Under Siege #23: History or Fiction?

What is historical fiction?  Is it history?  Is it fiction?  How real should it be?  An aspiring author recently wrote me to ask just these questions.  More specifically, he wanted to know two things.  First, do I research as I write, or do I research before I start the writing process?  And second, how do I deal with representing real historical figures in fiction; do I worry about putting words in their mouths that they may not (in fact probably did not) ever speak?  I’m glad he asked, as this gives me an opportunity to elaborate my (drum role please…) Theory of Historical Fiction.

First off, it is important to realize that there is no single style of historical fiction, any more than there is one type of pizza.  Some people like deep-dish, while others prefer a Mediterranean style with a thin, crispy crust, or a New York-style pizza that is best eaten folded over on itself.  A few (myself included, to my great shame) even enjoy pizza in its most capitalist form: Domino’s and Pizza Hut.  Similarly, there is literary fiction that uses an historical setting (Ismail Kadare’s The Siege, Barry Unsworth’s The Rage of the Vulture, and Iain Pears’s The Dream of Scipio are three of my favorites) and genre fiction such as historical romances, historical action adventures, historical mysteries, and historical military recreations.  And within each of these niches, the balance between history and fiction varies considerably.  The first great practitioners of the art—Walter Scott and Alexandre Dumas—were not exactly slaves to historical accuracy.  Dumas couldn’t even manage to be consistent within his own rather creative version of history.  (Of course, consistency is hard to come by when you’re employing a team of writers as Dumas did.)  Lately, the balance has begun to shift towards historical accuracy, led by writers like Patrick O’Brian, who have done a wonderful job of combining great historical detail with rousing stories.  That said, the success of movies like Gladiator shows that the public still has a sizeable appetite for historical fiction that emphasizes the fiction.

None of these styles of historical fiction are inherently any better than the others.  I love Patrick O’Brian, but I also certainly feel that the world would be a poorer place without the works of Dumas, historical inaccuracies and all.  And while novels that get history wrong can be frustrating, I sometimes find novels that strive for total accuracy to be a little pedantic.  In the end, I think readers judge novels not by their accuracy, but their readability.  Novels that tell a good story are forgiven for playing fast and loose with history, or even just plain getting it wrong.  And no matter how accurate a book is, no one will care if it is not a good read.

That said, all historical fiction should adhere to one fundamental rule: know your history, and if you are going to change it, have a good reason for doing so.  It’s also helpful to accurately portray the background details—clothing, food, architecture, weapons, etc.—but as a trained historian, I am ironically less fanatical about historical accuracy than most, for two reasons.  First of all, while historical fiction can and should inform readers, its primary role is to entertain, not to instruct.  Second and more importantly, I understand that total historical accuracy is an impossible and in many ways undesirable goal.  To explain, allow me to put on my academic hat for a moment…

As Hayden White points out in his wonderful article “Historical Emplotment and the Problem of Truth,” even academic history is not immune to fiction.  The narrative tropes that historians use to write history inevitably impose themselves on the facts, distorting and coloring the reality of the past.  And even if an historian managed to somehow avoid this insoluble problem, historical reality can still never be fully recaptured.  The weather, the smells, and most importantly all that goes on between the ears of historical actors can be recreated but never with certainty (otherwise historians would be out of work!).  And this is precisely where historical fiction enters the picture: it uses fiction to fill in the myriad little details that history cannot supply.  In novels, the author can tell us that the sun glinted off the barrel of a bronze cannon, without worrying about whether the sun was shining that day.  Historians can speculate about why Brutus betrayed Caesar or why Napoleon invaded Russia, but historical fiction can go inside their heads and give us answers, albeit fictional ones.

So fiction will always be part of historical fiction, and even real people—Caesar, Napoleon, Cleopatra, Jospehine—are necessarily fictionalized when they show up in novels.  Even if every action a character takes is a faithful reflection of their actual life (or what we know of it), the character becomes fictional the moment the author gives us insight into what is going on in his or her head.  This is all the more true the further back in history we go, because the worldview of people in the past was radically different from our own.  For starters, most people never traveled more than ten miles from the place they were born.  They had no notion of the scope of the world or the existence of different cultures.  They had no real notion of historical change.  Take a look at medieval or Renaissance paintings of scenes from the Bible: Mary, Joseph, Jesus, Noah, David… they are all dressed in doublets and hose.  Medieval men and women truly believed that supernatural forces were active in their lives.  And their world was composed of roles, not individuals: it was not uncommon to give five or six children the same name as their father in the hope that one of them would live to carry on his role.

Their particular beliefs are strange to us.  Until quite recently, it made perfect sense to take a child who died before baptism to the local priest and pay him to briefly resurrect the child so that he or she could be baptized, then buried.  For the sixteenth-century Italian miller Menocchio (whose strange cosmology is beautifully captured in Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms), the following explanation of the earth’s origins was self-evident: “I have said that, in my opinion, all was chaos … and out of that bulk a mass formed – just as cheese is made out of milk – and worms appeared in it, and these were the angels, and among that number of angels, there was also God, he too having been created out of that mass at the same time ….” To us, Menocchio sounds crazy.  He was not.  As late as 1870, the villagers of Hautefaye in France killed, tortured, burned alive, and perhaps even ate a young noble in broad daylight.  These people were not crazy either.  But they were very, very different from us.

The great fiction of historical fiction, then, is that it almost always gives its characters a mentality that is at least partially modern.  Some authors strive harder than others to recreate the mindsets of the past, but while they often succeed in relating the flavor and differentness of past mentalities, they almost never even attempt to go all-out.  And this is a good thing!  Re-creating past mentalities is perhaps the most challenging field of history, and authors of fiction are well-advised to steer clear, because if an author ever did capture the mindset of the past, they would only succeed in creating a character that modern readers could not relate to.  In his Baudolino, Umberto Eco has perhaps gone as far in this direction as any author I have read.  And unsurprisingly, Baudolino, while brilliant, is also rather difficult to read.

All historical fiction, then, contains fiction.  The question is how much, and that is up to the author.  As for myself, I do a considerable amount of research to flesh out the historical context of my stories before I start writing.  I embed my story in the chronology of the time and get to know the major historical figures that will appear in my book.  When I write, I don’t change dates without a very good reason, and I tell my readers when I do so.  I try to be as accurate as possible in relating background details of clothing, food, architecture, local customs, and even body-language; I typically do a lot of research on these things as I write.  All of that said, for me the story always comes first, and this is, I think, the major difference between historical fiction and history, where the facts come first.  I use historical fact to flesh out the story and make it feel real, but what I right is fiction.  I hope you enjoy it!



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *