12 March, 2006

Historical accuracy in historical fiction

The subject of accuracy in historical fiction has recently come up in several forums I read. Susan Higginbotham has posted about it, it was mentioned in the discussion here about factors that attract and repel readers of historical fiction, Ian Hocking touched on the responsibility he feels towards the passengers and crew on the crashed aeroplane whose story he is telling in a new novel, and over on the Historical Novel Society message board several people have leapt to the defence of an Elizabeth Chadwick novel where a reviewer on Amazon.co.uk objected to the lack of ‘romance’ and commented “...this is fact but again this was a novel and not a research document.”

I value historical accuracy in a historical novel. Yes, it is fiction, and the noun trumps the adjective, as observed in a recent essay. But the adjective is there for a reason, to indicate that this is a particular type of fiction, and I feel it should not be ignored.

It seems to me there are different kinds of (in)accuracy in historical fiction:
- material culture (clothes, weapons, buildings, food, pottery, etc.)
- non-material culture (religion, folklore/myth, social structure, law, social roles and expectations, attitudes, values, trade links, language, politics, tactics, etc.)
- events (battles fought, won or lost; deaths; marriages; births; major natural disasters such as plague, storm or famine; lands/kingdoms changing hands; structures built or destroyed, etc.)
- character (the novelist usually has to create the character, but this should be consistent with what is known about the person and their actions (if anything), and consistent with the society and culture in which the character lived)

For what it’s worth, my personal view can be summed up as ‘evidence is sacred but interpretation is free’. Even in well-documented periods, there are usually many unknowns surrounding a historical person or event. In particular, character and motivation - those key cornerstones of story - are rarely known beyond any doubt. For example, it is known that Henry VIII broke with Rome, divorced Catherine of Aragon, married Anne Boleyn and then divorced and executed her. Those facts are not in doubt (and any novel that diverged from them would get very short shrift from me). But it seems to me there is plenty of scope for the novelist’s imagination in interpreting these facts. Henry can be portrayed as a selfish monster driven by lust; as a man who will sacrifice anything for a son, perhaps out of a sense of duty to secure the succession and avoid a repeat of the Wars of the Roses; as a man with an inferiority complex and a chip on his shoulder over having been born the second son and now determined to get his own way against everyone, including the Pope. And those are just the ones I thought of whilst typing this post; there must be many, many others. Similarly, Catherine can be portrayed as a saintly martyr, a loyal wife, a woman passionately in love with her husband, or a clinging shrew. Anne can be ambitious but naive, dazzled by the prospect of the crown and not understanding the dangers, insufferably arrogant, passionately in love with Henry and blind to all else, or a scheming heartless bitch.

Where some key facts are unknown, there is even more scope. Take the famous example of Richard III - it is known that Richard was crowned king in his nephews’ lifetime, that he was married to Anne Neville, that the boys disappeared during his reign and that he was defeated and killed by Henry VII in battle. But one can create Richard as evil incarnate (Shakespeare), as a sensitive hero traduced by history (Sharon Penman and many others), or as something in between; his marriage to Anne Neville can be presented as a romantic love match or a political alliance; and there are almost as many theories about what happened to the princes as there are theories about the Real King Arthur.

Given the infinite variety of stories that can be spun to connect the recorded facts and make imaginative sense of them, I’m at something of a loss as to why one would need to make up a better plot. Truth is so often stranger than fiction. A King of England who hired a pirate to abduct a noble maiden on her way to her marriage and carry her off to his castle? Absurd! Straight from an overheated romance! But Edward I did it, and according to Sharon Penman (Author's Note in The Reckoning) the bill for the pirate's services is still extant, worded in suitably diplomatic language.

I feel the writer has an ethical responsibility to represent real people, events and societies fairly. Even if the characters in the story are all fictional, the societies used as the background were real and should be treated with respect. Warts and all, but not just the warts. I also feel this applies to narrative non-fiction as much as it does to fiction. I’m probably more exasperated by a non-fiction writer who propounds a theory using a mixture of selectively presented evidence and speculative assertion than I am by a novel that doesn’t know what a claymore is.

The degree of historical (in)accuracy acceptable in a historical novel is clearly going to be a matter of personal preference, both for the reader and the writer. Like Susan, I would not advocate rules or anything that resembles censorship (not that anyone would listen to me if I did, of course). Diversity is all. But for diversity to be effective you also need accurate information, so that people can find what they want.

