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...


Susan Price said...

Interesting blog, but I've never understood the problem.

All fiction is a lie! So what?

All history is a lie, written by the victors -- and even where people in the past were attempting to write honest reports of what they saw (eruption at Pompeii, for instance) or writing in diaries, they still wrote with 'unwitting bias' because all of us have a bias. Again, what's new?

Who sits down to read any fiction, set in any period, with the expectation that it's all true? -- It's a kind of game played between writer and reader and a reader may be disappointed if the writer stumbles by, say, having a character express ideas that they think are too modern for the period. But that's the game. You play it as well as you can. Nobody expects or even wants it to be 'true.' -- What about 'alternative history' and 'steam punk?'

'The way people thought in XXXX' is also a fiction. Some Romans hated the killing in the arena. Not all Victorians were prudes -- or child rapists either. In the early Middle Ages, church authorities rebuked people for bringing charges against witches because 'witches don't exist.'

Carolyn -- just write what you want to write, the way you want to write it, so we can read it. You'll never please everybody, but you can please yourself -- and some of us.

spagyrics said...

Good article. I am glad to see that an author is concerned about capturing the inner lives of the characters with respect to their time. Why else would one want to read HF? That is what I ask, yet so many people read it just to see their modern views blossom in the past.

I am surprised that you don't believe that majority of contemporary HF fails to reflect the strangeness of the past. Every time I pick a HF set in MA, I find characters full of shocking modern sensibilities while they strut around in authentic clothes. I quit such books. I have scoured the internet and I cannot find any "serio-historical" fiction. (I read Penman, Undset, Flynn, Druon, Kingsnorth, Eco, Dunnett - these are 20th century writers)

"Yet isn’t imagining the inner lives of characters (historical or fictional) for readers to experience exactly what historical novelists attempt to do?"

It should be, but most of the contemporary (21st century) authors are not imagining the inner lives of people from the past. Most are pushing their own modern views into an era where such views have no place. This makes historical fiction a lie to me. Less educated then go on spreading these lies as facts. That's how you get lies like (people didn't bathe, everything was dark, women were chattel). I would love nothing more than read a book that takes me back to 13th century. Sadly the writers are too worried to offend or alienate sensitivities of a group of readers who frankly don't give a fuck about the past. These writers write to voice a popular views of 21st century and they find Medieval Era a perfect playing ground for their "heritage and props"stories. Yeoman captures it very well, and I am glad you quoted him. hahah he is not harsh about P. Gregory. Just honest.

Of course we cannot truthfully capture the mindset of our long gone ancestors, BUT WE CAN TRY, out of the respect and love for the past era. A HF writer fails when she doesn't try.

I can forgive if a writer makes factual error about a year, or a fabric - the surface of the past, I cannot forgive when they don't even try to capture the mindset.

abigail brieson said...

The extent of my experience falls back into a bit more than 100 years past, so I have little knowledge about worlds prior. However I strongly believe people - at least those of whom we possess any written works - have always held similar hopes, fears, wishes, desires, pain, loss and comforts. Therefore entering these past worlds is not a question of how the worlds effected their inhabitants but how the inhabitants shaped their worlds. Practicalities of the past are the clothing and tools and work and social and political elements we hang on the frame of emotion and thought.

If we were to find ourselves 100 years past (again, my experience is limited); or 100 years into the future (baring any unrecoverable devastation); we would immediately be lost but soon find ourselves adapting not based upon what that world imposes on us but how we are able to fulfill our internal lives and external goals within the structure of that world. Possibly we would fail, just as we now sometimes struggle to understand the daily lives of those so strange to us as to be alien; but if attempting literary time-travel, I believe we should look for similarities in human condition upon which we drape and tailor distinctions of these past (or future) worlds.

I have often wondered if it would be 'easier' to find ourselves back in time, or forward into the future?

Also, I hope others join with me that in our comments agreeing to consider our language and choice of words as appropriate to all.

Carolyn Hughes said...

Thank you all for your thoughts about my article. I don’t think I had ever considered histfic (any more than any other type of fiction) was “a lie” until I saw those musings of Henry James and, in particular, the perhaps somewhat unmindful comment by that critic. Of course all fiction is, well, fiction, whatever its genre or period. That a few people have felt it pertinent to somehow denigrate historical fiction seemed baffling to me as well as irritating, when I so much enjoyed reading it and so many excellent writers produce such fascinating and absorbing stories! I have certainly read historical novels whose characters do not seem “of their time”, but I have also read very many that seem to do it well (IMO). I don’t think it is easy to capture the mindsets of the past but, yes, we must do our best, out of respect for that past and from a wish to bring that world to life as “authentically” as possible. Why else write (or read) histfic at all?

M Skea said...

