Alternative Truth: Historical Fiction: Does It Matter that We Get the Facts Right?

Douglas Kemp

In these dark days of fake news and alternative truths, this may be the right time to look at the issue of accuracy in historical fiction. Of course, some academics tell us that there can be no such thing as historical truth or impartiality; we bring our own opinions, prejudices and distortions into whatever we do. Thus, pursuing the question of historical accuracy is largely a waste of effort in any case – you may as well just make up the story as you go along regardless of any attempt at getting it right.

Nevertheless, it is not unreasonable to expect that historical non-fiction writing should have sound research and gets the facts correct. Without going into arcane postmodern discussions about whether anything can be construed as historical fact when all is subjective and contingent upon the individual, it is generally safe to say that there are fundamental historical truths and events which the great majority of historians and researchers agree upon. So when a writer seems to make a number of basic mistakes, the criticism poured upon his head can be stringent and savage. Take, for example, the reception given to the publication of Norman Davies’s lengthy (nearly 1,400 pages) Europe: A History in 1996, which was widely excoriated for containing a large number of central historical errors.1

Historical fiction is perhaps a different matter – or is it? Certainly, academic scrutiny of a fiction writer’s factual bases is rarely crucial to the success or otherwise of the book. The author can always say that it is a work of fiction, which gives him licence to write pretty well anything he wants to, and dress it up as alternative history or a fictional fantasy.

I was prompted to think about the matter of accuracy in historical fiction when reviewing some fiction for the HNS. One novel in particular (John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies) contains a large number of fairly clear historical anachronisms and errors which I felt devalued the pleasure of reading what is otherwise excellently plotted, paced and engaging fiction. As I read the text, rather than engaging with the fictional world created by the writer, I increasingly devoted attention to spotting the next howler, and then scurrying off to check my suspicions on Google. I did begin to wonder if the writer was playing a game with the reader, or indeed if the narrator in the story was fundamentally unreliable or suffering from some form of medical condition that affected his memory. The subsequent development of the novel suggested that this was not the case.

On the issue of whether it really matters if an author makes mistakes in historical fiction, speaking at the Hay Literary festival (and reported in The Guardian on 31 May 2017), the historian John Guy outlined his concerns. He claimed that the works of the most popular and talented historical novelists, such as Hilary Mantel, are now often considered as textbooks on history by undergraduates. Mantel’s depiction of Thomas More, a character in Wolf Hall, as a misogynistic evil villain, is, according to him, inaccurate as she seemingly relied on biased, albeit conventionally believed historical accounts of More in her highly successful aim of writing a thoroughly absorbing novel of the machinations of the English state in the sixteenth century. There are other factual errors in her book, and Guy said: “Do I care? No. It is a novel.” However, he is concerned that the quality of the fiction leads readers and students into considering it to be a true and reliable account of the times. Marina Warner agrees with John Guy that historical novelists can have a key role: “Hilary Mantel’s Anne Boleyn and Thomas More have eclipsed earlier incarnations of them to imprint her fictional creations on collective memory.” 2

In the Reith Lectures broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in July 2017, in what appeared to be a response to John Guy’s criticism, Hilary Mantel argued that “facts are not truth (but) the record of what’s left on the record.” It is the responsibility of the living to interpret, or, possibly misinterpret, those accounts. The historical fiction writer does not operate in direct opposition to the academic historian; both must think creatively, especially when faced with gaps and silences in the archive – “selection, elision, artful arrangement” are all required for a coherent narrative. Mantel argued that historical truth cannot be entirely found in “coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions,” but the writer needs to look at “a woman’s sigh” or a “hand pulling close the bed curtain,” essential elements of human life that will not be located in any credible archive. “If we crave truth unmediated by art we are chasing a phantom. We need the commentator’s craft, even to make sense of the news. We need historians, not to collect facts, but to help us pick a path through the facts, to meaning. We need fiction to remind us that the unknown and unknowable is real, and exerts its force.” In essence, “if we want to meet the dead looking alive, we turn to art.” 3

