, Barbara Rosenwein and Peter Stearns’, History and Theory, 49, 237-265, p. 253.


7 comments on “Kernels of Truth: historians and the imagination

  1. Liz
    September 10, 2014

    Hi Socks – I think it’s interesting to reflect on the process and the blog is a good space for you to do this. As I was reading your piece I remembered a distinction which Wordsworth drew between invention and imagination. The former is literature which is made-up from scratch whereas the latter is based on an existing narrative or event. All writing is positioned somewhere along this spectrum I think (Wordsworth claimed that he had only limited powers of invention). Life writing keeps its distance from invention; maybe as a historian you are slightly less comfortable when your treatment of Norah moves along this spectrum (while your post last week was imagination rather than invention, it certainly had a different feel). Any variation in your use of imagination (and certainly wandering into invention) will alter your relationship with the reader, as you acknowledge; I certainly responded differently to your 19th September piece. I also remembered the missing diary. Did imagining something from nothing feel easier than embellishing what is there?

    • Socks for the Boys!
      September 17, 2014

      Liz, this is the most brilliant, thought-provoking comment. The distinction between imagination and invention feels very important. What I have noted, however, is that parts of the story some readers consider to be invention are to me imagination. For example, my last but one post (imagining Norah’s trip into Derby) didn’t feel like invention to me and I felt entirely comfortable with it. But later on, I have Danny’s mother receiving a letter from Norah and that is entirely invention (apart from the fact that the letter existed and was sent). I enjoyed writing that piece, but have to make clear it is not based on any evidence. So yes … and no. I need to think about this more, I realise. (I had hoped to have something more profound to write before I replied to your comment, but that hasn’t happened yet!)

      • Liz
        September 17, 2014

        You are far too kind about my contribution, socks, but thank you 🙂 If the letter exists and was sent then Wordsworth would regard that as imagination rather than invention – what you have done is imagine how the characters might have felt and acted rather than invent a story from scratch. There is probably, in fact, very little of your writing that is invention in the strict sense that Wordsworth meant it. Andrew Motion has written about this distinction in the introduction to a book he wrote which you might find useful – I think it’s called the Invention of Dr Cake or something – I’ll look it out and lend it to you if you like. Motion did something writerly based on papers he found (diaries I think, as with Norah) so the distinction was pertinent to him. I don’t think he claimed it as life writing/memoir because he approached it as a writer of prose fiction rather than a memoirist, but he did have to confront some of the issues exercising you. I think adopting a writerly approach is an entirely different issue. You can use these (or not) whether you are employing invention or imagination. Some of the key principles of working as a writer (in terms of character, location, conflict, resolution cycle for example, or in the way characterisation is achieved through dialogue) can be applied whether or not a writer is inventing or imagining a story. If I had a disatisfaction with Norah’s trip to Derby it wasn’t that you’d imagined it but that I wanted you to use some more writerly techniques – I’m not sure if you quite threw off your historian’s voice. It is SUCH a challenging task you have set yourself however, and you are doing a grand job 🙂

  2. Pingback: Kernels of Truth: historians and the imagination | Home Front Girl

  3. Liz
    September 17, 2014

    Sorry to have yet more to say Alison but I’ve been thinking about what a creative writer (as opposed to a historian) might have done with the trip to Derby. Perhaps they would have picked up that rather defiant ‘and i don’t give a scrap’ and worked off that. Had somebody perhaps suggested to Norah that she was being irresponsible? What was tugging at her conscience? It’s an odd thing to say unless someone has challenged you in some way and made you think that you might be doing something wrong. A creative writer might have imagined such a conversation. I think this would still be imagination rather than invention in that the diary tells us how Norah felt – the writer wouldn’t have invented that but rather imagined the relationships which might have created such a feeling. Perhaps a historian is more reluctant to fill in this sort of colour? Just musing aloud really, trying to put my finger on different ways of approaching a text…

  4. Socks for the Boys!
    October 7, 2014

    So sorry for the lateness of this reply! I have broken the fundamental rule of blogging: reply to people who take the time to leave fantastic comments! I have found what you say here really thought-provoking. I don’t know whether I was reluctant to deal with her defiant ‘I don’t care a scrap’ or whether I hadn’t quite grasped the importance of it. But you are quite right. Whether she is replying to her guilty conscience or to a comment made by her mother, I can never know (I suspect both), but I can certainly make more of it. I’m going to discuss these issues at a conference on using diaries in November. Thank you!

  5. Pingback: The real versus the imagined | meeting in the middle

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This entry was posted on September 9, 2014 by in writing history.
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