Tell me: how many of you did not enjoy Braveheart because the Scots wear kilts (which weren’t in common usage until 4oo years later) and because primae noctis is probably a myth?
Would such historical errors have bothered you more if they had been written in a book?
In other words – when should we let the truth get in the way of a good story?
Here’s 5½ points to consider.
1.SHOULD WE BURN RICHARD III?
As Philippa Gregory pointed out: “Too many critics think of historical fiction as flawed and unreliable history, written by authors too lazy to check the facts. Others condemn it for being insufficiently imaginative, written by authors too lazy to invent.”
So which is it?
It seems to be a genre that’s never found a home with itself. Is it about history or is it about story? Is it about research or about entertainment?
No other genre has this amount of soul searching. If Historical Fiction was a person it would be a deeply troubled soul, a Jekyl and Hyde personality who spent half their time in libraries and the other half pretending to be a pirate.
I don’t even pretend to have an answer for this; the answer is not definitive, unless you want to maintain that books like Ragtime (in which Freud and Jung go to Atlantic City and take a ride through the Tunnel of Love) should never have been written; movies like Amadeus (in which Salieri’s pathological jealousy drives Mozart to an early grave) should never be made; and plays like Richard III (no he wasn’t bad, he didn’t have a hunchback and he probably didn’t murder the princes in the tower either) should be burned and banned from being performed ever again.
It’s true. Freud and Jung did not go on joyrides together, Salieri and Mozart were civilized to each other, and Richard III was a good bloke. Right – on the bonfire they go.
There goes a National Book Critics Circle Award winner, an Oscar and Golden Globes winning movie and one of the British literature’s greatest dramatic achievements.
2. AUTHORS HAVE A SACRED RESPONSIBILITY TO CONVEY THE TRUTH
Okay. But what is the truth? Anyone who has done any historical research knows that trying to get historians to agree on anything is like putting two tomcats in a bag.
History is like subatomic science. What you see depends on who is looking.
Robert Graves’ “I, Claudius” is considered an historical masterwork, and to research it he relied heavily on the histories of Tacitus and Suetonius, among others. Graves presents Livia Drusilla as the primary villain of the piece, but Tacitus is the only one of his sources that demonizes her. Because this view corresponded to Graves’ preferred characterization of the historical Livia, he chose to overlook the others.
In other words, though he tried to make the novel as historically accurate as possible, he was also selective with his facts. Like all HF authors he was expected to maintain fictional creativity while upholding the concept of historical truth. It’s an impossible contradiction.
He interpreted his facts, just like historians do.
Not good enough. On the fire he goes. (The novel is ranked by Time magazine as one of the best 100 novels of the 20th century.)
3. Q: WHAT DOES A 13TH CENTURY SCOTSMAN WEAR UNDER HIS KILT?
A: HE DOESN’T WEAR A KILT.
My own view on how to go about writing historical fiction? I admire what Philippa Gregory says about it: she feels like a detective at a crime scene, looking at a body. ‘We know that person was here, we know they end up over there. Why would they do that? Who would have been with them? What were they feeling?’
But not all fiction writers do that. And it’s certainly not the approach taken by Hollywood screenwriters. There is no level playing field there. A novelist could never get away with Braveheart, for example, which is so full of inaccuracies that it barely leaves any space for historical truth.
But it is a wildly popular movie and many people say that it moved them to look up the real history afterwards.
Ah, but is this always true?
4. BUT FICTION IS THE ONLY HISTORY SOME PEOPLE GET
John Boyne’s novel, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, is about the friendship between the young son of a Nazi Concentration Camp Commandant at Auschwitz and a Jewish boy who is a prisoner in the camp. It was a massive international bestseller – but one rabbi called it a ‘profanation’ in that the improbable plot would lead people to believe that that people living close by did not know what was happening inside.’Besides, there weren’t any children in Auschwitz – the Germans gassed them as soon as they got off the train.
Yet many people were deeply moved by the story. Five million people bought it.
So what are the rules? Where do we draw the line between Boyne and England’s greatest dramatist because everything most people know about Richard III comes from Shakespeare.
(BTW, am I still okay to throw this DVD of Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter on the fire? Never mind, too late, the plastic cover’s already melting.)
5. BUT THE READER IS A SCHIZOPHRENIC AS WELL
Readers of historical fiction get a lot of pleasure discovering other times and places through novels and they don’t like to be cheated out of that. What was it like to be a harem girl in the time of Suleiman? Or a Spanish conquistadore seeing Tenochtitlan for the first time? Or a female shaman on the steppes in the time of Khubilai Khan? Well, I researched all those things diligently, with this in mind.
I both researched and invented; as I have done all my life. When I was writing crime thrillers, I befriended triad detectives and members of London AMIT squads and read police manuals. It’s part of the writer’s job.
But does the reader always care? The answer: yes, if it’s a book, not so much if it’s a movie. Is it fair? No. It’s just how it is.
5½ IN THE END IT’S SOPHIE’S CHOICE
Canadian novelist Wayne Johnston says his historical fiction ‘is not based upon the kind of truth pursued by biographers and historians. Adherence to the ‘facts’ will not lead you safely through the labyrinthine pathways of the human heart.’
Well said. For myself I spend longer being a student of story than a student of history. Left with Sophie’s choice, and even as meticulous as I am with research, I still know which baby I’d give to the German officer.
But that’s just me. What do you think?