How can there be a true history?


By Lindsey Davis, published 14th May 2013

"How can there be a true history, when we see no man living is able to write truly the history of the last week?" (Thomas Shadwell)

Indeed! Once when I had to give a talk in Spain, I found this quotation by looking up ‘history' in the Oxford English Dictionary. The author is a picaresque seventeenth century dramatist. As I should have known, though I could only think of Shadwell as a station on the Docklands Light Railway, I Googled him. There you can glimpse my approach: curiosity about the past, placing historical figures in context, the importance of locations. For research I used a traditional resource plus a modern one and, ultimately, my choice of the quote appealed to the student of English in me.

Although grounded in ‘Eng Lit and Lang', when I began to write professionally, I always wanted to be a historical novelist; no  alternative ever appealed. I didn't know then that you only get taken seriously if you are either a literary author who decides to slum it in costume for a few quick bucks or a professor of history - "Look at me, a Famous Man, lowering myself to write a novel about a Famous Man!" They are a bit one-track-minded, novelist profs; it's always Alexander being Great, never the boy who files Bucephalus' hooves. I, by contrast, might actually find mileage in Antinoos' life when he was only a Theban shepherd, before Hadrian happened along... Luckily I have managed to get a fair way without being taken seriously and now I am asked to tell you about it, so maybe things are looking up...

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