April 28, 2004

Edward Rutherfurd and History

Posted by Ed

Today's New York Times features a profile of Edward Rutherfurd, the English historical novelist who's just published a new book spanning 1,100 years of Irish history.

Here's Rutherfurd's take on history:

Mr. Rutherfurd, who is 56, acknowledges Michener as the inventor of the form, a kind of docu-genre. "It's an odd sort of hybrid," he said during a recent visit to New York from his home in Dublin, "a curious region between fiction and nonfiction." Major events and historical characters are real; other characters are imaginary.

Mr. Rutherfurd is scrupulous about accuracy and about avoiding anachronisms. His books are heavily researched and, chapter by chapter, he says, he checks his facts with historians, although by now he could have some claim to that role.

He is candid about his craft: "I think I'm a popularizer of history, a commercial novelist, and I don't think anything is wrong with that." But, he said, he feels an "ethical responsibility not to mislead" the reader.

"I won't cheat on history," he said.


For all his emphasis on research, he retains a certain skepticism about history. He recalled an incident from his school days. Two teachers suddenly began fighting in a classroom as 22 boys looked on "in absolute horror." Then the fighting stopped and one of the teachers asked the class to write down what had happened.

"There were 22 conflicting stories," he said. "The moral is, historical truth doesn't exist." Facing historical uncertainty, he will have two fictional characters disagree about events and offer alternative views. Through his fiction Mr. Rutherfurd can arrive at an imaginative approximation of the truth.

I'm always a little wary of arguments that writers like Rutherfurd "have some claim" to the role of historian, though it's hard for a historian or a historian-in-training to develop this argument without sounding jealous of a successful writer. I've never read one of Rutherfurd's books in its entirety, but my sense is that he tells kind of entertaining stories that bring up various interesting historical facts, without giving a very convincing sense of what it was really like to live in the past. (His books, like Michener's, tend to describe the same family over hundreds of years of history, and there are times when every family member sounds suspiciously the same--even when they're separated in time by several hundred years.)

It's great that Rutherfurd has been able to tell his readers about the past, and some of the lessons he offers seem fascinating and potentially important. The profile discusses the preponderance of slavery in early Ireland, the high frequency of divorce, and the common notion of trial marriages, for example. ("Puritanical Irish society is really a 19th-century phenomenon," Rutherfurd says--an important lesson for readers.) But Rutherfurd also says that he was surprised to learn that St. Patrick didn't really rid Ireland of snakes. Was he really this naive before beginning his research, or was this just the sort of silly claim you make to get a reporter to shut up?

Posted by Ed at April 28, 2004 10:48 AM

Mr. Rutherfurd appears not to have heard of Sir Walter Scott or Leo Tolstoy, or rather, not to have read them.

Posted by: Andy at April 28, 2004 04:27 PM

I'm not sure that this (or the commentary on your own blog) is a fair reading of what Rutherfurd wrote. That blog commentary, for readers unfamiliar with it, is located at the following link:


Rutherfurd never claimed that James Michener invented the historical novel, and I think it's fair to say that the sub-genre that Rutherfurd writes _was_ developed (or at least popularized) by Michener. That sub-genre takes one locale, presents a limited number of families that lived there, covers a different historical moment in each chapter (with a completely different set of characters from each family), and describes the history of the locale from ancient or prehistoric times until the present day; these books are middle-brow in nature and are intended to inform their readers about history as well as to tell a story. In that sense, I don't even think that this sort of book could have been developed prior to the rise of the modern academic discipline of history.

I don't know for sure that Rutherfurd's latest book fits this pattern: its title suggests that it's more interested in the history of a group of people than in the history of a place. Rutherfurd's previous books (including Sarum and Russka) definitely fit the Michener model, however. From what I've seen of his books, I suspect that Rutherfurd's narrative style was consciously modeled on Michener's, and it seems quite accurate to say that Rutherfurd is working in a Michenerian subgenre. I think you've read too much into what Rutherfurd said (or into what the reporter paraphrased him as saying), and then cast his words in an overly unflattering light.

Posted by: Ed at April 30, 2004 02:26 PM

If Mr. Rutherfurd chooses to take Michener as his literary guide, who am I to balk?

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