What I would like is to have some idea of the writer’s approach to historical accuracy before I start reading, to help me pick out books I want to read. Sometimes a book’s packaging provides the answer - it’s a fair guess that novels with covers like these are perhaps unlikely to have historical accuracy very high on their list of priorities (Thanks to Gabriele for the link). In most cases, though, it is not so obvious, and here I find the Author’s Note invaluable. The author can outline what is known, what is imaginative interpolation, and what has been altered from the known history. This allows prospective readers to make their own judgement on whether the approach to historical accuracy is likely to be right for them.

Such an Author’s Note also allows readers to judge whether they can learn some real history from the novel (as many people like to do with historical fiction), or whether the book is an entertaining story loosely based on history. In my view there’s room for both kinds and everything in between, but it seems only fair to tell the reader what they’re getting and how much trust they can place in the history.

In the UK, a company called Ronseal sells DIY wood treatment products with the advertising slogan ‘It does exactly what it says on the tin’, and the expression has made its way into popular culture. It seems to me that applying this approach to books, especially historical fiction, has considerable merit. Say clearly what it is, don’t pretend it’s something it’s not, and let the reader make an informed choice.

What do you think?

22 comments:

Susan Higginbotham said...

Great post. I've gotten so where in new historical fiction, at least, I expect to see an author's note and feel almost cheated if I don't.

Bernita said...

Wholeheartedly agree.

Rick said...

Evidence is sacred but interpretation is free - that sounds like as good a rule of thumb as any, rather akin to "everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts."

If a writer wants to bend facts, alternate history is now a well-established genre. There's also the route I'm taking; the reader would (I hope!) get the distinct flavor of Tudor England and Renaissance France, but the specific "historical" events and personages are almost entirely unrelated to real ones.

In addition to GG Kay, I'll give a mention of Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint (she also has a couple of sequels I haven't gotten hold of yet). Her setting is even less synologous to real history than mine, but has the texture of a world around the 16th to 18th century.

Returning to actual hist-fic, some periods - like yours - offer nearly complete freedom regarding specific historical facts: kings, battles, and the like. So far as I'm aware, all we know about early 7th century Englalond comes from Bede and the A-S Chronicle, not recorded till about a century later, when they were already beyond living memory. You could justify quite a bit on the basis of generations of oral transmission.

My impression is that the most common violation is characters who feel like time travelers - especially women with all too contemporary attitudes. Even in my fictional setting, I try to keep my gals - a pretty strong-willed lot - from sounding like they'd read Betty Freidan. :)

Carla said...

I borrowed it from "News is sacred but comment is free", attributed to CP Scott of the Manchester Guardian, which I've always liked as a dictum for journalism.

The alternate history/fantasy approach seems to me a very honest one for someone who's trying to tell a story that doesn't fit recorded history, and also has the benefit that even readers who don't read the Author's Note (no doubt there are some) can't reasonably be misled into thinking it's real. I was taking that approach with Ingeld's Daughter.

There are so few facts recorded about the 7th century that it seems to me more than usually absurd to deviate from them. Bede was writing in 731, 100-130 years after the events I'm covering in the current book and its sequels. Bede would have been a boy in the 670s, and it's possible that he could have heard tales in his youth from old men who remembered the events as they happened, so he could be writing at only one remove. Given the strong oral tradition in the society of the time, I'm inclined to take Bede as a fairly trustworthy source for the material he records. The AS Chronicle is thought to have been written down later than Bede, maybe as late as Alfred's reign in the 890s, although it may have been drawing on earlier written or oral records that are now lost. The other main source, since I'm dealing with what is now Northern England, is Nennius' Historia Brittonum, but that is also thought to have been written down in the 9th century. And there is the archaeology. My rule of thumb is that I don't contradict Bede or archaeology, and I try to follow Nennius and/or the AS Chronicle as long as they don't contradict Bede (if there's a discrepancy, I go with Bede). In any case there are vast areas that aren't covered at all, where you have to apply imaginative interpolation to 'join the dots' of isolated events.

Projecting modern attitudes back is always going to be a danger in historical fiction because everything is refracted through the (modern) mind of the writer. Time travel stories don't have this problem because the narrator is modern by definition.

Gabriele C. said...

Carla, I'd be careful about a hundred years of oral tradition still being correct - it took no longer than that to change the defeat of Roncesvals into a victory (hm, where did I put that old essay?). Though I agree that in case of contradictory sources Bede would still be the best guess.

There's almost nothing known about the Picts (except a few dates) so I can more or less invent their culture. The Roman culture, on the other hand, is well known, and the long comment exchange I had with Tony Keen about the question whether a man of senatorial rank could be degraded to a military position below tribune demonstrates how tricky the subject can be.