As an historical writer I distinguish between accuracy and authenticity. For me there are several issues. 1)We cannot be accurate about many aspects of the past - even some 'facts' for example the date of a real historical character's death are subsequently suggested / proved to have been inaccurate. 2)We weren't there, but even if we had been what we write would be coloured by our background, attitudes, belief system, pre-conceptions and so on and would therefore reflect to a greater or lesser extent our own bias. (This issue also applies to a contemporary writer.) So what can we do. We can strive for authenticity - to attempt to give a 'you are there' experience to the reader, firstly by getting the details right - of clothing, housing, modes of transport, religious beliefs, social mores and so on; secondly by not judging our characters against the standards / attitudes of our own era, but rather by their own era; and thirdly by recognising our potential for bias, understanding ourselves and thus being better prepared to avoid it. Sometimes we find out surprising things about a character - for example from a letter they wrote, a speech they made, an action they took. Do we avoid or ignore it because it will 'seem' wrong to our readers? That's a tricky one. I've found some evidence that Martin Luther (16th c reformer) was very modern in some of his attitudes to his marriage, wife and children - for example prepared to change a nappy - which makes him very much a 'new man'. Will my readers believe me, or decide I am not a serious historical writer? Do I play safe and give a less than rounded depiction of him as a man? I would never claim accuracy, but I am passionate about authenticity and that includes both unpalatable details of life in an earlier century and unexpected ones.

Carolyn Burns Bass said...

Fascinating to examine all three arguments surrounding historical fiction. As a historical fiction author, I seek to portray the human nature and how it responds to stimuli. The stimuli may change, the nature of humans--desire for love and to be loved, etc--remains much the same. Thus, the best historical characters are not only imagined, but empathized with by the author.

Carolyn Hughes said...

Thank you so much, Margaret and Carolyn, for your further thoughts. And how intriguing, that snippet about Martin Luther, the “new man”! Your point, Margaret, about treading that line between what is true and what readers might believe is true, is very interesting. For those of you who write about real historical people, it must indeed be a somewhat tricky call. I am sure that I would really WANT to reveal such a surprising fact about my hero, but I can see that it might raise sceptical eyebrows! I’d love to know what you decide(d)...

jurassicpork said...

At this time in my career, I write almost invariably historical fiction. Generally, it's in the 19th century in Boston, New York or London. I think it was a good choice for me to make considering I've always been fascinated by history. And while Napoleon may've said that "history is a fable agreed upon", it would seem that fiction, especially historical fiction, is a fable that is not agreed upon.

And these critics of historical fiction all spring from faulty assumptions or preconceived notions. No, there is no such thing as pure historical fiction because the author cannot be trusted to know what exactly it was like to live in a certain bygone age. But you know something? That also applies to readers and literary critics. We don't know what living in 1888 East London was like and neither does anyone else. But that didn't stop me from writing TATTERDEMALION or readers like Jenny Milchman to say it was a rich, immersive experience.

Historical fiction, even the most well-researched and immersive variety, is an illusion but it is certainly not a lie. An illusion is also something that, like Napoleon's view of history, is a fable agreed upon. Like a savvy audience watching a magician do their tricks onstage, we know and accept that what we're seeing is illusion. If we were told the rabbit coming out of the hat is magic, that would be a lie. But magicians don't call themselves magicians, anymore, and prefer to be called "illusionists" and this is the reason why.

Carolyn mentioned the 14th century, the time frame of THE NAME OF THE ROSE. It's also the time frame of Bruce Holsinger's John Gower mysteries. Many people then spoke a form of Middle English (Or, in Eco's case, Latin) that would be incomprehensible to most people today. But the default to modern English is certainly necessary and does not sink to the depth of an outright falsehood. Because the deeper into the past a historical novelist delves, the more concessions one has to make. And, in trying to strike a balance between authenticity and accessibility, the author must always default to the latter and never forget that they're writing for a 21st century audience.

Get your facts straight, by all means. With information literally at our fingertips, readers can fact check you on a dime. But the intelligent reader will always understand that in a work of historical fiction, some concessions have to be made.

Carolyn Hughes said...

Rather belatedly, thank you too, jurassicpork, for your further thoughts on my post. I do agree that accessibility is vital, although I have read historical novels where the language is - to my ears and eyes at least - decidedly INaccessible. Some readers apparently love oldy-worldy language but I think on balance most would quickly tire of it. And I am keen to ensure I put no barriers between my books and my potential readers! Authenticity is important, too, of course, so, yes, getting the balance right between authenticity and accessibility is definitely the aim.

s said...

In order to consider when a historical character has a 20th or 21st Century mindset or not, just think how many protagonists of a novel written in the 21st Century who we are meant to root for are sexist, racist, or anti-semitic from start to end, without anyone condemning them for it. None, I suspect. And yet in the past admired people held these views.