What We Talk About When We Talk About Historical Fiction

Historical: (hiˈstôrək(ə)l) – of or concerning history; concerning past events; belonging to the past, not the present; (especially of a novel or movie) set in the past

Fiction: (fikSH(ə)n) – literature in the form of prose, especially short stories and novels, that describes imaginary events and people; invention or fabrication as opposed to fact; a belief or statement that is false, but that is often held to be true because it is expedient to do so

the greek statues

Historical Fiction: stories about people who have long since been turned into statues.  Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Historical fiction is a popular genre. There are endless novels set across time in all parts of the world and while many associate it with romances, the genres run the gamut from war stories to mystery to thriller, drama, romance, or comedy. Some are meticulously researched and some… less so. And while I think I can confidently say that most readers have enjoyed a historical fiction book of some stripe, we don’t always agree on how true to history these books should be.

While scrolling through episode descriptions and reviews of the television show, Reign (a teen drama very loosely based on the life of Mary, Queen of Scots), I came across a brief review that began something like this: “Reign is not historically accurate, but I don’t care. People don’t care about historical facts. They want to be entertained”. I found this rather saddening because I think people do care about facts. We want true stories, and we want to be entertained. So how to creators of historical fiction– whether it’s in books, television and film, or audio– walk that line between fact and fiction? Should they adhere to the historical record, or allow themselves more than a little poetic license to say “what if?” and make up a new story as they go?

On the one hand…

Fiction is, by definition, something that is made up. It’s not real. Given that much of the historical record is spotty at best, and given that it’s usually impossible to know what a king or a queen was thinking about a particular event, there is plenty of room for speculation. And because a work exists in a fictional realm, an author should feel free to play with history as she/he chooses. It’s fiction, right? If someone wants to know the real story, they can always look it up in a history book or on some .edu website to find out what really happened. And really,  if someone actually thinks that a woman can travel back in time from the 1940s to Scotland in the 1700s, or that a certain group of people shapeshift into horses by day, then it’s hardly the author’s fault that someone can’t tell fact from fantasy.

Many people find history to be a dull topic. Subjected to a dry recitation of names and dates at school, they find little of value in knowing what happened before 1900, or even before the year 2000. But if a writer of historical fiction can bring some aspect of history to life for them, then is it so terrible if the facts of the story are less than accurate? If Disney’s Mulan or Kiersten White’s gender-bent story of Vlad/Lada Dragwlya inspires someone to look into the real story, then so much the better. In the meantime, they found a story they connected with and felt real to them.

 

On the other hand…

History isn’t often as thoroughly taught in schools as it should be, leading to wide gaps in people’s knowledge of what happened even twenty years ago. Given the popularity of historical fiction, be it on the silver screen, home streaming services, or books, people often get a sense of history from popular culture. If the TV shows they watch or the books they read are wildly inaccurate, and if the writer/director does not provide some sort of acknowledgment of their inaccuracies, then people will often accept these stories as, if not true, then close enough to the truth to make no difference.

Or, they see only one or two aspects of a historical figure. We often see Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife, as the spurned wife and lonely queen locked away in a dreary castle. While this may have been the case for the last few years of Catherine’s life, it neglects her first 44 years and the entirety of her character– the daughter of the fierce Queen Isabella of Castile sent to a foreign land to become its queen, facing grief and uncertainty after the death of her first husband, eventually becoming a beloved figure in England before her (well deserved) pride helped lead to her downfall. If we see only one aspect of a person’s life history, then it’s easy to forget the whole human being, and I believe that the study of history helps us understand how human beings made decisions that led us to where we are today. It’s not good to see important historical figures as one-dimensional.

We might also fail to see alternate perspectives. In movies like 300 or Alexander, the Persian Empire is depicted as this vast, tyrannical entity that wanted to do away with freedom and make slaves of everyone, and that it was a good thing that King Leonidas of Sparta held them back at the Battle of Thermopylae, and it was a really good thing that Alexander the Great destroyed the Persian Empire. In reality, though, the Battle of Thermopylae did little to keep the Persians out of Greece, and Alexander destroyed a stable, centuries-old empire that was perfectly happy to let you keep your own religion, speak your own language, and keep your own customs as long as you paid your taxes and sent men to fight in the army (which you would have been doing anyway, because humankind has been paying taxes and fighting wars since time immemorial). When Alexander destroyed the Persian empire, centuries of unrest and war followed in his wake. In the West, though, we’re not told about these problems. We only hear about Alexander the Great’s amazing victories.


 

You can probably tell what side I’m on. I prefer my historical fiction to be as accurate as possible. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by podcasts like Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History or The British History Podcast, which tell stories of history that are as fascinating as they are historically accurate. The lives of history’s great figures are often as dramatic as any Hollywood director could ask for.  In his 1998 film Elizabeth, Shekhar Kapur overlooked a major scandal by virtually ignoring Amy Dudley, the wife of Elizabeth I’s beloved Lord Robert Dudley. When Amy died under mysterious circumstances, many people immediately concluded that Dudley or Elizabeth had arranged her death so they could get married. The mystery was never really solved, and historians are still arguing about whether her death was murder, suicide, or an accident.

Scandalous. Also, real. And far more interesting than what happened between movie-Elizabeth and movie-Robert Dudley.

But I get it. People can go into shows like Reign with the full understanding that they are not true to history, and yet still get a kick out of them. I once asked a friend why she liked Reign when it’s so inaccurate, and she replied, “I know it’s all wrong, but it’s fun.” And I guess that’s what matters in the end. She can take an hour out of her stressful day to sit down with a ridiculous television show, forget about her problems for a little while, and focus on melodramatic romances and intricate Renaissance politics. I, too, have enjoyed a lot of period shows that get all sorts of facts wrong. The Tudors has numerous inaccuracies, as does The Borgias, but they are shows I can watch over and over again without troubling myself too much over what really happened to Henry FitzRoy or the fact that Cesare Borgia and his sister Lucrezia (in spite of centuries-old rumors) were not actually involved in an incestuous affair.

I can wish, though, that creators who work in the realm of historical fiction were either more accurate in their stories, or noted when they departed from the historical record. History is as important as it is entertaining, and while poetic license is a real thing, it can serve to distort real history as much as it can help to clarify the plot of a book.

So, Readers, what do you think about historical fiction? Do you prefer it to be true to history, or are you okay with authors changing the details to suit their stories?

 

7 thoughts on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Historical Fiction

  1. This is such a great post! I see this come up constantly when historical fiction is mentioned. I tend to favor entertainment but still find facts to be of great importance. I pick up historical fiction in the hope of connecting with a past while escaping through it. So in all honesty, I guess it is fair to say I expect to feel like I have “learned” or taken something from the encounter. But I am no history buff by any means, so my guidelines are probably pretty easy to manage 😉

  2. Thanks! I expect historical fiction to be entertaining, too, but being a history buff myself, it bugs me when an author has a famous character do something radically different from what they actually did for no apparent reason. Like, I didn’t expect ‘Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Slayer’ to adhere to history, but I do expect a book that calls itself a fictional biography of say, Anne Boleyn to stay true to her life.

  3. If the story is good I can get past some inaccuracies but what I don’t like is revisionist history in historical fiction. The constant need to find fault with people of the past doesn’t leave room for compassion and understanding. We forget that we really have no idea exactly what most people were thinking and feeling and how complex life was and always is.

  4. Exactly! There seems to be this constant need for many writers to label these people as good or bad and then write them that way. When these writers become very popular, that mark of goodness or badness stays with them whether it’s real or not.

  5. Pingback: Top Five Friday: Badass Women from History | Traveling in Books

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