History with a human face

Books Special Report | The rise of historical fiction and narrative history-which often takes God into account through richly detailed stories of the era-marks a positive cultural trend

Issue: "Summer Books 2002," July 7, 2002

Filmmakers are now adapting Patrick O'Brian's seafaring novels of the Napoleonic war to the big screen, a prospect that has fans of his 20-book series as excited and as apprehensive as Tolkien and Harry Potter fans were at the news that their beloved books would become movies.

O'Brian, who died in 2000, inspired a number of other historical-fiction writers who followed in his wake. Modernism is over, and with it its prejudice for things that are new, so interest in the past and stories that bring history to life has surged, from the literati (the novels of Umberto Eco) to pop culture (Titanic).

And now popular culture embraces O'Brian. The role of Captain Jack Aubrey goes to Russell Crowe, the Oscar-winning star of Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind. Paul Bettany will play Aubrey's sidekick, ship's surgeon and secret agent Stephen Maturin. (Mr. Bettany played the young Chaucer in A Knight's Tale and Mr. Crowe's college roommate in A Beautiful Mind.) Billy Boyd, who played Pippen in The Lord of the Rings, will portray Aubrey's faithful coxswain Barrett Bonden.

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Whether Mr. Crowe will forgo the brooding image of most of his roles to capture Aubrey's bluff good nature and his near comical capacity of being as clueless on the land as he is masterful on the sea remains to be seen. But O'Brian fans can applaud the news that one of Hollywood's biggest stars has the lead role, which ensures top-notch production values and some thrilling sea battles.

Shooting on Master and Commander, based on the first book of the series, is already underway. With a substantial budget of $135 million and a big-name director in Peter Weir (Gallipoli, Witness, Dead Poets Society), 20th Century Fox is reportedly thinking "franchise," since movies that turn into whole series are currently Hollywood's most profitable commodity. The film is scheduled for release next summer.

The O'Brian books, which have been called the greatest historical novels of all time, combine entertaining story lines of action and adventure with meticulous recreations of a time very different from our own.

History has received short shrift in the "progressive" education theories that have dominated schools for decades. "Social Science" has focused on vast cultural issues, wherein children dress up like colonial villagers to learn what it feels like to grind corn and receive object lessons in multiculturalism. When history is taught, it is often a matter of statistics, abstruse politics, and debates about racism, sexism, and homophobia. History as the deeds of great men, or as the march of civilization, or as record of human folly and achievements-such views, it seemed, were hopelessly passé.

But now, since so many fascinating and exciting things did happen-and since they are all new to the generations that don't know much about history-there is a resurgence of interest in learning about them. Not history as dry exposition, but history as narrative, the presentation of an unfolding sequence of events from the point of view of someone who is actually experiencing them.

Thus the popularity of both narrative history and historical fiction. The latter is made up by the author, like any fiction, but it is supposed to follow the rules, namely, rigorous fidelity to historical records. Narrative history often makes use of first-person diaries, letters, and interviews to present the events from a human point of view.

The effect is that readers enjoy an interior perspective on history, enabling them to imagine what it was like to be at Waterloo or Gettysburg, or, in the bestselling narrative histories of Stephen Ambrose, climbing the Rockies with Lewis and Clark, or storming the beach at Normandy.

One big difference emerges between today's sensibilities and those of even the recent past. Ours is an aggressively secular imagination. Our forebears may have sometimes been venal and wicked, but they generally regarded God as real, and that worldview-judging from letters and other primary sources-preoccupied their minds no less than their struggles for survival and victory.

Some historical writers get the sights and sounds of the age they are recreating with scrupulous fidelity. The clothing, the politics, the geography, the details of a battle, and what they would eat for dinner, but they are oblivious to the spiritual concerns of people in that time, the religion that was in their bones. Other writers, though, bring God into their histories.

O'Brian's successor

O'Brian's books take something of a middle ground. Captain Aubrey dutifully "rigs church" every Sunday, with all of the crew in their Sunday best, worshipping with the words of the Book of Common Prayer. In the absence of a clergyman, who would sometimes tag along as a chaplain or a passenger, the captain himself would lead the service and read a sermon-or, Captain Aubrey's preference-the Articles of War. This reflects the actual practice. And Maturin, for all of his Enlightenment pursuit of natural science, retains the Catholicism of his Ibero-Irish heritage.


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