The better researched and documented Mediaeval times are more difficult to write, and Kings and Rebels will require a long author's note. *grin*

Sometimes, if I else like a book, I can overlook a historical lapse. When the Sarmates are conducted through half of Europe to Britannia in Gillian Bradshaw's Island of Ghost the escort is led by the centurion Flavius Facilis which is not correct (even though he knows a lot about the Sarmatians), such a large undertaking would have been in the hands of a tribune. But since most of that happens in the backstory, and when they reach Britiannia, Facilis becomes a prefectus castrorum which is a centurial rank, I didn't fess up over it - I liked the MC Ariantes too much. *grin* The other point, the distribution of the Sarmatians to several forts at the Hadrian's Wall has now been contradicted by archaeological evidence but this might have been too recent for Bradshaw to have known After all, her decision to split them up makes sense from a military POV. She gets a lot of other things right fe. the fact that the oarsmen on the galleys that cross the channel were soldiers, not slaves.

What really peeves me is feminists before the time of the sufragettes, atheists in times where religion was part of life in a way we can barely imagine nowadays, Romans who question the existence of slavery, all that. And of course, blatant errors like messed up dates and facts, disregard for historical evidence (printed books in 1200, Norman invaders wearing plate armour, horned Viking helmets - thank you Hollywood).

Gabriele C. said...

I should have said "early Picts" - there is some more evidence from the times of the symbol stones onwards, probably 6th century though the dating of the oldes class of stones is still disputes. Also, they begin to appear in written sources beyond the few references to tribal names only half identified today in Roman texts.

Rick said...

On oral tradition, etc., I wasn't so much thinking that you "could" (or would want to) create a 7th century setting that simply ignores Bede or the A-S Chronicle, as that you can play around with oral history, and imagine the sorts of distortions that might have slipped in. Gabriele's comment on Roncesvalles provides an example of how oral tradition can change things for effect.

In the case of deep-rooted misperceptions, there is quite a challenge. Not so much a problem for books, perhaps, but in a movie it would be hard not to have Vikings wearing horned helmets - without them, the audience will sit there wondering who these guys are, when they don't look the way Vikings are "supposed" to look.

Alex Bordessa said...

Great post Carla :-)

Regarding Vikings, there are no horns worn at Jorvik , or during the Jorvik Viking Festival . It's very popular, and people know that they are 'seeing' Vikings.

Rick said...

Maybe because they had first-hand experience with Vikes on that side of the pond? The ones on this side never got past Canada, at least till they showed up in Minnesota about 900 years later.

Carla said...

I don't think it's folk-memory, Rick - 1000+ years would be stretching oral tradition a bit :-) York is perhaps more than usually interested in the Danes since it has such a strong Anglo-Danish heritage and was the capital of the Danelaw (the modern name York is directly derived from the Danish name Jorvik). So maybe the people at the Jorvik Viking Festival are better informed than the average? Alex, what do you think?

Bernard Cornwell didn't have a horned helmet in sight in The Last Kingdom and dealt with it in a jokey aside in his Historical Note, so I don't think it's too much of a problem. Can anyone remember if Kirk Douglas sported a horned helmet in the film The Vikings? I remember lots of dragon ships, chain mail and battle axes, but the helmets escape my memory.

Isn't there still a debate about whether there was Norse settlement in what's now New England? The archaeology is confirmed at L'Anse aux Meadows (sp?) in Newfoundland, but some people read the Vinland Sagas to indicate a settlement further south around Cape Cod, as yet undiscovered. I'm not up on the current state of the argument.

I play around with the possibilities of distorted oral traditions in Ingeld's Daughter from time to time, and will likely do the same in the current book(s), though not to the extent of turning a defeat into a victory :-)

Gabriele - I think the Picts get mentioned in Bede around 680 (Battle of Nechtansmere) and there are snippets of evidence suggesting dealings with the Northumbrian royal family around the 620s (distinct from the much better-documented connection between Northumbria and Iona from Oswald's time onwards). But there is so little known about the culture that you have a fairly free hand.
The complexities of the Roman class system and Roman laws baffle me. I'm very glad I don't have to figure them out in detail! Lucky you have Tony Keen's expertise on hand.

Alex Bordessa said...

In York, we get tourists from all over the the UK and the world (just try listening to the languages and accents whilst walking around the city at any time of the year), so I wouldn't say the audience is more than normally informed. I would also say that Jorvik does not underestimate its audience and tries really hard to get things right.

I don't remember horned helmets in Kirk Douglas' The Vikings either. A super romp of a film. Though I am very uncertain about the authenticity of Tony Curtis' fur knickers ...;-)

Carla said...

