Is history fiction?

The necessity for and difficulty of finding the truth in history

Ann Curthoys & John Docker


The context for Is History Fiction?


What is History? asked E H Carr in his influential text of that name, first published in 1961, and reprinted endlessly since. The question we address in our book is more limited: is history fiction? Yet in asking if history is fiction, we are also seeking to explore Carr's question, what is history? Like him, we ask about problems of historical truth, the relationship between the historian and the past, and questions of fact, value, and interpretation. Yet we differ from Carr in our interest in history's literary aspects - constituted through language, narrative, metaphor, rhetoric, and allegory - and the connections we see between questions of literary form and the desire for historical truth.


The questions we address include the following.

• Can historians tell the truth about the past?

• Should history be written for the present or for its own sake?

• Is it possible to see the past in its own terms?

• Should we make moral judgements about people and actions in the past?

• Are histories shaped by narrative conventions, so that their meaning derives from their form rather than the past itself?


These are hardly new questions; indeed in our book we show how historians have always pondered the problem of historical truth, and have always markedly differed over how to achieve it. Yet the ways in which these debates are conducted varies very considerably over time, as new contexts shape the argument.