I recently finished reading “The Other Boleyn Girl” by Philippa Gregory. After seeing previews for the movie, I was intrigued by the insider look at the court of Henry VIII. Since the book is usually – not always – better than the movie, I decided to tackle the 600-page work over last week’s mini-vacation.
I am not surprised that Gregory has won a name for herself as an author of historical fiction. Her characters come alive with all their foibles, both pitiable and despicable, but always human. As with other historical fiction I have read, there is a special delight in recognizing the name of a familiar “real,” minor character, like poet Sir Thomas Wyatt.
I have read histories about Henry VIII and could have told you that he had many wives, instituted the Church of England because the Catholic Church wouldn’t give him a divorce, and had many people beheaded, including several wives for not giving him a son.
However, I would have had to rack my brain to remember which wife had which child who later fought for supremacy, or that Mary and Elizabeth’s fight for dominance over political and religious life in England was directly related to Henry’s reign and licentiousness.
Why does historical fiction make it easier to remember historical events? Here’s my theory: it is almost always easier to remember a story than it is to remember a set of facts. The presence of a continuous narrative, a consistent linking thread, gives facts greater meaning because it ties them together and gives them a location in relation to others.
Think about how many song lyrics you know. Did you consciously memorize them? Probably not. Because the music connected them together, you didn’t have to think about what came next – you just followed the music.
For this same reason, I find it easier to memorize Shakespeare than many other authors, because there is a greater rhythm to his writing, especially the verse, but also with the prose. When I performed in Macbeth in college, I could recite my lines easily and remember where they fit in the sequence of the scene because the meter connected each individual word in a meaningful way.
I first memorized a 30-line speech from Shakespeare in ninth grade – Katharina’s speech at the end of The Taming of the Shrew. I still remember it, along with the speeches from Julius Caesar and Hamlet that I memorized in eleventh grade, and the speech from Cymbeline I memorized this summer.
Just as the lyrics in a song or the meter and rhyme in Shakespeare connect the words like Christmas lights, the narrative of a historical fiction novel does the same thing with otherwise disconnected facts.
No subject should be studied in isolation – not literature without history, not sociology without literature, not politics without economics, not media without psychology, and so on. When all of these disparate fields are brought together, each one gains better perspective, and the student gains more understanding of cultural narratives as a whole.
Literature apart from history and culture is a shell of its potential; however, history without literature is little better.