Want to learn some history? Make a date with fiction

Lifestyle

Want to learn some history? Make a date with fiction

Never mind history books, it’s period literature and poetry that most vividly take you back in time

Jake Kerridge

Forget the Booker longlist: as I get older, I find myself, more and more often, wanting to escape the 21st-century mindset and take refuge in history.

Contrarily enough, however, I find I’m reading fewer works by professional historians. We are lucky enough to have innumerable historians writing today, with great style and wit, yet I can’t shake off the feeling that they get in the way of the past. It’s not just that historians have their own prejudices and agendas. Reading a work of history can often feel like being taken round an art gallery by an unquenchably eager cicerone: yes, he or she may be hugely better-informed than I am, but sometimes I just want to form my own opinion about an artwork, make my own connection with it. And the literary equivalent is to turn to what scholars call primary sources — the fiction and poetry of past centuries.

Of course, I can spend many happy hours devouring a first-class work of history such David Kynaston’s Tales of a New Jerusalem, with its trolley-dash approach of bunging in as much detail as possible resulting in an unforgettable collage of post-war Britain. But if I really want a visceral sense of what it felt like to be alive in the 1950s — to feel that grey decade get into my bones like a chill — I’ll pick up Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim or Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net and live vicariously through their downtrodden heroes, Jim Dixon and Jake Donaghue...

This article is reserved for Sunday Times Daily subscribers.
A subscription gives you full digital access to all Sunday Times Daily content.

Sunday Times Daily

Already subscribed? Simply sign in below.

Questions or problems?
Email helpdesk@timeslive.co.za or call 0860 52 52 00.