Ethics: Historical Novels are Propaganda

Most writing has the power to disseminate ideas. Those of us who are lucky enough to write bestsellers, or make movies, have the ability to reach a large, and often worldwide audience. The information we provide, the attitudes of our heroes and villains, the assumptions underlying our texts, work their way out in subtle ways into the popular consciousness - and having lodged there, may help to create or fortify prejudices that can even affect legislatures.

An example often cited is the anti-semitism to be found in the otherwise enjoyable works of John Buchan (The Thirty-Nine Steps). While it's perhaps unfair to single Buchan out in a period when a degree of anti-semitism was endemic in most of Europe's upper classes, the criticism is that, precisely because he was such a popular novelist, Buchan contributed to the acceptability of the anti-semitic idea.

Let me cite another example, this time a popular tract rather than a novel (though it was pure fiction). In 1641, there was a revolt in the province of Ulster, in Ireland. For reasons that were complex, numerous Catholics rose against the Protestants in the Ulster plantations. The Protestants retaliated. The fighting was bloody and, between the two sides, perhaps five thousand people died. Yet not long afterwards, a pamphlet appeared in England which, making no mention of the Protestant killing of Catholics, alleged that the Irish Catholics had risen and murdered over 300,000 innocent Protestant men, women and children. (This would have been greater than the total Protestant population of Ulster). Not only was this tract believed - Cromwell's men imagined they were avenging this stupendous crime - but it became part of popular myth. Two centuries later, in Victorian times, it was still being quoted in the British Parliament as an example of why the Irish were not fit to govern themselves.

The writers of novels and the makers of movies, therefore, need to beware. The way that we depict history will enter the general consciousness. If we misrepresent the historical record, we may be contributing more than we imagine to the way that our readers consciously or subconsciously think about the world. The writer may not wish it, but cannot avoid the fact that novels are propaganda.

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