What if Napoleon had won the Battle of Waterloo, Robert E Lee triumphed at the Battle of Gettysburg, or James Callaghan managed to hold off Mrs Thatcher’s challenge in the General Election of 1979?
Writers love these exercises in the historical subjunctive, and the counter-factual novel offers a panorama of alternative worlds in which tiny twitches on the chronological thread find the past rearranging itself into unexpected shapes. As for strict definition, critics usually try to establish clear water between the counter-factual and its distant cousin the dystopia. The latter is usually a future shock scenario in which something has gone horribly wrong, while the former generally resembles a gigantic chessboard in which the removal of a single piece has radically changed the alignment of the other 31.
There have been counter-factual novels about the Reformation, or the survival of the Stuart dynasty, but the most substantial cluster is set during or after a re-imagined second world war. Novelists as varied in their techniques as Robert Harris, CJ Sansom, Philip Roth and Len Deighton have produced alternative histories in which the Nazis invade Great Britain or the Americans opt to sit the war out.
Hitler has a whole sub-genre to himself, seen wandering around Liverpool in Beryl Bainbridge’s Young Adolf (1978) and, as a 92-year-old survivor of thethe Berlin bunker, at large in South America in George Steiner’s The Portage to San Cristobal of AH (1981). Here are 10 outstanding examples of the counter-factualist at work.
One of my favourite children’s books, set in an alternate early 19th-century England where the Stuarts were never overthrown. A newly-completed Channel Tunnel linking Dover and Calais has allowed hordes of wolves from continental Europe to scamper west and supply a grim backdrop to this eerie tale of scheming governesses, plundered fortunes and captive children.
2. The Alteration by Kingsley Amis (1975)
The mid-1970s UK, where King Stephen III has just been succeeded by King William V. It turns out that Martin Luther was persuaded to tone down his views, reached a rapprochement with Rome and became Pope Germanius I. No Reformation, in other words, and a half-millennium of Catholic domination in which democracy, socialism and nationalism never reached the political agenda. Amusingly, three of the functionaries at the Holy Office are named “Foot”, “Redgrave” and “Lord Stansgate”, in testimony to Amis’s dislike of three well-known 1970s lefty ideologues.
3. Fatherland by Robert Harris (1992)
One of the very best of a clutch of novels predicated on the idea that the Nazis won. Harris’s alternative history begins in April 1964, shortly before Hitler’s 75th birthday, with a Reich detective named Xavier March uncovering the first hints of a conspiracy that goes all the way to the top. My father, who spent the second world war in the RAF, always reckoned that this was the most plausible counter-factual he had ever read.
4. The Plot Against America by Philip Roth (2004)
The second world war from the other side of the Atlantic, where the aviator Charles Lindbergh rallies the nation’s isolationists, defeats Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election and concludes an entente with Hitler (known as “the Iceland Understanding”) which allows the US to stand aside from the war. All this naturally has dire consequences for America’s Jewish population.
5. 1941/A by Kingsley Amis (1993)
Amis again. This is strictly speaking a short story (it can be found in the posthumously published Complete Stories (2011)) purportedly written by the “Josef Goebbels Professor of Modern History in the University of Oxford”. Here America is unexpectedly undone by Japanese and German forces on the west and east coasts and the destruction of the Panama Canal, after which Roosevelt signs a peace treaty.
6. Autumn Manoeuvres by Melvyn Bragg (1978)
A political “what-if” from the late 1970s. Historians often wonder what might have happened if James Callaghan had decided to call an election in the autumn of 1978, rather than waiting to be swept aside in the tumult of May 1979. Bragg’s novel features a moderate Labour MP named Jimmy Johnston, disillusioned by party in-fighting and darkly aware that the the manifesto has little relevance to his Cumbrian constituents. History is confounded as both Jims win a small majority.
7. Brothers of the Head by Brian Aldiss (1977)
The counter-factual brought into the realm of pop culture, with illustrations by Ian Pollock, in which Tom and Barry Howe, a pair of conjoined twins with a third dormant head, are sprung from their home by entrepreneurs and fashioned into a combo called the Bang Bangs. The post-Beatles pop landscape looks set for a radical re-make, until head number three starts to make its presence felt. See also the quirky 2005 film adaptation by Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe.
Another version of mid-century American history in which Roosevelt neither loses to Lindbergh nor signs a peace treaty but recommends that a Jewish state should be established not in Israel but Alaska (“Alyeska”). Cue an inspired criminal caper, written in the style of 1940s noir, in which detective Meyer Landsman pursues a murder enquiry back to what looks like a Jewish version of the mafia.
9. Idlewild by Mark Lawson (1995)
More Americana, taking its title from the original name of John F Kennedy airport, and following two great early 1960s American casualties – JFK and Marilyn Monroe – on through the rest of a tumultuous decade.
10. Dominion by CJ Sansom (2012)
The latest despatch from a British mainland overrun by Nazi invaders, in a tradition that includes not only Harris but Len Deighton’s SS-GB (1978). In Sansom’s version the story is wound on to 1952, in a world where Britain sued for peace after Dunkirk, a stooge government along Vichy lines keeps the populace in line and Churchill is busy masterminding a resistance movement.