Daily Archives: October 21st, 2006

Nobel Prizes and historical writing

I found out just now that Theodore Mommsen won the 1902 Nobel Prize in Literature for the three volumes of History of Rome, and remembered that Winston Churchill took it out sometime after WWII for his History of the English Speaking People. I find it quite amazing, and highly admirable, that historical writing is able to win this prize.

I also frequently get Mommsen and … now I’ve forgotten his name; someone else who wrote about Rome – oh yes, thanks Wikipedia, Edward Gibbon. Don’t ask me why; could well be because they are both giants in Roman history and I haven’t read either. Bad me.

Somewhat related to this, there’s an interesting article in The Age about Making a fiction of history… – Kate Grenville has written some book (called The Secret River) which includes some ‘real’ events but out of their correct context (geographically, chronologically, and personally). There’s a dispute raging about whether novelists are allowed to claim that their stories are ‘history’ in some sense. Inga Clendinnen is fuelling the fires with a will…. I’m not sure what I think of the whole furore. I think I agree with Clendinnen’s words at the end of the article:

“You’re allowed to play games if you’re clearly on your side of the ravine,” she says. “Thousands of people will read The Secret River and get some knowledge of their past. That’s great – as long as it’s kept in the fiction section.”

Yup. I learnt an enormous amount about Roman history from Colleen McCollough (sp?) and her Rome series – to the extent that I knew stuff at uni that impressed my tutor, always a good thing – but I had to keep in mind that the motivations and emotions she attributed to the characters were her invention, no matter how well researched they were. I like empathy in history, I try hard – althoguh perhaps not ahrd enough – to get my students to feel empathy – but somewhere, there is a line where empathy does not and cannot help, and may be misleading.

Yeh, really not sure where I’m going with all of this.