Cassandra Pybus responds to Inga Clendinnen

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Read Inga Clendinnen’s essay Fellow Sufferers: History and Imagination

I am compelled by Inge Clendinnen’s superb essay to remove my editor’s hat for a moment to make some observations from my position as a writer of history.

While I agree wholeheartedly with Inge Clendinnen’s analysis of the importance of history in the development of moral sensibility, I am not sure that I can agree with her that historians are inherently less able than novelists to beguile the public with the past, unless they resort to embellishing their history with fiction.

It is true, as Lori Askeland points out, that often our deepest historical understanding comes from the work of novelists. Askeland cites a magnificent example in Beloved . As an academic historian in the 1970s I found my richest historical understanding in the work of fiction writers, notably William Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren, from whom I gained the philosophical perspective which informs all my work, superbly encapsulated in the line from William Faulkner which is the epigraph to my first book: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” These are writers who can communicate about the past with enormous richness and poignancy. So why is it that historians don’t write like that?

I think the problem is less with “being bound like Gulliver to the fragmented, frustrating record”, as the failure of imagination and language in the writing of history. Of course historians have to work with the treacherous medium of the bits and pieces left behind–the self selecting detritus of the lives of those largely literate and well placed and mediated through narratives which are subjective, open-ended and self-serving. But in Absalom Absalom William Faulkner did wonderful things with this kind of material.

Why should historians not be as imaginative and innovative in their use of language and form as the novelists? After all, both fiction and history have the same roots in narrative storytelling, so it follows, I believe, that historians should be prepared to create a world as rich and resonant of that of the novelist and not be inhibited by the rigours of professionalism, or the primacy of source material, into creating the prosaic and excruciatingly dull prose which is the norm for historical writing. Inge Clendinnen being a outstanding exception.

As Clendinnen points out, professional historians are in the main terrified of the kind of immediacy that we readers seek in a novel; and equally they scorn the subjective voice. I would argue that historians should not be afraid to give their narrative a genuine voice instead of trying to disguise their subjective engagement in the past with anonymous blandness. This does not mean that the world created, the believable reality constructed, has validity purely from its own coherence, or from the persuasiveness of language. Historical validity must come from the intellectual engagement with material which exists outside the construct of the text. No historian would deny that. Equally in historical writing there can be no closures, no certainties. But it is exactly the ambiguity, the incompleteness, the continually shifting field of reference which is interesting about history and suits so well the playful, imaginative forms of contemporary fiction.

In the interplay of the elements of history, myth and narrative there is plenty of scope for intellectual play, and for the exercise of imagination which are mostly associated with the modes of fiction writing, without the historian necessarily slipping into the realm of fiction. Well, I like to think so anyway.


Cassandra Pybus is the editor of Australian Humanities Review and author a several books of history, most recently, White Rajah.

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