Friday, 22 February 2019

How Fictional is your History? by Catherine Hokin

We're having something of a surge in historical fiction films at the moment. You can lose yourself in the politics of medieval or Tudor Scotland with Outlaw King and Mary Queen of Scots, or the excesses of the eighteenth court with The Favourite. If the racial-tensions of 1960s America are more your thing, there's Green Book or you can loop back round to politics with Vice - which I'm including here as it covers Dick Cheney's early life and therefore slips in past the 30 year HNS rule for classifying a work as historical fiction. A little tenuous perhaps but that is rather my point...

 Robert the Bruce - Chris Pine would be preferable but
not Netflix's wrath
What the above films share is the accusation that they all play fast and loose with the facts, and are guilty of providing what Simon Jenkins in the Guardian called “fake instant history.” Screen outings that, in other words, become received wisdom - what I am re-christening Braveheart moments in honour of  the film dubbed the most historically inaccurate movie ever made. I'm not going to list all its errors here - there is a whole industry devoted to logging them - start with the small point that William Wallace was never called Braveheart (that was Bruce, and not in his lifetime) and the whole timeline is about 20 years out which really messes up a lot of marriages and deaths and you'll get the idea. Does it matter? Well yes - the last time I was at the Wallace memorial there was a full-size (thankfully cardboard) Mel Gibson waiting to greet the hoardes of visitors. To my mind this not only gives the film a legitimacy it doesn't deserve, it also necessitates a whole lot of de-bunking I'm not sure was widely available.

As I said in my review of Outlaw King (Historia Magazine, it's a bit ranty) I don’t mind a bit of cinematic embellishment if it enriches the story. Queen Anne didn't keep 17 bunnies in her bedroom to replace her lost children (rabbits being eaten not petted at the time) but that worked for me in The Favourite as a good visual shorthand for the depths of her loss. And no major historical events were harmed by their use. The Favourite does what many historical writers do - it found a story lurking round the facts (the competition between the two female favourites, the allegations around Anne of 'unnatural' preferences) and it wove something bigger. As Lucy Worsley said in the Guardian: "people at the time thought that Queen Anne and the Duchess of Marlborough were [lovers] and this was a line of attack that was used by their political enemies, so that’s one thing...Another thing is that people were very much sharing beds the whole time; that was a standard way of sleeping. So who knows when they were and when they weren’t having sex? It’s all very difficult to define, isn’t it?” So difficult to define but plausible, not jaw-dropping in the way of Outlaw King (read the review) and not down-right dishonest as in the case of Mary Queen of Scots. 

Personally I don't mind about the accents in this film or others set in periods where dialect and accent are hard to be purist about. Whether it was French or Scottish or some hybrid, we don't really know which one Mary had and we don't know what either of those accents actually sounded like at the time. But I'm with Simon Schama regarding the two women meeting - “the whole drama of Elizabeth and Mary lay in the fact they never did meet”. Like Outlaw King, one of the key words you hit when you google this film is true. It's not: the two women meeting is a major distortion I've already had to explain to more people than I wanted to (or who wanted to hear it). To coin an overused and too-needed phrase: it's fake news. 

The criticisms over the other films mentioned above are different - perhaps because those portrayed in them or their families are still alive. Green Book has been condemned by the family of African American pianist Donald Shirley for what they see as a completely false portrayal ("a symphony of lies") and for them not being consulted, precisely for that reason. Vice has been accused of being misleading, of fabricating events, of being shallow and being evasive with the truth over Cheney's portrayal - including by a large number of people with no reason to defend him at all.

 Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette
Things that were never historically done/said becoming not only popular belief but often the main thing we 'know' about a time/character is nothing new. The phrase let them eat cake was attached to a number of insensitive royals before it stuck to Marie-Antoinette and there's no contemporary account proving the accuracy/existence of Elizabeth I's famous Tilbury speech, although we're pretty sure Mary wasn't there. It is, however, a truism, if an annoying one that many people get their understanding of history from television and films, and likely also from novels. So where does a creative's responsibility lie?

Clearly no one wants to impose some kind of Stalinist censorship on film-makers or writers, who are also not exempt from these charges of being elastic with the truth. The recent condemnation of Heather Morris's best-seller The Tattooist of Auschwitz by the Auschwitz Memorial Research Centre as being a book which "contains numerous errors and information inconsistent with the facts, as well as exaggerations, misinterpretations and understatements” has not made comfortable reading. Or stopped it getting a sequel. Film-makers insist they are not reporting history but a version of it. As writers we are all looking for the story in the gap, and we are also not historians: we are writing fiction. We do, however, live in a time when real and fake news seem to blend seamlessly together and there are concerns about the level of critical thinking many people are exposed to. What then, if any, is our responsibility when we take readers into the past? Is it to make it clear (through notes or end-pieces) how much of a novel has been invented as Kate Atkinson does in Transcriptioncommenting that she has made one thing up for everything true? She then does then go on to prove how rooted in fact all the made-up stuff is and how it never distorts the truth it's based in. Or perhaps it's Stephanie Merritt's (who writes as SJ Parris) advice that holds true: "if you are going to play fast and loose with historical fact for the sake of a good story, you'd better have done your research thoroughly if you want readers to take you seriously; only then will you have the authority to depart from those facts."

For me, I like things simple and to do as I would be done by. Let writers and film-makers turn Jane Austen into a zombie slayer if they want, as long as they call it fantasy. Let them bring bunnies or tigers or whatever they like into the nursery, as long as its clearly a metaphor. But please don't mess with timelines or bring in ridiculously anachronistic behaviour or change the nature of history. That's a different kind of fiction entirely.

Thursday, 21 February 2019

The Secret Garden: Ancient World Contraception by Elisabeth Storrs

Etruscan woman holding a pomegranate
Childbirth is dangerous. The Western world often forgets this. The advances made in medicine and mothercraft to improve the mortality rates of both mother and babies have been remarkable but are now taken for granted. So too effective forms of contraception. Many forget that the development of the ‘Pill’ only occurred in the 1960s. And it can be argued that the introduction of reliable oral contraceptives gave impetus to the feminist movement as women were at last given the opportunity to plan their pregnancies as well as their careers.

Women of the ancient world did not have access to such sophisticated medicine; instead they relied on more humble ways to prevent falling pregnant. I was absorbed when researching the methods used in classical Greece, Rome and Etruria when writing my Tales of Ancient Rome series.

One of my protagonists is a young, innocent Roman girl who is married to an Etruscan man to seal a truce between two warring cities. She discovers her husband’s society offers independence, education and sexual freedom to women. Such freedoms, however, do not excuse her from the duty of bearing children.  In her quest to delay this destiny she learns that there were certain plants that offered a chance to avoid falling with child including a delicious fruit grown in her garden, and a mysterious plant from a distant land.
Prosperpine by Dante Gabriel Rosetti
Pomegranates were associated with the myth of Persephone (Roman Proserpina) and the vegetation cycle. Persephone was the child of Zeus, king of the gods, and Demeter, goddess of the harvest. When Hades, god of the Underworld, abducted Demeter’s daughter, the deity was so grief stricken she rendered the earth barren. Faced with a desolate world, the other gods pleaded for Zeus to intervene. He demanded Hades release Persephone whom he’d instructed not to eat while in the Underworld. Hades grudgingly agreed but before the maiden left his realm she ate some forbidden pomegranate seeds. For her disobedience, Persephone was ordered to return to live with Hades for three months of the year. And so, during winter, Demeter refused anything to grow until her daughter was once again returned in the spring.
In various ancient cultures, the pomegranate was seen as a symbol of fecundity. An Etruscan bride would offer a pomegranate to her groom during the wedding ceremony. However, the fruit was also considered useful for regulating menstrual flow. Accordingly the fruit was seen as holding the secret to both fertility and sterility.
Ancient physicians such as Hippocrates, Soranus and Dioscorides prescribed the seeds and rind of the pomegranate to prevent conception but details of the preparation or the quantities used are unknown. There is mention of the fruit being eaten while some sources state that the seed pulp was used on pessaries.
Did pomegranates work? Studies conducted during the 1970s and 80s on rats and guinea pigs revealed reduced fertility in females that had been fed the fruit. Furthermore, scientists discovered the pulp around the seed was most effective compared to the roots or the flesh. Accordingly, there may have been some efficacy to using pomegranate pulp in pessary form as was described in ancient sources although extrapolating the results of tests conducted on rats to human reproduction can be tricky.

Using pomegranates may have been haphazard as a means of prevention but there was another plant that clearly was considered as a viable contraceptive. The Romans called it ‘silphium’ while the Greeks knew it as ‘silphion’. 

Modern botanists have identified silphium as a member of the giant fennel (Ferula) family based on ancient descriptions, and pictures on coins and pottery. The plant was rare, growing in the dry climate of Cyrenaica in northern Africa (modern Libya). The pungent resin from silphium's stems and roots was known as laserpicium and was used as an additive which gave food a rich distinctive taste. It was also used to treat coughs, sore throats and fevers. Perfume was distilled from its blooms.

The crop became the main commodity of Cyrene (Shahhat, Libya) a city colonized by the Greeks in C7th BCE. These colonists had reluctantly migrated from the island of Thera, having been forced to draw lots. According to Theophrastus, a pupil of Aristotle, the settlers discovered the silphium plant which made them rich and their city famous. Demand across the ancient world for the plant bumped up its price leading the playwright Aristophanes to write in The Knights: “Don’t you remember when a stalk of silphium sold so cheap?”
Silphium stalk on Cyrene coin
The wealth brought from exporting silphium led Cyrene to recognize the importance of its prize export by stamping its coins with the distinctive symbol of the plant in a similar manner to Athens’ use of an owl. The design of one series of four drachma coins depicts a woman touching the plant with one hand while pointing to her womb with the other. Interestingly, there is also speculation as to a connection between the contours of silphium seeds and the traditional heart shape as silver coins from Cyrene from C6–5th BCE bear a similar design. The coat of arms of Italian Libya also bore an image of the plant indicating the importance of its history to the region even as recently as 1947.
There is a reference to the plant’s resin being applied to pessaries but silphium could also be taken orally. Soranus recommended women take about a chick pea’s size of silphium juice dissolved in water once a month. It is clear that he also considered it had abortive effects, as did Dioscorides.
The Roman poet, Catullus, advised his lover, Lesbia, in Carmen 7, that they could share as many kisses as there are grains of sand on the shores of ‘silphium producing Cyrene’ as follows:

You ask, my Lesbia, how many of your kisses
are enough and more than enough for me.
As big a number as the Libyan grains of sand
that lie at silphium producing Cyrene
between the oracle of Sultry Jupiter
and the sacred tomb of old Battus;
Or as many stars that see the secret love affairs of men,
when the night is silent.
So many kisses are enough
and more than enough for mad Catullus to kiss you,
these kisses which neither the inquisitive are able to count
nor an evil tongue bewitch.
Heart shaped silphium seed - Cyrene coin
Catullus’ endorsement of the plant to his lover was an assurance that their lovemaking could continue as long as silphium was obtainable. Unfortunately, at the time of the poet’s death in 54 BCE  stocks of the plant were dwindling with the Roman historian, Pliny the Elder, remarking during Nero’s reign in 37-68 CE “only a single stalk has been found there within our memory”. In effect, the plant was considered worth its weight in silver denarii or even gold. With its scarcity, a lucrative black market thrived.
Ultimately silphium became extinct. Various theories include demand outstripping supply, or simply over-farming by the Romans after they gained governorship over the Greeks. However, Theophrastus wrote that silphium was peculiar in that it couldn’t be cultivated and only grew in a narrow band of land along dry mountainsides facing the Mediterranean Sea. Repeated attempts to farm the plant proved futile; instead it was harvested from the wild under strict rules. It has now been posited that the plant was either a hybrid with unpredictable generational outcomes, or similar to wild huckleberries. This fruit is native to the mountain slopes, forests and lake basins of North America. The berries are sensitive to soil chemistry so when grown from seed, bear no fruit.
Was silphium effective? It’s difficult to say when scientists possess no specimens upon which to test. However, another member of the fennel family, asafoetida, exists and can be successfully cultivated. It is used today to give Worcestershire sauce its characteristic flavour. Early testing of asafoetida and other Ferula species on rats proved notable anti-fertility effects. In 1963, it was established that asafoetida was effective as a contraceptive for humans. Given this, the popularity of silphium as a drug of choice in the ancient world can be given credence.
There was a veritable pharmacopia of other herbs and plants used by women of the ancient world: Queen Anne’s Lace (wild carrot), rue, myrrh, juniper and pennyroyal to name a few. Unfortunately most of these are also poisonous when taken in incorrect dosages.
Despite the folklore and science surrounding all these natural remedies, it is a sobering fact that the average life expectancy of females in the Iron Age was approximately 27-30 years. We will never know how many women avoided an unwanted pregnancy through use of herb, fruit or plant, nor how many mothers and children perished due to the use of toxic abortifacients. And even those who welcomed a baby quickening within them weren’t guaranteed a long life - the mortality rate for both maternal and infant deaths in childbirth was incredibly high. 

Elisabeth Storrs is the author of the Tales of Ancient Rome saga. Learn more at  
Images are courtesy of the MET project, Wikimedia Commons and
Expedition Magazine Vol. 34, Nos. 1-2, 1992. "The Coins from the Sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone." by T. V. Buttrey .

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

The problem with historical fiction – Carolyn Hughes

What “problem”, you might ask…
When I first embarked on writing historical fiction several years ago, I edged my way nervously into a genre that I felt instinctively I loved but was also terrified of making a complete hash of. In 2015, a year before I published my first historical novel, I had submitted my doctoral thesis, Authenticity and alterity: Evoking the fourteenth century in fiction. I most certainly did then – and essentially still do – suffer from “imposter syndrome” over my attempts to become an historical novelist. And some of the research that I’d engaged in for that PhD might easily have derailed me almost before I had properly begun. For I’d read more than a few opinions of historical fiction that made me wonder if the whole enterprise was a complete waste of time and effort!
For example:
  • “Historical fiction can never be authentic”
  • “Historical fiction is a lie
  • “Historical fiction invariably fails to portray the strangeness of the past”.

But, surely, that couldn’t all be true? Otherwise no one would want to read it, let alone write it! For those of you who haven’t come across such negative opinions before, let me explain…

“Historical fiction can never be authentic”

The nineteenth-century novelist Henry James famously disparaged historical fiction. It was not the practicalities of the past that James thought difficult to describe, but imagining with any degree of realism, or perhaps “naturalism”, the inner lives of those who lived in earlier times.
Henry James by John Singer Sargent.
National Portrait Gallery. Public domain.
Yet isn’t imagining the inner lives of characters (historical or fictional) for readers to experience exactly what historical novelists attempt to do?
So, how does a writer make the characters of a novel set, for example, in the fourteenth century, seem to be of their time? I want the readers of my novels to feel they have been immersed in the mediaeval world, but without really noticing its “mediaevalness”. The latter might happen, for example, if they found themselves wondering if this or that thing or image or phrase or thought was “authentic”. To achieve an appropriate degree of authenticity, artefacts and environments must be, or at least seem to be, of their time, and noticeable anachronisms of fact or notion must be avoided, to save throwing the reader out of the illusion. Mindsets (the characters’ thought-world) must be convincing, and language, in narrative and dialogue, must reflect that thought-world, while not necessarily attempting to mimic the actual language of the period.
That all sounds fine in theory but how does it work in practice? James would presumably say it cannot ever work, that historical novelists and readers delude themselves in thinking the novels are in any way authentic. Yet writers surely do their very best to portray their characters and settings with authenticity. They undertake months or even years of research, in history books, in contemporary writings where they exist, and in art, and they use their intelligence and their imagination to transport, first, themselves, and then their readers into the inner lives of their historical characters.
Occasionally, an error of fact or understanding may slip through but, with the effort authors make, and with the eagerness of so many thousands of historical fiction devotees who happily allow themselves to suspend any disbelief in order to enjoy the story, the enterprise (of writing historical fiction) surely is not, as James implied, doomed to failure?
Though actually I think what is true of historical fiction may be true of any fiction... Historical fiction may not be able to fully convey the experiences of the past, but it is difficult for any type of fiction to wholly convey the experience of a character’s life, especially if that character, for example, commits murder, or blasts off into space to save the planet from a rogue asteroid, or perpetrates any number of actions beyond the experience of the average reader.
Although this is, of course, exactly what all novelists, historical or otherwise, attempt to do.

“Historical fiction is a lie

In 2000, Richard Lee, the president of the Historical Novel Society, gave a talk to an audience of writers entitled ‘History is but a fable agreed upon: the problem of truth in history and fiction’.
The title alluded to a comment attributed to Napoleon, which suggested that history is a form of fiction, for its “truth” depends on who is telling the story: the written history of war differs depending on whether its author comes from the camp of the conqueror or that of the conquered.
Napoleon crosses the St. Bernard, by Jacques-Louis
, 1800. Public domain.
But isn’t it also true that, to some extent, the “facts” of history are continually changing, as the latest research inevitably reveals previously unknown information or offers new interpretations of historical truths?
Richard quoted a literary critic who, in a Telegraph book review that year, had said the
historical novel has always been a literary form at war with itself. The very term, implying a fiction somehow grounded in fact – a lie with obscure obligations to the truth – is suggestive of the contradictions of the genre.”
Richard considered that this critic, and others, misunderstood the nature of historical fiction, for surely all fiction is a lie “somehow grounded in fact”. No one, he said, thinks that either Trainspotting or Bridget Jones’ Diary is true, but rather that “they were in some way drawn from life”. Historical fiction is no more a contradiction than any other form of art, all of which seeks “both accuracy and illusion”.
All fiction is an illusion created by the writer’s imagination. Yet historical, no less than contemporary, fiction must be sustained by a foundation of fact, creating a sense of “authenticity”, in order for readers to accept the illusion as temporary reality. Even fantasy fiction, science fiction and some forms of thriller, despite being illusion writ large, must be founded, if not on fact, at least on sufficient rationality or logic to sustain the illusion.
I found myself almost apoplectic with indignation when I read what that critic had written. He seemed to be implying that historical fiction was somehow “invalid” as a concept. Richard Lee’s comment rings true for me when he suggests that historical fiction, like all art, aims to achieve both accuracy, or perhaps authenticity, and illusion.
Illusion, not a lie.
Richard’s article is an interesting read. If you haven’t read it, it’s still available on the HNS website:

“Historical fiction invariably fails to portray the strangeness of the past”

What is this “strangeness”? It refers to the very otherness of past times, those aspects of life, in particular mindsets and behaviours, which are unfamiliar or obscure to the modern reader. It will include differences in attitudes and beliefs but also, for an historical novel set in the mediaeval period, perhaps such things as superstition, religious charms, dreams, magic and spells, monsters and mediaeval art, strange ideas and seemingly fantastical happenings that today could be readily explained or dismissed – all of which were normal to people of the time. In other periods, the list might be a bit different, but would still include those things that make that period seem “other” to our own. 

Blemmye from Schedel's World History or
Nuremberg Chronicle (1493). Public domain.
Strangeness is important in an historical novel, but must perhaps not overwhelm. As Jerome de Groot has said in his book The Historical Novel, by exploring the differences of the past compared to the present, historical fiction can make the past “authentically unfamiliar”, and yet still recognisable to modern readers.
The people we encounter on the pages of historical novels are of course familiar to us in many ways: they are mothers and fathers, farmers and carpenters, soldiers and merchants, people with families and concerns and feelings much like our own. But their environment, their habits, their attitudes and beliefs are mostly very different, and it is this dissimilarity, as well as the familiarity, that an historical novelist seeks to portray. Sarah Johnson, in Historical Fiction: A Guide to the Genre, described this as making “the unfamiliar seem familiar”, and the one must be as carefully managed as the other.
However, it is perhaps true that not all historical novelists are entirely successful at achieving this. I imagine we have all read novels that we thought didn’t seem quite “right” for the period, in particular where characters seemed to have far too modern a mindset – overly liberated women, unbelievably “new” men...
In Clio’s Children, a blog for historical novelists, the writer John Yeoman proposed an interesting split between types of historical fiction. One type, which he termed "heritage":
depicts modern people, sensibilities and conflicts but…cloaks them expediently with props from history’s wardrobe: ruffs and farthingales, gibbets and jousts.
But, by contrast, he said, serio-historical fiction:
exposes the reader to a profound whiff of strangeness”.
Yeoman cited a number of novels where, in his view, strangeness could be found, including Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, and I would guess that most of us would agree that the world in Eco’s novel is decidedly “other”.
On the other hand, Yeoman said “we do not find [this strangeness] in Philippa Gregory”. He referred to The Other Boleyn Girl as “a sentimental blend of history and kitsch”, which does seem a bit harsh to me, but one must deduce that, for him, this novel falls into the “props” category. (I should perhaps add that Yeoman insisted that he was not implying any value judgement in defining these two types of historical novel, but was rather just illustrating the differences between them.)
So, to summarise, I have seen it written that:
  • We living in the present can never fully understand the inner lives of people living in the past and therefore may not be able to portray their thoughts and voices with any degree of authenticity;
  • Historical fiction is in itself a contradiction, lies pretending to be the truth;
  • Some historical novels fail to reflect the strangeness of the past, dressing their characters in authentic-looking clothes but giving them modern sensibilities.

In general, I don’t believe that historical fiction does suffer from such “problems”. Indeed I similar problems might apply equally to many types of contemporary fiction. For example, in science fiction, thrillers, murder mysteries and fantasy, novelists attempt to portray all sorts of characters’ inner lives that neither they nor the reader could actually experience. All novels of whatever genre are essentially “untrue” – they are fiction! Even the need for strangeness is not confined to historical fiction, but is required in any novel portraying a world, in time or space, that is very different from readers’ usual experience. 
Having said all that, when I started writing, I certainly did have concerns about my own ability to produce an historical novel with sufficient authenticity and strangeness. Although I was reasonably confident about describing the practicalities of the past, I remained nervous that I might fail to portray my characters’ inner lives truthfully, that they might seem to be modern rather than people of their time, and that the world I was attempting to evoke might not be sufficiently “other”.
Whether I have succeeded or failed is for others to say, but I would be interested to hear thoughts from fellow historical fiction writers about their own experiences of portraying earlier times, and also from readers about whether or not they recognise any truth behind the “problems” I have discussed...