History and literature are closely associated. For a long time, history was considered a branch of literature, and it is only from the nineteenth century that history came to be regarded as a science. However, if history is the record of life, literature is the reflection of life-the substance and the shadow always go together. Sometimes the shadow has amused man much more than the substance, just as a painting or photograph of a person appears to be more glamorous than the person himself.
The main theme of both history and literature is man in society. Whereas history deals with the past, literature deals with the present and the future, although biography, one of the branches of literature, deals with the past as well. Both these disciplines use imagination as their powerful weapon, although its use is not so liberal in history.
In both, rhetoric plays an important part, so important that in the Elizabethan era, historians use to copy the style of Italian drama to enhance the effect of history. The cult was magnificent art, but no history, and hence from the nineteenth century, the use of picturesque details in the narration of history has been tailed. Nevertheless, the artistic presentation of the result of research highly desirable.
Bury himself speaks of sympathetic imagination and psychological imagination regarding the interpretation of the past. There are many cases in which the truth can only be ascertained by methods which are not purely scientific. It is here that the imagination plays a vital part. “The science of history deserves to be sprinkled with dutiful hands some grains of incense on her altar.” History would retain its graces by remaining close to literature.
Ranke asserted that history was not an edifying branch of literature, but in the hands of Gibbon, history attained a literary garb unparalleled in later literature. Herodotus and Thucydides, Livy and Tacitus, Macaulay and Trevelyan have used a literary art which bas enhanced the beauty of their historical writing. The divorce of literature from history may almost certainly do it some definite harm.
Historical novels such as Sir Walter Scott’s have popularised history and added a new dimension to historical understanding. Alexander Dumas, Victor Hugo and Tolstoy are eminent historical novelists. The Mysteries of the Mughal Court on the pattern of Reynold’s Mysteries of the Court of London excited much interest in India and brought to light many inner aspects of the life of Nur Jahan and Jahangir. They pertain to social history and bring to us a vivid picture of the customs, manners, life and conditions of the people, in a popular manner, although not within the rigid framework of science. A successful historical novel can at best be total fiction, but will have very useful grains of history. The recent historical novel, The Sword of Tipu Sultan, by Bhagwan Gidwani, has been a very successful attempt in this direction.
Anyway, the role of literature in history can never be denied. We have to remember that a history book must first be readable. By reducing the gap between history and literature it should be possible to increase the appeal of history, and thereby increase the utility of history. It is necessary to liberate history from dullness, which is totally foreign to its nature, and make it fascinating by the liberal addition of all literary artifices to precious historical truths. Besides these points we should also be borne in mind when discussing the aspect that history combines the merits of literature, and that it amuses our fancy.