So, Do I Like Historical Fiction?
Well. The last few days, for me and a few friends at least, have been…. different. A post that I came up with in the shower provoked a huge debate, the huge debate provoked my next post, and that post has provoked this. Now, I find myself being asked questions like; “Why do you hate historical fiction?” and “Have you got it in for authors of historical fiction?”. Both of these questions can be answered very easily- I DON’T and NO.
Allow me to explain.
I adore most historical novels. I have read books by Alison Weir, Anne O’Brien, Susan Higginbotham, Michele Kallio and Melanie Clegg (among others). I loved them all. I love the escapism, I love getting into the minds of historical figures, I love to share their experiences. I think by reading historical fiction, I approach my academic history remembering these people were human. They are not just a name in a book. They were people with thoughts, feelings and emotions. I think it has stopped a bit of judgmental streak I might have once possessed.
One of the things I love about historical fiction is the exploration of the maybes. Did Hugh Despenser the Even Younger (well, that’s what I like to call Hugh Despenser the Younger’s son, anyway) have a mistress before he married Bess? He could have done. George Boleyn, Dean of Lichfield, had a father. But who was he? There were rumours that Elizabeth I, as a young woman, had fallen pregnant. Had she? All of these things can be explored through the work of a novelist. I’ve read novels exploring all these maybes and more.
Here’s my sticking point, though. Exploring the maybes is one thing. Telling lies is quite another. The maybes explored in the novels I reference above are ALL explained in author’s notes at the end of the novel.
Historical novels can be tricky, I am sure. The amount of research to create something that is a pleasure to read must be astonishing, and I appreciate that. I really do. But, as my friend and author Michele Kallio said to me yesterday; “we do no service to future generations to rewrite history to suit current tastes“. I could not agree more. Many people learn history from historical novels. I have seen one comment on a facebook group just this morning from someone who states they learn history from novels. This is where my point about telling lies becomes important (to me, anyway).
If something is added as a fictional element in a novel; a person added, an incident changed, whatever, telling people it is an indisputable fact is irresponsible. It is unfair, to both the readers and the people being written about. I don’t think changing history to suit novels does anybody any favours. Making Roger Mortimer the father of Edward III, having Thomas Cromwell have an affair with Jane Boleyn, having Hugh Despenser the Younger escape his execution because he is rescued by a band of time-travelling magic leprechauns, whatever; is rather a disservice. I know from my own and my friends google searches, people believe what they read in novels or see in films. My friend Kathryn’s blog has literally thousands of hits from people who believe William Wallace is really the father of Edward III. Yes, it is wonderful that people are seeking the truth, but what about the ones that don’t?
Anything that moves away from known historical fact, in my opinion, should be clearly stated in an author’s note.
So, now I’ve got all that off my chest, I will answer the first question; I do not hate historical fiction. In fact, I love it. I just like it to be responsibly told, I like it to be relatively accurate, and I like it when it doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not.
Now, onto my second question.
I have to admit, being asked if I “had it in” for historical fiction authors really scared me. Because, I don’t actually “have it in” for anybody. Over the past few years, after joining social networking sites and becoming active in forums, I have met many authors. I have read their work, reviewed their work, loved their work many times. I am still acquainted with many of them and count several among my friends. In all my experience of talking to authors, online, via email and in person, I have only found one to be rude. That says a lot.
So in a word, no, I do not have anything against authors of historical fiction. I believe them to be one of the most hardworking groups of people I’ve ever come across. They research, plan, write and rewrite, tear out hair, laugh, cry and drink a lot of coffee! For themselves and for the pleasure of others. That is incredible. Every single author I have spoken to, who has been polite, courteous and friendly, I hold great admiration for. What a great bunch of people.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get back to my latest read. (Bring Up The Bodies, if you’re interested.) You can find a list of historical novels I really liked here.