About as authentic as Guinevere's leather bikini in King Arthur, I should imagine :-) (Funny, though, I don't remember them. Must not have been paying attention).

wil said...

I do expect HF authors to do their homework...to weed out glaring anachronisms, major timeline errors, etc. - but, I think there's also a tendency among HF authors to canonize mainstream/conservative archeological/historical thinking, which can lead to a rather flat, restrictive, stereotypical view of history.

The historical record, written by-and-large from a male-dominant, power perspective, is full of dissenting opinions, heretical viewpoints, etc., and yet still represents only a tiny fraction of history as a whole. So I think HF writers have quite a bit of leeway, especially when it comes to writing individual characters - beliefs, motivations, attitudes, etc.

Marg said...

Really interesting post Carla! At the very least as a reader I want an author's note to tell me where they have deviated from what is known.

Carla said...

Marg - Thanks for stopping by! I'm pleased to see you also like Gabriele's Scottish Romance Rules - those seem to have really caught on.

Wil - yes, interpreting recorded history in the light of a male-dominated narrative and looking for an alternative angle is one approach. Do you read Mary Sharratt's Sphinx Rising blog? You might find it interesting.

wil said...

Carla - Yes, I've seen it.

susan hicks said...

Hi Carla,

Interesting post and being as my comment on the HNS e-list was one of the things that sparked it, thought I'd drop a line. The reviewer in question at Amazon.co.uk unfavourably compared my novel The Greatest Knight, about William Marshal, to an earlier novel about him by Mary Pershall - Dawn of the White Rose. The author of the latter cuts William's age by about 8 years to make him a desireable 30 something when he marries Isabelle de Clare and proceeds to take various liberties with the known historical record in between describing detailed bedchamber bonkfests between the protagonists.
Fair enough. It's not my cup of tea, but obviously my novel wasn't that particular reader's cup of tea either. She wanted a hunk and threw a hissy fit when he didn't spend the amount of time in the bedchamber she required. The same reviewer was miffed over another of my novels where I dared to make the hero lame because history said so. Fancy having a hero with a limp - and slightly built as well -criminal!
Accuracy - No one ever gets it 100% right and there are numerous ways that events in history can be interpreted and slanted, but I think that the watchword, said loud has to be integrity.
I do find it much easier to read historical fiction outside of the middle ages because not knowing a period means that you don't fault-find quite so much!

Best
Susan aka Elizabeth Chadwick

9:31 PM

Carla said...

Susan, thanks for dropping by. From your description Dawn of the White Rose sounds like just the type of book that irritates me, but it takes all sorts. I admit I tend to avoid novels with a cover or blurb that emphasises a romance plot, because they seem to be disproportionately prone to this sort of approach.

Interesting comment that you prefer to read outside the period you know best.

Rick said...

Probably not folk memory, Carla. :) In books the horned helmets aren't really a problem, and even in movies if you show a dragon ship early on people will likely figure out that the people on board are Vikings. (Though if the ships are, say, William the Conqueror's, the inference would be a bit misleading!)

Wil - you're right that the "official record" is just that. My objection is only to characters whose attitudes seem obviously imported from the current day.

Regarding women, I suspect that medieval (and other premodern) women were as prone to regard the men around them as a bit on the obtuse side as they do today. :) And if nothing else, nagging-wife jokes and the like in medieval literature suggest that medieval wives were not always humbly obedient to their husbandly lords and masters, even if the official ideology of the time said they were supposed to be.

Some Roman - I don't remember who - made the wonderfully cynical observation that "the law has wisely given women very little power because nature has given them so much."

Carla said...

Well, perhaps not that misleading, Rick, since the Normans were just Vikings who'd successfully taken a chunk of territory from the Franks a century or two prior to William's time.

And yes, the official way the world is supposed to work and the way it actually does work have a tendency to diverge :-) I like that Roman quote, thanks for posting it.

I share your dislike of obviously modern attitudes projected back into historical fiction - from the responses to the 'Appealing historical fiction' post, so do quite a few other people. Part of the appeal of historical fiction for me is the attempt to understand the mindset of a different society.

Gabriele C. said...

Imho, there is such a thing as too much sex in a novel, even if that might shock the romance fans. :)

If the bonkfests don't add to the characters/plot, they tend to irritate me, and it's a small line to walk (I'm sorry to say both Auel and Gabaldon tumbled off the wrong side long ago).

The Greatest Knight should be more my cup of tea. *grin*

Carla said...

Something else to add to your TBR list then, Gabriele :-)
I agree, and tend to avoid books packaged as 'romance' for that reason - they seem to be more about lust than love and that rather puts me off.