The writer Amanda Foreman defended Mantel’s views a little more trenchantly: “Only fools and pedants have a problem with artistic licence. In the introduction to Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott felt compelled to explain to his critics that, yes, he had taken some liberties with Norman history, and no, his Ivanhoe was not meant to compete with the antiquarian labours of ‘Dr Dryasdust’. Rather, it was a mood piece that was aimed at the heart as well as the mind (…). If accuracy and analysis were indeed the only criteria that mattered, we would have to dispense with a host of beloved classics, from Homer’s The Iliad to Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.” 4

Despite these cogent arguments, it does matter that writers do not litter their works with all sorts of misleading errors. I surveyed some of the HNS’s experienced reviewers to get some idea of their views on the subject, as specialist and expert readers and reviewers, and also sought the opinion of some of the Society’s published and successful writers of historical fiction – again to get some idea of their own experiences and perspectives.

Most reviewers said that anachronisms in the text of historical fiction were profoundly annoying and did interrupt the spell that good fiction can weave between the author and the reader. Minor historical facts can justifiably be changed to fit in with the plot providing that such changes were acknowledged by the writer in notes or some other form of envoi at the end of the text, and that they are not central elements of the historical narrative. Conn Iggulden is an author referenced by more than one respondent with an off-putting track record of changing the established historical process to fit his story – which has deterred one reviewer from reading his historical fiction again. Perhaps the biggest irritant for the HNS reviewers is writers giving their characters contemporary mindsets, in taking them out of the conventions, culture and behaviour of their times and giving them an “enlightened” temperament. Not anachronistic as such, but profoundly irritating nonetheless!

HNS writers have emphasised how much hard work goes into their research for their fiction – six months of reading through the subject is not unusual in order to immerse themselves into the subject, and to reduce the chances of getting anything important wrong. A big problem is that the interpretation of often unreliable sources remains subjective in many areas – and what may be established historical fact to one expert writer familiar with their material is merely arbitrary supposition to another historian. This has prompted some of our writers to append bibliographies to their novels in order to demonstrate their use of historical sources, if challenged.

The historical fiction writer Elizabeth Chadwick weighed into the argument: “Yes, story is massively important, but in the case of historical fiction the story must rest solidly on historical integrity. Note that I don’t say accuracy because that has different connotations. With the best will in the world, no author can get everything right, but there’s nothing to stop us from obtaining a thoroughly good grounding in our chosen period and doing the best we can. Indeed, it’s essential. If you are twisting history to suit the story then you’re not a good enough writer… Part of the utter joy of being a historical novelist is working out how the narrative can be woven in such a way as to keep the historical facts and details intact without sacrificing story and vice versa. Work with the facts, work around them if you must, but don’t distort them. If you do your research and don’t warp the history while telling a bloody good story, then the historical detail anoraks will stay off your back, the people who just want the frocks and a story won’t notice, and everyone’s happy.” 5

It seems therefore that it is important that the writers of historical fiction take time to ensure their facts, as far as possible, are correct. From the sample surveyed, we can take comfort that HNS writers do devote considerable effort to ensuring that their fiction equates with the established historical record. A writer who makes “continuity” errors in his narrative, changes historical assessments or puts in eye-watering anachronisms helps nobody. In today’s society, it is perhaps more important than ever that both writers and readers with a conscience for establishing truths, albeit within the ever-loose and permeable boundaries of historical fiction, should do their utmost to institute, reinforce and promulgate truth in our art.

REFERENCES:
1. Theodore K. Rabb
New York Times, 1 December 1996 (http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/05/04/bsp/20491.html). Accessed 18 Dec 2017
2. Royal Society of Literature Review
Autumn 2017, p.11
3. The Reith Lectures
July 2017, BBC website (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00729d9)
4. Daily Telegraph
2 June 2017.
5. Elizabeth Chadwick
Living the History blog, 23 July 2017 (http://elizabethchadwick.com/blog/beyond-the-dressing-up-box-how-i-write-historical-fiction/)

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: Douglas Kemp is one of the UK team of review editors for Historical Novels Review.


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