Monday, 7 September 2009

Historical Accuracy

I have been thinking about this a lot lately. I suppose one prompt is the latest series of The Tudors. I find it impossible to watch, not least because the actor playing Henry VIII looks nothing like Henry would have done at the age he had reached at the time depicted. It's just unreal, so totally divorced from my image of Henry that I can't relate to it.

Yet the series is popular, and I suppose it's interesting people in history, even if it's only the overdone era of Tudor history. (I can't image why this particular period seems so glorious to so many, but only World War Two and the nasty Nazis get more TV/movie coverage.) I don't really want to slag off The Tudors but talk about the issue of accuracy in general.

First, as I've said before, I think it's impossible to write a 100% accurate historical novel, and if by some miracle one could, the chances are that the result would be quite boring. Fiction is fiction. Even the best-researched novels are still novels, they tend to simplify events - let alone things like bureaucratic processes! - and in the last analysis they are written by people who are living in the present - post-Enlightenment thinkers. I can't really get inside the head of a medieval person. I can try, I can even explain the processes involved, talk about the social background, religious beliefs, upbringing, and so on. But at the end of the day, it's a best guess.

But granting all that, does it mean we shouldn't even try? For me, the first thing is not to knowingly change historical events. They are the scaffolding around which the story is told. I will not change the known outcomes of battles, jousts or parliaments, or make someone live significantly longer than they actually did. I'm extremely reluctant even to change a name, though it does get hard to differentiate between multiple blokes with the same moniker.

If you don't know, for a fact, where your character was on a particular day, then I think it's quite legitimate to move him or her someplace else. I've been trying quite hard to find where Richard of Gloucester went in 1469 after leaving Edward IV at Oundle, and before meeting up with him again in Yorkshire. I have some suspicions, but no proof. So I'm sending him to places that suit the story I am telling, one at least of which is inprobable, but not impossible. But it would be quite wrong to send him to Spain, for example, as he would not have time to get back. Equally, if he's known to be at Westminster on such and such a date, I don't really want to place him at Barnard Castle unless the story line makes it absolutely inescapable. Does it really matter in the context of a novel? Arguably it doesn't, but I prefer it that way.

Of course some historical events are disputed. Who kills the princes in the Tower, for example? One can gloss over this in a work of history. You can list three or four alternatives and come down on what you think is most probable. Or you can leave it entirely open. In a novel this is less straightforward. If you're writing from Elizabeth Woodville's point of view, for example, you may not have to give an outright answer. You can say what was reported to her and what she believed about it. It's highly unlikely that she knew what had happened. Richard III, on the other hand, almost certainly did know. A novel about him really does have to come up with an answer, one way or the other. (One about Elizabeth probably does as well, or the readers are going to be dreadfully disappointed. They will expect to 'know' possibly more than Elizabeth herself did!)

Background is also important. Medieval attitudes to marriage, for example, were quite different to ours. People of property did not expect to marry for love. Love was a bonus, a very desirable bonus admittedly, but definitely a bonus. Most people today would see Edward IV's marriage to Elizabeth as romantic - assuming he was not already married of course, and even then our modern attitudes might still forgive the power of love. His mother and Warwick almost certainly regarded the marriage as self-indulgent and irresponsible, and their attitude, not ours, would have been the commonplace one at the time. We may find their viewpoint unsympathetic, but we at least have to try to understand why they held it.

Then there's the little matter of religion. Religion was absolutely central to the lives of medieval people. We may be cynical, and suppose some of them at least didn't actually believe in it, but that's irrelevant. It still shaped their lives, impacted on the way they though, restricted what they could eat. Yet in so many novels of the middle ages this little matter is scarcely touched upon.

Fiction is fiction - but historical fiction needs to take into account the historical context. It would be absurd to write a contemporary novel about hill walkers in which everyone climbed the fells wearing carpet slippers and made up as clowns. Yet some historical novels are rather like that...


  1. I think historical authors should do their absolute best with the facts they have -- but, after that, you're right, it's fiction. What bothers me the most is when an author claims that they have done extensive research when it's obvious they haven't. I can roll with a fictionalized account just fine as long as the author makes note of what they did or did not know for sure -- or what they finagled to fit the story.

  2. I too agree with your slant on how to handle historical facts within a fiction. It's fine to connect the dots with speculation, just so long as the speculation doesn't violate what is actually known. I think it's also okay to take sides on disputed "facts" that fit with what seems right based ones research.

    Besides, why call it historical fiction if the facts are changed, such as people living longer or shorter than they were known to have lived--why not delete the historical label and call it fantasy, mystery, adventure, or whatever?

  3. The more I consider this matter, the more complex I think it is. Someone could probably write a doctorate thesis on the subject and still have issues left over.

    Joan I agree with you there is a point where HF crosses over into fantasy. I would argue the movie 'Braveheart' was fantasy rather than HF as it was so far from the facts. Not everyone would agree, I know.

    The problem is exactly where one draws that line. That's where I think there's a lot of scope for debate.

    There are three sorts of authors who to my mind 'offend'.

    1. Those who don't know the period but still try to write about it. These are legion among novice writers, but admittedly we all had to start somewhere and it does take a long time to learn.

    2. The type Lynn mentions, who claim to research but then clearly reveal that they haven't, or that they've misinterpreted what they've read. Some of these sell a lot more books than I do!

    3. 'Literary' authors who are essentially taking the mickey out of the genre by deliberately skimming research because it's beneath them. One such quoted Alison Weir as his main source for the WotR! Any historian of distinction would have put him right on that, but I suspect he didn't give a damn.

  4. Somehow Brian I don't think you're the proper person to bang on about historical accuracy.

  5. I don't understand your scomment, Trish. What are you referring to?

  6. Dual two cents:

    The Tudor Era is really the #2 historical setting after WWII? I'm not sure that could be considered true even in the UK.

    Sure, nobody's arguing that World War II is by far the most overexposed, but Tudor England? I mean we'd have to dispense with:

    Rome (Hollywood went Rome mad there for a while, culminating with the Kirk Douglas thing.)
    The Stupid American Civil War (Just saw a delightful play about the writing of the screenplay for "Gone With the Wind" the other month.)
    The Wild West (Even discounting all the purely fictional treatments.)
    The 60s (If I have to see another movie about the moral superiority of my parents' generation to my grandparents' generation, I swear I'm going to scream!)
    World War I/The Great War (Choose your own appellation.)
    Victorian England (See especially anything about Jack the Ripper or Sherlock Holmes or Sherlock Holmes versus Jack the Ripper.)
    The French Revolution/Napoleon
    Early Bourbon France a la The Musketeers (Pretty much anything by or ripping off Dumas.)
    The Bible
    Joan of Arc (Not the Hundred Years War, JUST Joan of Arc.)

    And that's just if we keep things focused on Hollywood/European film.

    Toss in China/Japan and your stuck with Samurai flick after Samurai flick and an uncomfortably large number of adaptations "Romance of the Three Kingdoms", and stories about people trying to kill Qin Shi Huangdi

    I'd examine Indian Cinema but firstly I know nothing about it and secondly the dancing makes me uncomfortable.

    Second, I'd question the assertion that our post-enlightenment minds can't get around the essentially religious mindset of the Medieval European. I'm a self-proclaimed Richard Dawkins Atheist Fanatic, but I've read too much literature on pre-modern skepticism to believe that the differences were really all that greater than skin deep. I've also seen too much residual mysticism and arationality floating around the modern world to credit the notion that we're all better now.

    Jennifer Michael Hecht's "Doubt: A History" is a very good survey, and Carlo Ginzburg's "The Cheese and the Worms" is an antidote to anyone who thinks Christianity had a 100% monopoly on spiritual/cosmological thinking pre-enlightenment.

    I also have a copy of one of my mother's college tomes of "Medieval English Verse" which contains the pre-Chaucer gem "Dame Siriz and the Weeping Bitch", in which a roving priest enlists the help of Dame Siriz to convince a merchant's wife to sleep with him by claiming that sexually spurned priests have the power to turn the children of chaste merchants' wives into crying dogs. (The trick was performed by giving an innocent dog hot sauce and presenting it to the mark, who accepts the ruse without checking on the status of her child. Dame Siriz clearly knew she was not dealing with a great mind.) Point being that theological orthodoxy seems to have been a bit of weak point in Medieval Britain.