Sanitising our history – and why we shouldn’t.

I had a review a while ago for one of my historical novels. It went something like this, ‘Rebecca Bryn isn’t afraid of tackling the hard subjects.’ Another reviewer said of the horror of WW1 ‘Rebecca Bryn was brave enough to dwell on it.’ I confess that to begin with, I shied away from tackling the difficult and controversial parts of history. What if I upset a reader? What if I got the tone wrong? What if my reader got the wrong idea about me and my values. I suppose, in part, it’s why I chose to publish under a pen name – I’m not as brave as my reviewer thought.

Women’s suffrage

The first time this decision faced me was when writing Touching the Wire, the story of the women of Auschwitz. The horror of the Holocaust was something I felt I had to write about, something that shouldn’t be forgotten. I confess that to begin with I shied away from the detail of the treatment of those poor women, but the more I researched, the more I realised that writing anything short of the brutal truth would be to do them and their suffering a grave injustice. What is the point of writing historical fiction if it isn’t true in spirit to the events of the era?

So I wrote, and rewrote, draft after draft, summoning my courage to deepen my reasearch and to try to impart some of the horror of the camp and the empathy I felt for those living day by day with starvation, forced labour, torture, and the fear of the gas chamber. The men, the women… the children.

That I chose to include another side of the story and ask the readers if they could forgive was what really worried me. To show the Holocaust partly from the side of the aggressor – would this antagonise and upset my readers? This was the last thing I wanted, yet both sides existed, and is the story complete without hearing something of both? Is it better to sanitise history or tell it as it is for the education of future generations?

It doesn’t take much watering down of the facts to present a person in a different light to the truth. Take Emmeline Pankhurst, the famous suffragette. In The Chainmaker’s Wife, the sequel to The Chainmakers’ Daughter, I show two appraoches to the fight for suffrage, that of the suffragettes and that of the suffragists. Before researching for this story, I didn’t even know there was a difference. While Mary Macarthur, a suffragist, lobbied parliament and worked peacefully within the political circles of the day to press for women’s votes and equality, Emmeline was a suffragette, a group who took to the streets to protest and engaged in violence to raise awareness of the cause.

While Mary wanted universal suffrage, that is the vote for all men and women regardless of class, wealth, or status, Emmeline wanted the vote for women of her class. Her suffragettes embarked on a campaign of violence that included sending letter bombs, putting incediary devices in post boxes, planting bombs in St Paul’s Cathedral, railway stations, and golf and football clubs, and burning down churches and other buildings. While I can understand their frustration at the government’s total lack of interest in women’s affairs, the suffragette embarked on a reign of terror that no government could afford to give in to. She turned public opinion against the cause of women’ suffrage, and it is thought that she actually set back the cause several years.

But the suffragette bombings have been erased from popular memory – we now think of suffragettes protesting by chaining themselves to railings – history has been sanitised because it was unpalatable. Should we sanatise 9/11 or the IRA bombing campaign? Should we forget that troops killed strikers when the railwaymen of South Wales protested for a better wages, or that the police baton charged and rode their horses at protesting suffragettes in London? These things happened however much we regret them.

It’s the same with the removal of statues of slave traders and the industrialists who made fortunes from the sweat of slaves both black and white. Yes, white slaves existed too; my novel The Chainmakers’ Daughter doesn’t spare the reader the abject poverty of the white slaves of England who fought for a living wage in 1910. Whilst celebrating these men is clearly wrong in today’s society, the fact, the unpalatable fact is that they were lauded in their day for their financial position of power rather than their humanity, which says much about the attitudes of the British establishment at that time. That attitude is part of our history, part of the story of racism, sexism, and classism, if that’s a word, however much we may now rebuke them for it. Just as we can’t sweep the Holocaust under the carpet, so we can’t sweep away slavery and discrimination. Removing these statues removes a part of our history that shouldn’t be ignored. They should be explained, put in context, and retained if only for people to throw eggs and rotten fruit at. At least, left outside, the pigeons will shit on them.

In The Dandelion Clock, I described the lot of the men freezing to death in the trenches at Gallipoli, the plight of the horses worked to death, the brigades of young men marched across a salt flat by unfit commanders promoted by class not experience, these boys defenceless as they were mown down by the large guns of the Turks on the hills above them. My heart wept for the scenes my grandfather may have witnessed in Gallipoli and Egypt during WW1.

In For Their Country’s Good trilogy, I expose the shocking lack of women’s rights in the 1800s, the brutal treatment of convicts transported to Van Diemen’s Land, the disease, the poverty, the exploitation, and the death.

I’ve found I’ve become braver as I write each story, so no, I don’t shy away from the hard parts, rather I expose them, though I confess I still dislike writing sex scenes. I believe the difficult topics are what make my tales worth writing and worth reading. I have learned so much researching these stories. They have opened my eyes to history in the raw, the events that have made me who I am and have shaped the society and country I inhabit; I have discovered ‘survivor guilt’, shame for my country’s past sins, gratitude for living in the present day however imperfect that is, and I have learned to forgive our ancestors for the mistakes they made and the crimes they committed, realising that they were each forged by their own history. Our part is to learn from those mistakes, those inhumanities, to root out discrimination, greed, selfishness, and criminality, and make our society and the world a better, fairer, safer place.

The world will judge us as we judge those in our past. If I have a message for 2021, it would be think green, protect our planet, stay safe, have the vaccine, consider others. ChainmakersDaughter (Book One of For Their County’s Good)

More books at historical, mystery, and fantasy tales with a twist.

Thank you for reading.

7 thoughts on “Sanitising our history – and why we shouldn’t.

  1. I was brought here by Frank L. Parker’s blog. Thank you for diving deeply into the horrible things we humans have done and re-acquainting us with vital — often heart-breaking, brutal, and discouraging — human history. Last year I watched a documentary about how women in the USA worked for generations to gain the vote — how complicated the process was, with women of different classes and races and temperaments (some inspired by the public protests and violence in England) struggling steadfastly and all-too-humanly towards a common goal. Almost ALL of it was news to me. When you write about the suffragettes I also think immediately of the very simplified way that the suffragette movement is depicted in the Walt Disney movie version of MARY POPPINS. So much to learn — and re-learn more deeply and accurately — here on planet earth…


  2. I too arrived via Frank. What a wonderful, thoughtful, piece you have written. I loved history from an early age, because of the stories. But also because of hard facts and how people dealt, or didn’t, with what was happening. Of course we shouldn’t sanitise it; how will we progress if we do? We should be proud of who we are, but not necessarily proud of the path that brought us here. But we shouldn’t apologise for the wrongs, either – that would be silly, because we did not commit them. But we should not sweep them under the carpet. God forbid the wrongs should be repeated. What worries me is people dwelling on past wrongs and not moving on; this is the 21st century.


    1. Sorry, pressed send accidentally. So much of today’s international tensions revolve around events in the past that the present generation had nothing whatever to do with. If we could learn from the past but put it firmly behind us as a salutary lesson, we could build a better and more peaceful future.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.